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Creative insights: Oliver Lyu on a career in stock music 

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Shutterstock isn’t just the internet’s go-to repository of stock images, it’s also home to thousands of stock music tracks that offer a more affordable solution for filmmakers who might not have the funds to licence Taylor Swift songs or pay a composer to write bespoke material. 

Last month, Shutterstock announced a new annual subscription service for anyone working with multiple clients and across multiple projects and channels – and for anyone who just wants more music for less money. 

As part of this service, Shutterstock exclusively buys out the rights to the tracks and pays a substantial, per track fee upfront for every track acquired. As such, music contributors are guaranteed to be paid for a track even if their music is never licensed by a Shutterstock customer.

However, with a much more competitive price point, it means that music will be more accessible to a wider creative audience. Which is what you want when you make music; for people to hear it. At least, that’s the theory. But how does it actually work for the artists creating this stock music?

More and more people are earning money from posting videos on YouTube and getting likes on Instagram, so much so you can live off the income. However, few are aware that young creatives and “gig economy” entrepreneurs are earning comfortable annual salaries through composing stock music.

The stock music industry has the potential to grow by £279,59 million during 2020

Stock music is so important in this digital age, it’s used in every aspect of the creative industry and many artists are earning up to £30,000 a year creating music that can be licensed for everything. The global stock music industry is constantly increasing as a source for substantial income and the market size has the potential to grow by £279,59 million during 2020 and into 2024. 

To gain some insight into how making stock music can result in a steady income for young creatives as they work their way through the industry, I sat down with composer Oliver Lyu. Having left university a few years ago, Oliver has fully cemented himself in the music industry working as an award-nominated composer. 

Like many creative freelancers, his income and workload vary with each job, but Oliver earned £24,000 from the work he did for Shutterstock in his first year out of university. Might this be a career path for you? As a musician and songwriter myself I know I’m certainly considering it now!

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Oliver at his studio space in London

Tell us a little about your background and how it’s equipped you for your current role

I am a London based composer currently working with Shutterstock and various other music libraries and agencies on custom as well as stock music for adverts, short films and feature films around the world.

Over the last 10 years, I have constantly been acquiring and upgrading my work with new instruments, synthesisers, recording hardware, computers and a professional studio space which I am very fortunate to have. 

I started working as a stock music composer in early 2015 after previously only working with creatives on commissioned projects. My job is constantly evolving and shifting, taking in new information which has taught me a variety of professional skills that I continue to learn today.

What would you say was your first stepping stone into the world of composition?

I have always been musical since I was young. Sometime during high school, I got my first MacBook and keyboard where I started making small tracks and eventually recording bands I was in which was the turning point on how I approached music. 

It wasn’t until I got my first few jobs in 2012 with a filmmaker and creative agency in California where I realised I wanted to pursue this and that I had unintentionally stepped into the world of composition professionally. I started by composing music to short brand films for free. 

Soon after, I started getting paid small fees and found quickly myself writing music for my first ever TV commercial and a music video, which reached a million views in the first couple of months on YouTube. From then on, I gradually started getting more work and continued my growth as a composer.

As a musician and songwriter myself, I’m intrigued to know how do you go about composing a piece of stock music and how does the process differ from when you’re sitting down to write an actual song?

When it comes to writing stock music, for me it really depends on my mood. Most of the time I tend to follow a formula that takes into account structure and things that I know will likely sell best or get placed well. It has taken me quite a long time to finally get a good flow as I did struggle for the first few years. 

Typically I will figure out what type of track I want to write and what I think is popular at the time and start coming up with ideas just like if I were writing an actual song. Once I feel like I have something, I will carry on building it until I feel the track is finished. I tend to write tracks with a lot of layers which is something I am trying to do less of because sometimes less is more. 

I do quite often stumble on times where I really struggle to come up with something so I usually have heaps of backlogged demos on my phone from "that idea I came up with in the car, or the shower." I even have a Spotify playlist where I chuck reference tracks which I think might make a good stock track so if I get stuck I can take a break, listen to music and get some ideas to kick start the writing process again. 

I typically work with live recorded instruments as well as virtual instruments or sample instrument libraries; occasionally working with some cool samples I come across. I am able to record quite a few things in my studio such as acoustic drums, guitars, bass and various other instruments. Having all this set up helps so much when recording on the fly as it is quick and easy to get recording to lay ideas down. 

When I am writing I record the real thing on the go, so I rarely demo. I also mix as I record to which I think is a common practice now. To conclude, it isn’t all that different from writing a normal song. There are certain things you have to consider to keep it in the realms of being a stock track. For example structure, tracks that are easily rearranged/editable as well as writing to what the current trends are, but the process of getting there is almost the same. 

I can say now after 5 years of writing stock music, that at first, it is really difficult to have a mode that you can switch to where you can write commercial stock music tracks. But it eventually becomes second nature to set yourself guidelines when writing stock music.

Would you say that writing stock music is little more than a gateway into more interesting and lucrative work or is it a viable career in its own right?

Writing stock music definitely opens doors. Not only does it grant you amazing placements that help boost your credits, but I have also received custom work and recognition writing for music libraries. It also has allowed me to attend the Production Music Awards where one of my stock tracks got nominated, which has inspired me to try and push it even further and keep writing bigger and better tracks. 

That being said, whilst writing library music can be and is a career in its own right for me, it still allows me the flexibility to keep my work open to working with creatives on commissioned projects.

Do you think avenues like Shutterstock offer opportunities for those who maybe couldn’t afford a university education? Or do you think the creative industries are still only realistically accessible to the upper classes?

I don’t think you need to go to university to do a creative job whether it be freelance or full-time employment. Avenues like Shutterstock allow people to contribute when it suits, meaning we could have a full-time job and still contribute to the platform. 

I studied Music Technology at university and whilst it was informative and taught me quite a few things, I technically didn’t need the degree to get into what I’m doing now. You can’t really teach someone how to be creative and original. Most of the time it comes from experience and DIY.

University has become considerably more accessible to everyone looking to learn the subject. In the creative industry, it doesn’t really matter where you are from, as long as you are interested and willing it is highly accessible.

Can you take us through an average workday?

Normally I start by trying to do emails, invoices and the quickest and most practical things like practising an instrument or general maintenance. I find it gets me going as most of my time is spent recording or staring at a screen for 5-8 hours a day.

I tend to procrastinate A LOT. I know what I need to do, but I just can’t bring myself to do it! Eventually, I get onto mixing the track from the previous day or I will be exporting sessions for a project that is going on at the time. I will finally get to writing a new track that I am supposed to be working on and begin recording. 

After some more procrastination mixed in with writing/recording, I normally find myself right at the end of the day with minutes to spare having gotten most of the recording for that track done, listening to it (or them) on the way back home ready to repeat the next day. 

What work achievement are you most proud of?

A tough one. In terms of projects, there are just so many to choose from. I love all the projects I get to be apart of and I always learn something new each time, so every time I work on something it’s always getting better and better which is great. 

I get to work with a lot of great people and having these people around me also helps in any achievements I get which I am super fortunate and lucky to have, so I am proud of the many collaborations I have been apart of. I am particularly proud of building my studio. 

Up until the start of 2017, I worked out of my home studio in my bedroom. I then, fortunately, got a space which I converted into a soundproof office/studio with the help of my uncle. I have been working out of there ever since. 

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

I think about this quite often and I think I would be doing something practical, something with my hands like a carpenter, or an electrician, maybe even a job in the police or something. This kind of ties in with building my studio, I had so much fun doing it and really enjoyed the process. It was a lot of work but I was fascinated by being able to learn how to do this. 

After it was finished I found myself itching to do more DIY type stuff so I have been forever just adding shelves and adding stuff to the studio which is why I think I would’ve learned a building trade.

What advice would you give to other aspiring stock music composers who might be looking to get into the sector? 

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, explore the music industry, see if there are any other possible points of entry into the industry, stock music is just one of them. If you are struggling to become a stock music composer, looking elsewhere might be the way in to gradually get you writing stock music.

I pretty much fell into writing stock music without even knowing it, so a great bit of advice is to just write music that you love, keep pursuing it because you literally never know where you’ll find yourself in this industry if you stay determined. 

Focus on putting out quality content and if you’re not sure, send it to people and put it up. Don’t sit on it for too long otherwise, it will go stale. Opportunities are lurking so make sure you are visible when they do come around. 

Finally, don’t worry too much about the gear/audio equipment. It is very easy to get lost in the gear world. There are tons of composers who still just use a laptop and headphones. I have picked up a few bits over the years and intend on getting rid of a fair few bits, it always keeps it fresh, but acquiring equipment overtime is a more natural way to grow rather than splashing out or going crazy over what to get (which I am guilty of myself).

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