'Synthetik' And Starting Out As A Composer
Everyone in the music production industry knows how hard it is to get your foot in the door. I'd like to tell you about the first projects I contributed towards and the steps I took to get there.
SMALL FISH, BIG POND
You can have all the qualifications in the world, have the best sounding music out there, and still not get noticed. If you're not showcasing your work; advertising your services anywhere you can; or finding places/forums to meet like-minded people or developers/directors searching for music, then you will fail to make a dent in the music production industry.
I've been writing original music for almost fifteen years and have over 200 songs to my name but not all of these would work as background music for media. When I graduated from the University of Huddersfield in 2014 I thought I'd be able to get work as a composer no problem; how naive I was. There are countless other composers out there with the same goals in mind: try to get as much work, create a name for yourself, and (hopefully) earn the monies while doing it. We all dream of being the next John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Sarah Schachner, Nobuo Uematsu, or Martin O'Donnell (in fact there are loads of amazing composers out there I look up to and inspire me but that would be a long list).
I had my aspirations, I'd discovered how hard it would be, and began doing some research on the best way forward. I already had Soundcloud and Youtube accounts which are great ways of showcasing your music. What I didn't have was a showreel but how can we have a showreel if we have had no work? Well, find various forms of visual media to add your music to (getting the media owner's permission is always good but if you're only going to be sharing this showreel privately then you should be okay, just remember to add credits where they're due).
With showreel in hand, I found the best places to find interested parties were game jams and forums, and there are a lot out there, with reddit being the best since it has its own subreddit for composers looking for work and people looking to hire composers. It was here that I began to find small bits of work but there was one problem: a lot of it wasn't paid.
TO WORK FOR FREE OR NOT
This is a heated topic; there are a lot of folks out there who outright refuse to work for free, stating it diminishes your value and could lead to arguments down the line when you suddenly ask for money, thinking you now have the experience to ask for it but the project manager is used to you doing it for free and refuses. On the other hand, there are those that only work for free since a lot of them do it as a hobby. Because this latter group is growing, finding paid work is becoming more difficult for an aspiring composer.
Having said that, the people you find on forums are more likely to be working on their first game with a very small budget or none at all and you have to be aware that sometimes, they won't be able to finish the project. The problem is, sooner or later, that showreel with unoriginal content won't cut it and you'll need to show you've had work if you want to be taken seriously by the bigger developers/directors and the great thing is, these bigger guns aren't going to necessarily know you worked for free; all they'll know is: you're hirable and have original work to show so all you'll have to lose is your time.
MY FIRST PROJECTS
Using these forums and jams, replying to a number of people asking for composers and writing my own ads, I ended up working on a number of small projects:
The first free project was a mobile arcade shooter game called 'Alien Defense'. It was about getting lost on an unknown planet and featured Amazonian warriors. I don't think the game was completed but you can hear the music I wrote for it here:
The second free project was another mobile arcade game. This time, it was a platformer called 'Make The Path'. After many edits and back-and-forth emails, I came up with a happy little song that the developer liked:
Around the same time, I was approached by someone who was in the process of developing a survival horror game for PC, called 'The Lingering'. It was set to be a big project and the first I'd done that needed multiple tracks. There were about twelve in total, including a main theme which was used in promotional material for the game. Sadly, when a natural disaster washed away the studio, the project came to a halt. You can listen to the theme tune here:
Another game that required multiple tracks was a student's computer technology coursework project called 'Emma's Nightmare'; a survival horror first person game set within a nightmare realm where you must solve clues to get back to your body (there are some funny walkthroughs of the game on youtube if you search for 'Emma's Nightmare'). I ended up writing three tracks for the game, two of which were ambient horror tracks and the third, which plays at the end of the game, being a calm track. You can listen to it here:
'Jackpot Jackson', another in the pile of games that didn't get off the ground, was set to feature another group of tracks which varied in mood, going from sad expressive piano music to upbeat jazz-funk tracks like this:
GETTING PAID: A FINE LINE
My first paid project wasn't actually composition. I was tasked with arranging some old Super Mario songs, giving them a more up-to-date sound with realistic instruments, for a youtuber's documentary video about the history of Super Mario and Doki Doki Panic. The problem was, we hadn't discussed the fee before I started working, only that there would be one. When the work ended up taking longer than I'd thought it would, I asked for a fee I considered acceptable for the amount of time spent on the tracks, only to find that it was too high and had to settle for something lower. For those interested, the finished video is here:
A similar issue happened again when I was approached to take over from another composer and sound designer on a slot machine game called 'Cocktail Nights' by Gamblify. Most of the work I did was sound design, working on about twenty sound effects and one song. Being a big project, it took a while to complete. Once finished, all parties were happy but I made a mistake with the payment details, having never received payments from another country, which led to a misunderstanding that meant, despite getting the biggest payment from a project so far, we parted ways without the potential for more work in the future.
Probably the most successful project I've worked on, I was contacted in 2015 on one of the forums (I think it was moddb) by a member of Flow Fire Games, who were just finishing up their alpha of their debut game and looking for a composer to write the in-game music and the Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight trailers they would soon be releasing. The game itself, 'Synthetik: Legion Rising' is a top down, isometric futuristic shooter with a high difficulty level. It has gone on to do very well and has attained a number of awards since its release.
During the development process there was a lot of back-and-forth in emails and skype calls, and a lot of different edits of tracks but, over the course of about five months, I ended up writing about ten tracks in total, two of which were used for the trailers; one you can see here:
Over the next few years development progressed very well, despite the Kickstarter campaign being a non-starter. Every now and again I would check in to see how it was going and whether any more music was needed. Each time, I received a message saying it was going well and the budget was too low for any more music. In 2018, 'Synthetik' was released and became popular very quickly. I noticed, however, that of the eight other tracks I had finished for the game, only one ended up being used as, I later found out that during the development process, the team had decided on a more percussive approach to the music instead of the synth-rock tracks I'd written.
I'll admit, it was a bit of a hit but I knew from the beginning I wasn't the only one writing music for the game. I'd been so happy to finally see a big project with my music in, and technically I had still achieved that, but, finding out that only one of a number of tracks I was really proud of ended up being used, I was a bit disappointed. Since the release, I've followed the success of the game and am pleased that the guys at Flow Fire Games have had such an amazing response, as I know they had a long and hard road up to release. I've also been approached by a number of people complimenting me on my contribution to the soundtrack and it has led to more work so it worked out alright in the end.
For those that are interested, this is the track that made it into the game:
This is a tough industry to work in. If you're someone who takes every hit personally, you won't last long. As writers of music, we have a tendency to become attached to our music and take offense at criticism but, if you want to be successful, you have to lose that attachment. Don't give up on quality but take those hits, take that critical feedback, and turn them into something good. Yes, as freelancers we work for ourselves but, when we're writing music for projects, we work for others with a vision of what they want. Of course, there will be edits or redos but, at the end of the day, you'll have something to show for your hard work and contribution which will lead to, sooner or later, a paycheck.
I always look forward to the next project and have learned that it's better to understand the work's budget and negotiate within that, making sure there's something in writing to fall back on just in case. Even a revenue share and royalties can be fruitful so have a care when you go in with a fixed salary in mind.
Music composition is a rocky road but the results can be worth it in the long run, especially when writing music is so much fun!