Over the years, I have hired several dozen full-time employees and hundreds of musicians, singers, engineers, and other session personnel. Here is a list of principles to consider when job-seeking and, even more, when on the job. I’m going to focus on assistants, but the principles are the same no matter what the title.

1. Attitude is (almost) everything

My studio used to be in the basement of a building in NYC. One Monday morning, a city water main broke and flooded us. By coincidence, it happened to be the first day for three audio engineering interns who came from a local school, there for a few weeks for course credit. Two were utterly useless, sitting around watching my assistants and me pump water and blow-dry circuit boards. I sent them home the second day because they were, basically, in the way. The third though, Matt, was a little older (I think he’d been in the service before school) and more thoughtful than the others. By the end of the second day we had a severe mold problem in the sheet-rock walls and I didn’t know how to deal with it. The third day, Matt showed up – early – with a half-dozen things he had bought at the hardware store that were recommended to him to fight mold. One by one he tried each solution until he determined which was the most effective. For the next three days he worked almost non-stop and, by end of day Friday had stopped the mold…cold!

By coincidence, a colleague who owned a multi-room recording studio called me at the end of the day on Friday and said he was looking for a new assistant – could I recommend anyone? I had never heard anything Matt had recorded and didn’t know if he knew a compressor from a compact car. But I sure knew his attitude. I suggested they interview him and, a few days later, he got the job.

One of my catch phrases is, “If you’re doing everything I asked you to do, you’re not doing enough.” No boss can detail every aspect of what is expected of his/her employees. A good leader will define the general objectives but it is up to you to figure out how best to achieve that even in the absence of specific instructions. The quality of initiative is probably the single most important character trait I look for. Couple it with enthusiasm, dedication, and a little common sense and you’re already ahead of 90% of the other people out there. If you happen to actually know stuff, make that 99%.

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A year and a half later, I happened to do a job at that studio. Guess who was now the chief engineer? Yep, Matt. It turned out he was an outstanding engineer. Big surprise, eh? The same attitude that propelled him to find the best way to kick mold patootie also propelled him to learn everything he could about audio engineering.

Matt’s rise illustrates another of my favorite catch phrases: How you do anything is how you do everything. There are rare exceptions, but, usually, how you go about doing any task usually gives an employer enough information to know whether you’re worth keeping.

2. Don’t spike the ball on the yard line

DeSean Jackson is a talented American football player who plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. But his name will live in infamy for one dumb thing he did as a rookie. The quarterback threw DeSean a long pass, after which he triumphantly ran into the end zone. The only problem was he forgot the ball. So sure he had already scored, he actually spiked the ball (threw it down) on the one yard line.

Ironically, for many years before this, I had urged my assistants not to figuratively “spike the ball on the one yard line”. I never thought a pro would literally do just that!

Once, I had an important commercial music session on a Tuesday to be used as backing tracks for a voice over session and mix on a Thursday at a studio across town. From there it was to be shipped and aired Friday night. The session went well and the tape – this was some time ago – with the 2 mix and “stripes” (stems) was prepared and put into a package to be messengered to the other studio the next day.  Except that the new assistant whose job it was to call the messenger forgot to do so. Meanwhile, I had blithely gone on to the next job, thinking it was all done.

The next I heard of this job was when I arrived at the studio on Thursday to a machine full of panicked messages. The upshot was they had to let their v/o talent go and reschedule because our music wasn’t there (the v/os had to interact with the music cues, so they couldn’t do them wild.) Terribly embarrassed, I offered to pay whatever additional costs they incurred. The bill, including talent, studio, engineer, rush dubbing, and rush shipping came to over $2000. But that was peanuts compared to the damage I had done to my reputation for reliability.

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I want to make it clear that although the assistant was definitely at fault, it was my responsibility. I had entrusted a crucial task to a rookie with no backup because, in my mind, the job was done. Both the assistant and I had spiked the ball on the one yard line.

3. No one cares why you didn’t do what you should have done

One of my friends has a saying: “If you’re on time, you’re already late.” Meaning, that if your work day starts at 10 am you should be working at 10 am – not chit chatting with your colleagues, or getting coffee, or checking your iphone.

I had an assistant who was chronically late. When pressed about it, he had an explanation for every instance: there was a traffic accident, his car had a flat, there was a domestic emergency he had to deal with, and so forth. Despite being late almost ever single day, it wasn’t his fault. He explained that he couldn’t be held responsible for all the random things that happened in the universe. I pointed out that if these things were entirely unpredictable, his on-timeness would be a bell curve – he’d be early as often as he was late. In fact, for him to be on time required that absolutely everything go perfectly. And when was the last time that happened?

Recently, I did an overhaul of my computer set up. The assistant whose job it was to make the switch did everything he was supposed to do according to the directions the manufacturer gave him. Despite instructions from me to torture test it, he left for home after a cursory run-through because he knew he had done everything “right” – it was supposed to work. Except that it didn’t, as I discovered at 7 am the next morning with a noon deadline. He, too, explained that it wasn’t his fault, it was the misleading and incomplete instructions of the manufacturer.

But, honestly, I didn’t care. What mattered to me was being able to work. Period. And what mattered to my clients was getting my music on time. Period. Despite some tense moments, I made the deadline, although how is a story in itself.

4. Neatness counts 

My studio is in scenic Topanga, CA. Recently, our power went out – as it often does here. We were down long enough that I sent the staff home. Which meant it was up to the boss (me) to reboot the studio when it came back on.

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This turned out to be a wild and insightful adventure. During a gear upgrade, my assistants had reorganized the room in a way that made it nearly impossible to physically reach the things we needed to restart, like the amusingly labelled Uninterrupted Power Supply. Crucial pieces of gear were behind cabinets and cables ran hither and thither like rabbits with a pack of coyotes on their tail.  Again and again I found “temporary” shortcuts that were taken to get things working were never fixed once it was up and running. It took an hour and half of reaching and writhing to do something that should have been possible to do in under five minutes. Thank God for Yoga class!

Again, part of the problem was my own inattentiveness to what they were doing when this installation took place. I could say I was busy with two films scores, a trailer, and a series of commercials, but, as I have indicated before, no one cares why you didn’t do what you should have, only that it wasn’t done.

5. Keep it pro

This is not really a separate category, but more of a summary of all the others plus whatever else is necessary to make your work effective. In the end, we are judged mostly by one thing: results. To achieve outstanding results you start with an outstanding attitude. You get to complete – really complete – the tasks you are faced with. You get to abandon the idea of excuses. You get to see that neatness and completeness are partners. And “outstanding” is what is expected of a pro. There is a word for mediocre pros: unemployed.

One of the most “pro” people I ever had the privilege of working with is composer Hans Zimmer. As I pointed out in another article, Hans does massive repeat business because he delivers. The same principle applies to the rest of us chickens.

In a training I once did, the slogan of the class was “Oh, WTF, do whatever it takes!” (Except WTF was not abbreviated.) If you want to get and keep a job in Hollywood – or anywhere else that values professionalism – you get to do whatever it takes.

 

You’ll find composer Michael A. Levine on Facebook and IMDb. His website is MichaelLevineMusic.com

The picture shows the view from Michael A. Levine’s porch on the floor above the studio.

Posted by Michael A. Levine

Composer and Songwriter for TV, Film, Games & Concert Music. Credits include Cold Case, Star Wars Detours and the Hunger Games: Catching Fire OST with Lorde’s cover version of “Everybody Wants to Rule The World”.

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10 Comments on "The 5 best ways to get and keep a job as a Hollywood Composer Assistant (or anything else)"

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Paolo
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Thank you so much for your article! I think your words are golden and great for anyone truly interested in doing well in whatever industry they apply themselves like this. I work in VFX industry and deal with many PA’s… And I find it to be a great way to get into the area of your interest if you play things right and make an impression. Unfortunately in my experience a lot of PA’s seemed bothered to be doing what they were doing but every great once in awhile someone would just do a great job of showing that they… Read more »
Michael A. Levine
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Paulo–I’m embarrassed to say I just saw this a year and a half later! Anyway, your words are true for music, vfx, and pretty much everything else.

Eric R
Guest

Nicely written, Michael!
-E

Michael A. Levine
Guest

You’re quite welcome, Paolo.

A followup on “Neatness Counts” (maybe from the missing category “Check Your Work”)… I received a letter yesterday, clearly a victim of a vindictive spellcheck algorithm, that went in part:

“I was wondering if you had any vaccines for an intern or composers assistant?”

To which I could not help but reply:

“No, I’m sorry, but there is no way to prevent interns or assistants from infection and being a composer is incurable.”

Nicolas Felix
Guest

Well say! People always say you don’t have to work too much and be perfect because you just did what your clients or you boss asked you, no more.

Some many composers around me don’t get any job and I know why now!
I think I should send them you article!

Jyoti Prasad Das
Guest

Hahaha.. liked your reply to the so called “victim of the vindictive spellcheck algorithm”…

But trully.. a very interesting article. Lots of thanks to you!

Braden Deal
Guest

Thanks for the tips!

Michael A. Levine
Guest

You’re welcome, Braden.

Andrew Bong
Guest

I really love this article! Thank you Michael for the your wisdom and your writing. I am just starting out; so I have done a lot of researching. This is really one of the best article I’ve read. I really wish you can share more of your insights/perspective with us soon. I greatly endorse this read to people/students that wants to move to LA and intern as an assistant composer/engineer or just a regular intern.

Michael A. Levine
Guest

Thank you, Andrew. I’m glad it was useful to you.

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