to be or not to be a composer’s assistant

lately i’ve been thinking about how much of a financial struggle it is to be a composer’s assistant in Los Angeles. it seems that there really isn’t a way to work for a composer while also being financially stable (or sufficient, or proactive, or planning for the future) …is it worth it? 

my experience: i’ve seen my bank accounts negative, i’ve been plagued with overdraft fees, massive credit debt, and then on top of that i needed to bring my best version of myself to work every day. I had to choose between spending money on gas (or ubers) to go to a networking event, or having lunch for the whole week (believe me i for sure chose food). some of my other friends in the industry have similar themes of financial stress. 

I came from a great school, a famous school really, with a top-tier industry curriculum but i was still perpetually on the cusp of being broke despite having consistent work. 

so while it is a truly humbling experience to be an assistant, it comes with a lot of grief. 

it’s necessary to ask yourself constantly whether doing this kind of work is what you want. And you really have to consider the full ROI. not just the creative fulfillment or the “opportunity”. 

We need to see the bigger picture (haha) and consider what’s going to happen as an entry-level composer’s assistant in this industry: 

  • -no financial stability
  • -no benefits
  • -essentially almost living paycheck to paycheck
  • -it will affect you and your loved ones fiscally and/or emotionally
  • -you may sacrifice friendships and relationships because of your work schedule
  • -risk of homelessness (no seriously)

it’s really difficult to consider. and I know for every person there’s nuance and circumstances may be different. 

after dealing with the LA industry for a few years, I saw friends stick it out as assistants in insufferable situations. i was disheartened hearing their stories of underpay, overwork, and difficult personalities to deal with (some actual horror stories that circulate around- we know what they are).

I was starting to truly feel helpless. It felt like some of our idols were just there to exploit new talent. 

how could the people I look up to really only pay their assistants $12/hr with no OT? How could someone really only make $2k/month on a 1099, especially with the skill set required? 

so much gear and expertise is needed to even be CONSIDERED for an assistant position: 

  • -you need a car
  • -you need a place to live
  • -you need a laptop + smartphone
  • -you need extensive knowledge of thousands of dollars worth of software which you may/may not have access to as a new college graduate

and what are the benefits that assistantships give you?:

  • -priceless experience, advice and insight
  • -connections with other people in the industry
  • -work experience
  • -actual film/tv show credits (optional)
  • -writing opportunities (optional)
  • -more miles on your car (probable)

you’ll have a lot of people in this industry, experienced and inexperienced, tell you that you should take what you can get regardless of the compensation. 

I take that advice with a grain of salt. the only people we should really take advice from are the ones who put money where their mouthes are. 

Meaning:

  • -the ones who would loan you money if you’re about to lose your apartment
  • -the ones who would venmo you a few dollars so you can avoid your overdraft fee
  • -the ones who would let you crash on their couch when you have nowhere to sleep
  • -the ones who would come over and cook you food because you only have 10 cents in your bank account.
  • -etc

^ those people actually have STAKES and consequence in your life. and you’ll be risking a lot of this as I mentioned above. 

everyone else – including me writing this post – their advice should almost be inconsequential to you. the boss who pays you minimum wage, part-time and on-call, via 1099, is not invested in your life. he’s invested in his own career (and also getting those cues in on time lol) 

Your boss isn’t going to fulfill your wildest dreams-he’s not going to make you a film scoring super star. and, as your boss, he’s also not completely concerned about how you’re surviving. 

so to put the words slightly shorter, it’s not worth it to be an assistant if what you’re hoping is for your boss to be just as invested in your career (or well-being) as you are.

I wish i had someone tell me this when i first moved to LA. 

thx for reading today! 

Comment on “to be or not to be a composer’s assistant”

  1. Ana Ortiz Wienken says:

    Dear Nadia,

    I wished someone told me this as well! That once I moved to L.A. there are going to be many times where I would experience many unfair treatment, lots of unpaid or underpaid internships and even experienced harassment. I have seen one of the ugliest faces of the industry, and yet, I still see in others places than L.A. this ridiculous attitude.

    Still, not giving up. Music is my passion and I’m willing to fight and continue putting my best for the industry. Music is purity, it should not be corrupted by the evil side of the industry but contributed by many of the composers that really give their best.

    I totally agree with your statement and personally advice to many composers out there to first start investing in yourself with other resources possible before jumping into the “pool of sharks”. Protect yourselves legally, economically and also mentally.

    Thank you, Nadia, Great writing!

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