Like many performing artists and composers, John Swihart got his start in Los Angeles working an odd job painting houses to pay the bills and spending the rest of his waking hours writing in his home studio and sending out a constant stream of demos. Swihart is now best known as the guy who wrote the Casio-inspired score to 2004’s nerd cult classic film Napoleon Dynamite, which came from Swihart’s (at the time) unknown status as “the guy they could afford.”
“After that film came out,” Swihart says. “I could get an agent. Once you have a hit, you’re that guy that did that thing, and I became the flavor of the week that year,” But that opened the doors to work on TV shows like How I Met Your Mother and films like Employee of the Month and Youth in Revolt.
“The same guys get hired again, because it’s a consumer confidence issue. When they’re trying to sell these projects to investors, they need names,” he says. “Composers need to write as much music as they can. Nobody thinks you can do something unless you’ve already done it, if you can provide a demo and it has music they can cut into their movie and help their story come to life.”
Swihart recommends undiscovered composers spend most of their time writing music and the rest of the time hustling and looking at job boards––which he concedes does take a mental toll. He also advises working for a composer, or at a postproduction facility, to become acquainted with the stress level and daily operations.
As for taking work as it comes versus maintaining artistic integrity, Swihart says that is contingent upon the composer’s financial situation. “There’re a lot of people in this business who stand on giant shoulders financially. I think waiting for the right project––if you can manage to do it––is great, but it depends where you are in life. I didn’t move to L.A. until my 30s. If you’re fresh out of scoring school, I would say work on your body of work. Take what you have to take to continue to write music.”
Most Recent: Cristela and Red Band Society (TV), A Light Beneath Their Feet (film)
Breakthrough: Napoleon Dynamite