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The Forgotten Art Of NZ Screen Composing

By Marshall Smith, composer and co-chair of the Screen Music and Sound Guild

The aim of NZ Music Month is to shine a light on the importance of music in our lives – and the Kiwis who create it. Yet there is one sector often missed – screen music.

New Zealand prides itself on our film making, yet little is known about the abundance of composing talent we have to offer alongside it. Most composers work in multiple genres, making music for television shows, movies, and games. Standouts include Claire Cowan, Tom McLeod, Karl Steven, David Long, Plan 9, and Stephen Gallagher.

The pandemic has seen a huge increase in screen time and has had a knock-on impact of increasing volumes of new screen product in film, television, and gaming.

However, increased opportunity does not necessarily translate into more work for our composers.

This is because, despite a growing number of productions shooting in New Zealand, post production and music is generally taken back to the home country of the production house to use their own talent.

For the most part, New Zealand supports its creative sectors well. The commercial radio industry introduced a Voluntary Music Code in 2002, which sets a target for local radio stations to play 20% New Zealand music.

Films made in New Zealand by both local and overseas companies can access the New Zealand Screen Production Grant, which gives them a cash rebate on money spent making the film here, such as location hire or local services and goods.

Yet, there is no requirement for international productions to use New Zealand composers. International productions consistently import their own composers and music editors, even though New Zealand has internationally acclaimed talent available.

But what is worse, is that our own local productions are also not incentivised to use New Zealand composers. Despite being funded by the New Zealand government, local production houses commonly use library music or to invite an international composer to work with them.

The Screen Music & Sound Guild is looking to change this and create more work for the composers of Aotearoa. Despite initial rejection of the idea from funding bodies, the guild continues to raise the topic, advocating for wider use of New Zealand composing talent.

Like many creative sectors, logical career paths for composers are not fully formed. Many people in screen composing are self-made musicians who “fell” into creating music for a short film or for a startup gaming company.

Universities now offer composing courses, including technical aspects of composing. But those in the screen industry note that tertiary composition courses are not focused on arming composers with real life skills or industry knowledge to move into work. After study, graduates enthusiastically start looking for jobs without having the necessary connections or understanding of gig work.

The market new composers enter is different too. Gaming poses a diverse and expanding opportunity, with New Zealand composers already having worked on games like the Call of Duty series. The trick for a young composer is getting on that ladder. Networking at university, working with young startups, and joining the New Zealand Gaming Development Association are initial steps to gain traction in the industry. Once a composer has credits to their name, they can confidently approach overseas gaming companies.

But gaming has changed the way music is valued. There are no royalties, only a gig-by-gig approach. Most companies use ‘buyouts’, which is purchasing all rights outright, giving no ongoing income stream to a composer.

So even with training under their belt and new opportunities, the composer of today must constantly innovate and find new prospects for work. New Zealand composers say that it’s a constant and often challenging drive to find the work necessary to bring in an income. Improvements to training and film work incentives will help make screen composition a more stable career for New Zealand’s composer community and all aspiring musicians who join it.

The future of the screen sector is tenuous at the best of times, which is felt by every discipline and craft. The Screen Music and Sound Guild is dedicated to creating a more stable and sustainable future for New Zealand filmmakers of all codes, by advocating for a flourishing screen composition sector that elevates the international success of New Zealand filmmaking.

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