Composer Q&A: Getting to Know Hélène Muddiman

Over the past weeks, we got the chance to chat with several influential female musicians who are making an impact on the industry, including Militia Vox, Elizabeth Rose, and Nathalie Bonin. We spoke to these artists about their musical journeys and their take on where the music industry is headed next. Now, we continue our series of Q&As with another highly creative artist, namely British composer and musician Hélène Muddiman.

Hélène Muddiman is a multi-award-winning artist who’s worked on hugely successful projects such as Ice Age: Continental Drift, Frankenweenie, Skin, and Happy Feet Two. She has composed music for film and television and also worked as a producer, arranger, and songwriter.

Muddiman signed with EMI Records when she was only 18 years old. In 2010, her work on Skin helped her became the first woman to be nominated for an Ivor Novello film score award in a decade. Today, we’re talking to Hélène about her career, her thoughts on the current state of the music industry, and her advice for female composers looking for a career in this field.

Hélène Muddiman

Can you offer some perspective on the current state of the music industry? Are there enough female writers/composers out there, or is it a male-driven industry, in your opinion?

I remember when I wrote a score that was eligible to be nominated for an Oscar. Out of curiosity, I discovered that Pinar Toprak and I were the only female composers who had scored any of the hundreds of eligible film scores! That was in 2010! I think we are still a long way from equal representation of all the diverse groups, not just gender equality, but all equality. It is a dangerous mindset to believe that just because there are some that we can stop trying to rush in our push for equality. I pride myself on campaigning hard to make sure I take every opportunity to push that pendulum back to the center. For example, I always insist on equality of gender and diversity in all my orchestras, as Stephanie O’Keefe (President of the AFM local 47) can attest. I think it is important that we all play our part to help redress the imbalances that plague our world, and music still has a way to go. In my humble opinion, it starts with role models for children. When they see it, they believe it!

How hard was it for you to break through into this industry and achieve success? Can you tell us a bit about your professional journey?

Well…If I may define ‘hard,’ I have a confession. I got a speeding ticket! Oops! So, I opted to do a day of community service to avoid any points on my license, and I soon realized that this was the first time in my life I had done a proper day’s work! Of course, I have “worked” long hours on music all of my life, learning my instruments – my mum says that when I was tiny, I pointed at someone playing the guitar on TV and said very passionately, “I WANT ONE.” Then by the time I was 11, I was rehearsing and gigging in bands performing at old people’s homes, then getting a record deal with EMI aged 18 and touring in Europe.

I had the idea of getting into Film and TV when I told my mum “I want to play music but not in the music business.” I loved the freedom that composing gives compared to performing the same songs every night – actually, I am a crappy performer, but that is the story I am sticking to.

Like everyone else, I have incredible frustrations and nightmarish situations in life, like working with directors who write 20 emails to me at night while I sleep. So I’d have this rude awakening – “WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!! DO IT AGAIN!” I’d continue opening all of their emails, until the last one, which would say ‘I have grown to LOVE IT! Don’t change a thing!!! You’re amazing, I would never have thought of playing it that way!”

Being emotionally mature is sometimes hard, as it can be at odds with our creative passions, and most of our problems are “first world problems,” anyway. As Bob Hunka says, many people would love to endure the stress creators go through to create, if only they were given the opportunity! This has become something I am truly passionate about, giving creators opportunities to create. I set up a charity to advocate for creators around the world, and also became a founding member of SONA and have been on the board of the SCL.

I like to advocate that the world would be a much better place if more people had more money to create. Imagine if we focused on giving people money to create, and instead of dropping bombs, we dropped musical instruments, paints, building materials, creative materials, computers loaded up with music and arts software…giving people tools to empower them to create beautiful things and take pride in their own environments. Yes, you’ll have some that use good things for evil purposes, and history shows us that it takes millions and millions of good people to overcome 1 evil megalomaniac, but I believe that the silent majority of humans are amazing and should make more noise to overcome some of the media that focuses on the worst of humanity.

The hardest part of being a composer now has to do with how hard it is to make money compared to 30 years ago. There is NO reason that this should be the case, as there is a lot of money being made as people are consuming it more than ever before; but the wealth is not being distributed fairly. It’s up to everyone to be part of the solution for the greater good, otherwise you are part of the problem.

Did you have any female musicians or composers to look up to growing up? Who were your biggest influences?

As a kid, I loved the music to The Flintstones, and it always ended on a credit for Hanna Barbera, which I misread as Hanna and Barbara. I thought if those girls can do it, then so can I! Unfortunately, I was not aware of any female composers growing up, but luckily I was a tomboy, so it didn’t bother me to identify with manly pursuits.

Do you think it’s important for aspiring young musicians to have a mentor? Did you have a mentor in your early days as a musician?

I didn’t intern with anyone, more through ignorance than choice, but people have been very kind to me and helped me in many ways, including agents, record companies, managers, and publishers. I have also mentored many, as I see the value in it.

What do you want young female composers to know as they try to build a career in the music business? What advice would you give them?

Never give up!

How did the pandemic affect the music industry, as far as you’re concerned? Are you noticing any huge shifts or changes in the way things are done now, compared to 2 years ago?

There are many shifts I can think of, mainly technology bridging the gap due to the lack of in-person contact. I do think there is a double-edged sword of restrictions that can bring newfound freedoms to invent new things and new ways of working together remotely. Still, nothing beats the energy and magic of collaboration in a room – it’s tangible.

Streaming platforms are doing great business. Having an audience subscribe brings revenue, so it’s providing a sustainable business model for paying creators, which has the potential to build a thriving entertainment ecosystem. Other new innovations are coming thick and fast, with NFTs and clickable monetization models. Governments around the world seem to be paying more attention, as there is a lot of money to be made from copyright, and this brings taxation revenue.

I believe that copyright is a truly valuable asset that is the nucleus of many industries and consequently the world’s economies depend upon it being protected. No matter which new technological delivery mechanisms are invented, there is no new platform without content. It is a symbiotic ecosystem, and I believe that the future will be a more equitable one, where every part is appreciated, valued and remunerated. There is enough for everyone if you make a big enough ‘pie.’

Can you name the most challenging or most exciting project you’ve worked on so far? Or is there a project that holds a special place in your heart?

It’s a great relief to finally feel liberated enough to talk in public about one of the many challenging experiences of my career. When songs I had written were covered by The Spice Girls’ Emma Bunton, her management asked me to give two thirds of my songwriting money from royalties and joint credit to her, with the producer leaving me with just 33% of the money, when I wrote 100% of the song! The understanding was that if I didn’t acquiesce, they would pull my songs from the album. I told them they could have 100% of the money – of a song they wrote themselves! Suffice it to say I refused, and they are all on the album, and one of my songs was even made the title track of the album ‘Free Me.’

It’s the principle that I objected to, and I hope my speaking out also gives others the courage to expose this kind of thing, so we can eradicate this malpractice. Copyright should be taught in schools. Alfons Karabuda told me the story of a teacher in a primary school who gave the kids back their drawings, only deliberately to the wrong children – the children immediately became upset and agitated as they instinctively understood the discomfort of being credited incorrectly.

You’ve worked on some epic projects during your career, including Happy Feet Two, Frankenweenie, and Ice Age. What’s it like working on such huge blockbusters? How does it differ from a smaller-scale project?

I can sum it up like this: when money is no object, you are only limited by your imagination!

Last but not least, what were the biggest challenges you’ve had to face throughout your career? How did you overcome them?

Avoiding getting speeding tickets! Which I overcame by turning the music down in my car! But seriously, I think the whole world faces the same conundrum: perspective. How do you find happiness and please everyone all the time? Impossible! After all, one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist, depending on whose side you are on. So, it’s a question of prioritizing – is it more selfish to please yourself, or for others to expect you to please them? All I know is that I am most unhappy when I try to please others and fail, and then everyone is miserable. I always know how to please myself which, funnily enough, has brought joy to millions who have bought my songs and watched the films I have scored!

Follow Hélène at APM Music and listen to her work on Spotify.

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