We’re starting a little series on here that takes a look at what it’s like to be an indie video game composer, offering tips for the business side of things as well as insight into the process of designing music and sound for video games.
Years ago, the prospects for an indie game composer – especially one influenced by chiptune and classic gaming tunes – were slim. If you weren’t an uber-talented genius with the right connections, it was not a viable way to make a living. While it’s still not the easiest lifestyle, I can say it is possible. Read on to find out exactly what it takes and feel free to add any questions you have to the comments.
I have spent the last year and a half supporting my family on freelance endeavors in the gaming world. Right off the bat, I want to say that I don’t consider myself the top-of-the-line expert in the world or production and sound design. I have a background of playing in ska bands as a kid and just being nuts about game music since the NES came out. I’ve never worked on an AAA game, I don’t have an agent or a $50,000 home studio. That being said, however, thanks to the explosion in video game design and advances like the iOS market, I can make a decent living doing what I love.
This series will answer questions like, “what’s the bare minimum you need to get started?”, “how do you find clients?” and other things like that. Feel free to post in the comments any topics you have questions on. I plan to consult with other indie musicians for feedback as well.
Part I: What It Takes
If you’re thinking of having a go at making music for a living, there are some things you need to make sure you are aware of. First off, you probably will have to make types of music you don’t know or particularly like from time to time. For example, if all you do is dubstep or chiptune, you’re narrowing down the type of clients and the type of games you’re music applies to. Be prepared to emulate everything from classic orchestral tunes to hard-driving electronic and industrial music. You can’t be picky, this is how you make your living, you might be making nothing but little kids game music for months. You have to be able to make it your own and find some fun in the process if its not the music of your choice.
Also, if the type of music you have decided to specialize in is not extremely challenging to make, potential clients will probably get their friends or an offshore musician to do it free or cheap.
Any composer needs to have a keen sense of melody and be able to come up with them at the drop of the hat. We’ll talk about this more in a future lesson. But if you have a hard time coming up with original melody lines that evoke certain moods, you’re clients might not be so happy with your work. Think about a song in the terms of nothing but what you can hum with your mouth. When you strip away all the drums, synths, background noise and effects, a good song needs to have a great melody, especially for video game songs.
College or No College?
Having a degree definitely helps. I have already realized there are some doors that are just closed to me since my formal training is nonexistent save for some piano lessons as a kid and some 1980’s hair metal guy’s tutorial VHS tapes. Full-time music gigs at game companies or working in other facets of the professional entertainment world are usually reserved for those who either have a college degree or have proven themselves in the industry.
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t tons of work out there for the rest of us. Many indie musicians I have talked to said they left their composition major and changes to production or other aspects of the industry because the instructors tried to mold them into a specific type of composer or produce a clone of themselves. As in most fields, a piece of paper helps, but it won’t make you an expert or make you magically creative.
Savings and a Back Up Plan
The first few months trying to make it as an indie musician can be scary and uncertain. It’s good to have some other work that you can do part time or on a as-needed basis to shore up your resources while you spend time building your portfolio and looking for work. If you’re a kid still living at home, now is the time to start! I did it with a family and the expenses of living in a large US city, but it’s not something everyone would have the stomach for.
Desire To Learn
Up until the point I decided to take this serious, I didn’t care much about mastering songs or mixing them perfect. I made songs for fun, I made them just for me to listen to. They didn’t sound like something that’d go on the radio and that was okay. However, just like you can’t charge someone 5-star prices for food you cooked in an EZ-Bake oven, you can’t expect clients to pay you for ameatuer songs either. We’ll talk more later about what the minimum equipment you need and what techniques you’ll need to make your songs sound decent, if not truly professional.
Learning to make good music is a never-ending process, you’ll never reach a point where you are as good as you can be. There are always things to improve on. I myself find the composing part easy, but production and having an ear for the mix have taken me more time. I still review tutorials, ask for third-party opinions and beg for brutal criticism to see what I need to work on.
Not scared off yet? Next week, we’ll look at the bare minimum software and hardware you need to start making some killer tunes.