Starting a Business

It is possible to make a living from selling the skills you acquired by being an artist. Your skills as a sound technician, sound designer and composer can be used in commercial productions. You can develop a business from your work in freelance production and develop a business network. It is important to manage both the money-making and creative side of your practice.

Also see: Composing and Arranging for Media, Film and TV,

Case Study

Tom Haines, Brains & Hunch

What is Brains & Hunch? How did you first start out?

Brains & Hunch is a music house representing composers Tom Haines and Chris Branch. The business was started (under another name) in 2000, shortly after we graduated in composition / electronic music from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Initially, we got a small loan (£1100) from The Prince's Trust, with which we bought a Pro Tools 001 and a pair of speakers, which enabled us to do the work. In the first year, we scored a handful of TV adverts, our first play and a paid film job. The proceeds from these jobs went towards buying a bit more equipment and putting a deposit down on a basement near Brick lane that we turned into our first studio. We leased this room for three years. The Musician’s Union and The Prince's Trust were both instrumental in planning and providing advice in this first attempt at our music business.

We didn’t draw any wages from the business during the first five years. All the proceeds went into studio rent, running costs, equipment purchases and musicians' fees. Chris and I both made our living from leading music workshops in schools and peripatetic music teaching. We planned our diaries so one of us would always be available to do studio work if it came in. We worked a lot in the evening and at weekends to make ends meet.

In 2006, we felt that we had enough regular business and a good enough show-reel to start to work full time as Brains & Hunch and stop our part-time jobs. We took a small business loan from the East London Small Business Centre (as the bank would not give us one), and have been working full time as Brains and Hunch since then.

We have never wanted the stress of trying to make our art practice our bread and butter, so we elected very early on to make ends meet through teaching and commercial work, which in turn supplements and takes the pressure off our art practice. The main thing that made setting up our business possible was being able to do tuition and music workshop leading on a freelance basis whilst we were building up our business client base.

What kind of work do you do? How do you manage multiple projects and various kinds of projects?

We have done all sorts of things in the past 10 years:

  • Music and sound for animation
  • Music and sound for film / TV / video
  • Music / sound for theatre
  • Musical / sound performances.
  • Sound installations
  • Teaching music / talks on music and sound

We find that working as a duo has vastly increased our ability to work on lots of projects simultaneously. We have not only got a larger skill set working in a team, we can also be in two places at once. This is very useful as projects can easily overrun into time earmarked for other things. Having two people instead of one can buffer these potential clashes very effectively. We also set out how much time we are allocating to a commercial project when we quote and eventually contract for it.

How do you find the balance between your artistic practice and your commercial work?

We have always tried to balance our artistic practice with our commercial work. We use the commercial work we do to fund non-commercial projects, which we need to do as artists, but which pay little or no money.

Our commercial work seems to be getting closer to what we make as artists. I hope this is because people commission us because we are good at a certain type of thing. There are a few things I know about the balance: if we weren’t having fun doing non-commercial work I don’t think anyone would employ us to do the paid stuff. No one commissions people who aren’t enjoying what they are doing. Our current music project is a band in which we make sci-fi cartoon music. This is certainly very close to our main source of commercial income, which is making music and sound for animation. I think commercial work and non-commercial work can live happily side by side. It is important to recognise that each of them needs time! We have found that this is the trickiest balance to make.

What is the expected rate for projects?

Every project is different. In order to quote for projects we always use the rates of pay set out by the MU and also PCAM, both of which are incredibly helpful to their writer members.

Society for Producers and Composers of Applied Music
PCAM is an organisation for practitioners of advertising music that provides support for composers working in advertising. The website provides guidelines for fees, contracts and market rates for musicians and singers.

Musicians' Union
Musicians' Union provides guidelines for media rates and agreements on their website.

What is the process of developing a project from start to finish?

Example: Writing the music for an advert

1. Contract
Before any work is undertaken we will negotiate what the usage of the advert is going to be and what the budget is. At this point, in discussing the brief we will get an idea of the number of musicians and singers we will need to employ, and what resources and time commitment we will have to make. Allowance for paying people properly is always made. We stick to the guidelines laid out by the Musicians' Union and PCAM in quoting and charging for work.

2. Demo
Once we have received a clear enough brief and spoken to the client to get as clear an understanding as possible of what they want, we will compose and record an initial version (or versions) of the track and sound to either a rough cut of the sequence or a story board. This is then sent back to the client for feedback. This usually happens within 2 to 3 days of being commissioned to pitch for the work.

A lot of projects involve writing demos; all demos should be paid for on commercial projects! An average advert demo fee will be between £100 and £500. Always try and get a good clear brief. There are usually a few composers commissioned to write for an advert, so you need to get used to your tracks getting rejected in favour of something else!

3. Delivering the Job
There are usually several rounds of feedback, so there are nearly always last-minute rewrites and tweaks to do. Once everyone has agreed that the track is right, a final mix must be done and the sound must be delivered in the appropriate format.

4. PRS registration
The track must now be properly registered with the PRS so that royalties generated from TV / radio / cinema performances can be properly distributed.

How can you sustain a practice and get more work?


Part-time tuition work can be flexible, pay well and be very closely related to your art practice, and very rewarding. For example, as a freelancer, I gave composition tuition in schools in East London for GCSE and A Level students. I used to get great results from getting my students to score sections of films using the techniques they had to use as part of the syllabus. For example, I found that teaching 12 tone techniques in the context of scoring a creepy horror film sequence would suddenly unlock meaning in the exercise for students that may not have had any previous interest in anything classical.

Networks and Collaboration

Most of our commissions have come indirectly from working on non-commercial projects and meeting people. We have made a large network of people with similar interests and over a wide range of disciplines over the years. This extended network of people is key in making our practice work for us. Nearly all of our commissions involve a collaboration of some sort, whether that is with a group of actors or an animation director. The more people we have collaborated with, the bigger our network has become. Making sure we keep our network of clients and friends abreast of what we are up to and when we are performing, etc. is key in keeping people interested in working with us.

Show Reels / Demos

Our bread and butter is our show reel. Having a high-quality and up-to-date document of our work is essential when going out and looking for commissions. When you meet up with a potential client, you have to show them something you are excited about. The game is then to inspire them into commissioning you!

Getting Meetings

This is undoubtedly the hardest thing of all. We have spent the last 10 years researching potential clients and trying to get meetings with them. In fact, that is what we are doing this week. It is a time-consuming but essential operation. In our experience, it is next to useless emailing or cold-calling potential clients with no previous point of contact. Show-reels or demos usually go onto a shelf or straight into the bin unless you have personally given it to someone. We have only managed to get someone to listen to a reel or a demo if we have managed to meet with them face to face. When we first started out we would go and knock on people's doors and try to meet them. The people we have ended up being commissioned by have been people we have managed to meet up with. We have never got a job through mail-outs or cold calling. The reason for this is simple: people commission humans, not an envelope with a DVD in it.

Show-reel work

We made a lot of contacts through doing work for free on student films and low- or no-budget shorts. A lot of this work came through friends at art colleges and film school, but we also made a lot of good contacts through sites like:

Tom Haines, Brains & Hunch

Tom Haines is a composer who works in TV, film and theatre. He studied composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Tom runs a music production company with fellow composer Chris Branch. His recent film work includes a score for feature film Buried Land, which premiered this year at Tribeca film festival. His recent non-commercial work includes performing and writing with music ensembles Quartet Electronische, The London Snorkelling Team and Filter Theatre.

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