Some Common Questions About Doing Music Full Time Answered

bscPicThis is a compilation of some common questions I’ve answered for various people over the last few years.

  1. How long have you been at this, and did you have a “big break” or sort of tipping point where then the gigs started coming to you? Or would you say it was more about persistence searching games out and steadily upping the ante?

I’m not sure I ever had a big break. But what happened was I slowly gained clients little by little. I took a “dealer” approach, if someone came to me and said “I need 2 songs and I only have $100” I said, “SURE! No problem” and gave them the best 2 songs I could make and told them what it SHOULD have costs, this made them very grateful. If they wanted something next time I said ‘well, i know you had a budget on your last game so i wanted to help you out, but you’ll need to pay full prices now…I have literally had a guy ask for 1 chiptune song for $30 and have that turn into $2000 worth of songs after a successful kickstarter a couple months later.

So yeah i guess it’s about steadily upping the ante. I still don’t think I’m like a super pro. As you saw in the article my plan is more “avoid a full time job” and “live off the internet” than, make music my career, although that was the dream on the inside of it.

  1. Would you say geographic location is still a major contributing factor in business?

It would be if you wanted to do like film scoring, but I only have 2 local clients, i’ve never even talked on the phone with most of them, my big spenders are in the U.K. and Japan oddly enough.

  1. Is game composition your day job, or are gear and other business expenses covered by other means of income (day job etc.).

It has been my only day job for stretches of months. Right now it’s about 50% of my day doing music and 50% doing programming and database admin stuff. They both make about the same money in the end, but the programming keeps me through dry spells with no music work. In the times that I did ONLY music, the time spent marketing (instead of other jobs) helped me get new clients and I’d imagine if I marketed myself consistently, I’d always have enough work only on music. I should also add that I live very simple. I don’t have big debts or spend luxuriously. You probably couldn’t do this with a mortgage and kids.

Also if i took boring sound jobs like podcast editing/recording cleanups, I could have a regular 20+ hours of work, but its so dull i’d rather program.

  1. What are your views on percentage based payment? I know you’ve written about pricing elsewhere, but have you or would you pass on a gig because the developer did not

Well, I’ve made like $600 off % based payment in the last year, so, no. I’m not a big fan. I do take the risk if I think a game has potential, but usually, I prefer up front payment and let them keep the rights. I’ve taken some flack from other musicians on this. But do you really want to pay less and hear the same song in another game? If I cared about the game I was making, I wouldn’t.

  1. Do iTunes or something like CD Baby/Tunecore really help your exposure and provide earnings on the side for game composers? I saw that some of your stuff is up there but was hoping to hear about this?

The CD Baby album is actually my client’s. He put it up. I sometimes make a deal with my clients who can’t pay much to retain the rights to their music and sell it myself. It does not bring in major money, just a steady trickle and definitely gets me some exposure.

  1. Do you retain rights to your music, or does the company? How do composers like Danny B, C148, and Disasterpeace post their stuff on bandcamp/keep it in their name? (I have a client who wants to retain bandcamp exclusivity for tax purposes?)

Well, there are different ways and schools of thought on this. Most people want to retain the rights. I have something in my contract saying I have the right to display it in my portfolio and sometimes for people who can’t pay full price, I ask for the rights to sell the music as a soundtrack of their game, but I havent made much off doing that.

  1. The one thing I’d probably hate having to answer, just, how do you get well-paying and sure-to-be-finished game composition jobs? Or any composition jobs? 

See the article on that one. If a game is nonexistent, I charge full prices in case it never comes out.  i.e. you’ll see a “Cannoncraft” score out there by me, it never came out.  i market myself constantly, troll kickstarter, email little obscure gaming companies. msg folks on facebook etc. just keep hammering away and build your clientele.

  1. Does it change when you do music 8 hours a day for money?

When something you love becomes your job it can lose some of its magic. I was surprised to hear even career musicians who have years of experience and giant fan bases say things like that in interviews.

The articles mentioned are all here: Index to Life As a Freelancer Series On VideoGameDJ.com.

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Applying Scrum Methodology to Composing Soundtracks

Recently, I was thinking of some of the problems I had in the early days of composing and noticed an interesting paradigm between how modern companies develop software and the practices I’d adopted when creating music for clients.

 

Years ago, software developers did their work in a straight line. A client wanted a system and you started building it from the ground up, not stopping until it was near completion. Then, you showed it to the client, tested it and usually had to go back and change a ton of things since the client wasn’t really sure what they were asking for or you misinterpreted it.

 

To resolve this problem the Agile Scrum process was created to solve some important problems with the traditional method. This idea was developed in the 80’s but in the early 2000’s it really started to become adopted on a large scale by many companies. I’m going to keep it very high-level here (developers aren’t my main audience, I think?). The aim was to cut down in the vicious cycle of developing done without any communication to the end user and then going back and redoing it when the end user didn’t like it. It also addresses how teams plan and deliver things.

scrum

One of the most important pieces is incremental delivery. This is something I’ve adopted into my music composition process when working for a third party. Much like the traditional developer, my early soundtracks were seen and heard only by me until completion. Then, when the client got the finished product, they usually said, “this part is too long”, “we don’t like this instrument”, etc.

 

In the Scrum methodology, you have a “sprint” which is a set of time to complete a unit of work. A unit of work is something you can show the client at the end of the sprint. This way the client knows what on earth you’re billing him for and you also can be more sure the client will like the finished product. This is exactly what I do with a soundtrack now. Here’s my sprints:

 

  1. Initial sound of the album – I create a few 30 second demos, not properly mixed, some default oZone mastering on it and send them to the client. I usually make them loops so they can try them in game. From here, we determine if they like where things are going or if I’ve misinterpreted their directions and suggested feeling.

 

  1. Short Drafts of Each Track – If the soundtrack will be 10 songs in total, I make 10 30-45 second looping tracks displaying how I envision each track based on their direction. I usually try to include at least 2 dynamic shifts in this short period of time so that they can envision how the final version would sound. This could be more than one sprint depending on the amount of tracks needed.

 

  1. Final Drafts – Once the client is happy with the short drafts, I develop all of these short unmixed and unmastered demos into complete tracks based on the duration the client has requested. At this point they have their last chance to weigh in on instrument changes, tempos and other factors that play into the mixing and mastering phase. This section may be many sprints if it’s a very large job.

 

  1. Mixing and Mastering – Now we do our mixing and mastering and create finished products. We know we are safe doing this now since the client has confirmed everything up until now, what we send them in the end will only be slightly different from what they heard in the “Final Drafts” stage.

 

  1. Final Preview and Delivery – Once we have them all mixed, I send an archive file of mp3 versions for the client to listen to one last time. Then, if they’re satisfied, I send them the formats they’ve requested, raw WAV files and any stems if they needed them.

 

The great thing is that this is a great way to break up a large contract into multiple payments. Any completion of a sprint is a good place for an incremental payment.

 

Here’s a few tips for working with this mindset:

 

  1. Save everything! – Don’t think a song is done when you’re done with it. Save each draft you make. If you make 3 versions with a different lead instrument, save three projects so you wont have to remember what it is later. Once, when I used a hardware synth to make an early version, I didn’t write down the settings, and I could never quite capture the same sound later on for the final. Keep track of everything.

 

  1. Be Organized – It’s totally worth the time to move things into folders, save backups and make spreadsheets of where things are. If you don’t, you will forget something at some point.

 

  1. Communicate – Make sure you’re client understands this process. One important thing is that they realize your first drafts are not final projects. They need to remember that it’s just to get a mood or feeling to start with.

 

What are your methods for composing?

Revengineers 8static EP Review

 

The Revengineers are without a doubt my favorite chiptune-influenced group. They’re about the only post-rock chiptune blending group I’ve heard and their earnest emotional songs really hit hard. Besides that, they have some amazing drumming and guitar playing and avoid all the meandering, pointless doodling sections that make you forget which post-rock group you were listening to.

 

Their new two-track ep is hopefully a teaser for what will be a whole album following in the tracks of their epic self-titled ep. The new tracks don’t stray far from the wonderful formula of NES leads backed by powerful guitars and drums and synths. It seems like there’s a bit more synth action this time around and the overall recording quality is crystal-clear and slightly above that of the self-titled ep.

 

I highly suggest picking up both albums today and making a sizeable bandcamp donation to keep this amazing band going strong!

The Most Baffling Video Game Songs of All Time

Designing a video game requires hundreds of tiny creative and technical decisions that all amount to a finished product. You might think music was a no-brainer in the early days, with limited sound chips and minimal memory, but from the beginning their have been some totally baffling video game songs that make you wonder what the developer or composer were thinking. Here’s a few of those confusing moments that you may or may not have heard before. You might be surprised at how enjoyable some of these pieces are, they just don’t fit in their respective games.

Metroid – Norfair

Metroid has one of the best NES soundtracks out there. It’s memorable, heroic and creepy in all the right places..except for this one. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a lovely piece of music. In fact I listen to it regularly, but after all this time and so many listens, I have no idea how this song makes me feel! Is it supposed to be scary? Relaxing? I find it rather relaxing until those weird unsettling pauses occur. It sort of makes me picture a lifeless puppet dangling in the wind. Wierdly, it reminds me of a 90’s math-rock/emo band called Ethel Meserve.

Metroid II: Return of Samus – Ancient Chozo Ruins

I love the surface music in RoS but this song is like the theme song for a dopey, indecisive super hero..it’s like the perfect musical expression of an awkward moment that goes on too long, oh but then gets really dangerous and intense…someone wrote on youtube that it’s like something stalking you…I sorta get that, but not the first part of it, which just sounds like a game over jingle. Someone else wrote “This is simultaneously the best and worst song in Gameboy history.” That’s what I mean but baffling!

Magmax – Stage Theme Subterrain

I can barely even write a comment on this one. Here’s the weird part: It sounds kind of good when you slow it down by about 50%. I’m wondering if somebody accidently bumped the tempo up when compiling the code and sent this song into overdrive.

Donkey Kong Country – Jungle Groove

DKC has some of my favorite music for the SNES. Super catchy and appropriate for every level. Jungle Groove is two really great songs in one. The problem is the way they’re juxtaposed together in such a weird way. Could they not decide if they wanted the game to start off somber and epic or silly and fun? Either one would have been great, but why slam them together like this?

Harvest Moon – Town Music

Harvest Moon on the SNES has great music and the town theme is really nice. For such a high quality game, you have to wonder why there seem to be a couple of off notes about 43 seconds into the song. Maybe they were going for a bluesy chord, but it just sounds like someone fat-fingered their keyboard.

Treasure Master – Worlds 3 & 5

Treasure master actually has really good music. And what happens in this song is probably a great showcase of just how powerful the NES sound chip is. But why crossfade in the middle of a song into a completely unrelated song. Just to show that you can make a crossfade on the NES? This is not a cross-faded video, it actually does that on the NES.

EarthBound – The Place (and others)

Testing…is this synth on? Seriously, this sounds like a keyboard sound check. Earthbound has tons of awesome music and probably more songs than any other SNES game out there. But, I guess the composers started to get a little lazy on a few of the songs after making so many killer tunes. The Place, The Cliff that Time Forgot and Mu Training are two others that are so quiet and sparse that they creep you out.

Klonoa 2 – Mad Biscarsh

This plays during a chase scene in the game where a big robot chases you. This is not a bad song, but it is, to my knowledge, the only video game song I’ve ever heard that seems to be trying to imitate the hardcore genre. I keep expecting a hoarse screamed vocals about overthrowing the government to start bust into this track. Judging by the comments on the video, I was not the only one traumatized by this intensity level!