How Much Does a Music Composer for a TV Show Get Paid?

by Leonard Dozier ; Updated July 27, 2017

The music of popular television shows is often as well known as the shows themselves. "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Cheers" and "Dallas" were all television shows with memorable theme music. Music for television shows, which includes prime-time dramas, reality shows and daytime talk shows, is created by music composers, whose duties include writing and arranging music for the shows, working with other musicians to produce the music, and conducting rehearsal and recording sessions. A career as a television music composer can be lucrative, with earnings comprising salaries and royalties.

General Numbers

According to a 2010 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for music composers, which includes composers for television shows, is $45,970. The highest earners bring in average salaries of $85,000 yearly, while the lowest salaries are $21,270 annually as of 2010. Television composers receive considerable income from performing rights organizations such as Broadcast Music, Inc., and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which collect payments from television producers for licenses to play music recurrently on, during or following their shows.

The Salary Structure

According to television and film composer John Given, there are no standard fees for television composers, as rates depend on the type of music being composed, such as classical, popular music or jazz; the duration of the music; and how much time the composer has to produce the score. Given recommends charging a weekly salary if the goal is to make a certain yearly income. He cites a $960-per-week salary for a yearly salary of $50,000. This doesn't include the extra costs needed to hire musicians and record at a studio. Typically, music budgets for television show budgets are 1 percent to 2.5 percent of the entire show's budget.

Royalty Basics

Because television producers are writers and creators of music, they're entitled to be compensated for recurring performances of their work. As such, television studios pay one of the three U.S. performing-rights organizations — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Broadcast Music, Inc., or the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers — for blanket licenses based on a small percentage of their annual revenues. Cue sheets are administered by these organizations to the studios to keep track of the number of times the music is performed or heard on television.

The rates for broadcast network television composers between $6 and $11.50 per show, depending on the time of day, for 45 seconds or more of music used during the show; between $1 and $5 per show for theme music; and between $0.60 and $1.10 per show for background music; these figures are as of 2011. Cable rates change quarterly; those expecting royalties from cable television shows should contact their performing rights organization.

The Artist Composer

In certain cases, the traditional music composer — the one who creates theme-based instrumental music — is substituted with a musical artist who may be asked to create music with lyrics. In a 2011 article for Bmusic.com, Michael Eames, president of PEN Music Group, stated that upfront payments, or synchronization fees — fees to attach music to a scene or show — for artist composers may range between $1,000 and $4,000. As with the traditional music composer, artist composers for television shows also receive royalties. Eames also stated that the maximum payout for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Broadcast Music, Inc., or the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers is 46 seconds. Thus, if music is played for three minutes, the rate is the same. For the major broadcast networks, where music is played between 8 p.m. and midnight, composers may receive a little more than $1,000 each time their music is played on the show. They receive slightly lower fees for music that airs on shows at other times of the day. Eames adds that cable television networks pay significantly lower synchronization fees — closer to the low end of the $1,000 to $4,000 range. However, royalties are comparable with those of broadcast networks. Artist composer royalties are higher than those of traditional music composers largely because of the popularity of artists and the marketability of songs beyond television.

2016 Salary Information for Music Directors and Composers

Music directors and composers earned a median annual salary of $50,110 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, music directors and composers earned a 25th percentile salary of $35,020, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $70,510, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 74,800 people were employed in the U.S. as music directors and composers.

About the Author

Leonard Dozier is a freelance writer based in southern New Jersey and New York. His film and sports columns have been published by "Casino Connection Magazine" and Trev Rogers sports respectively. A prolific and extremely versatile writer, he is an ASCAP songwriter and has written screenplays and stage plays registered with the Writer's Guild of America.