Here is the full content of the talk I composed and delivered at LexPlay this week, about surviving as a freelancer in game audio and music composing. It's more than can be said in an hour, really, but I hope some of it helps you!
It’s been over a year since I declared full-time musicianship. Yes, three months over, in fact. What can I tell you? Time is starting to blur together a bit, which is actually a positive thing! I’m not thinking on a month-to-month basis right now. I’m thinking about seasons and years. However, I’m at a very important time—what they refer to as making your next move your best move.
I’ve made some moves recently. I left MidBoss after completing work on 2064: Read Only Memories. I’ve started up a physical fitness routine again. I’ve started thinking about the possibility of dating again. I’m planning a VACATION, even. But after that, it’s time for me to move out of my comfort zone, which is named Lexington, Kentucky. It’s time for me to move into the AAA game industry and get a “real job”. And while I do all this other stuff, I’ll be applying fiercely to any place with a position open, and some places without them.
“Real job” is a classic hurtful term hurled at artists by old friends, previous co-workers, family members, significant others (actually, my partners have been super cool about the whole music for no profit thing when it was like that, shout-out to them for that). For me though, it doesn’t mean giving up. I’m not looking for a real job because I failed at being independent. This was always the goal. You don’t know how long I’ve dreamed about working in close range with others on the most intense creative projects that currently exist–video games. I would get a chance to meet and learn from (and argue with) so many people from diverse art and science backgrounds I know next to nothing about. We’d get to do it all under one roof of a company that can support the burden of expenses that rag-tag indie teams just can’t shoulder.
The game industry is a nasty place for full-timers, though, and I’ve heard more horror stories than good ones. Being indie has its own share of problems, though, so basically (and it shouldn’t be like this) if you’re working in games, you need to prepare for your life to kind of suck sometimes, and hope to eventually get the kind of paycheck you can start a family on, make house and car payments on, insurance…I don’t even want to think about some of those things yet. Please spare me. Let’s all just move on from this paragraph, as a people.
You may notice this website has been spruced up a bit. I’m expecting company. I know I have enough experience in this industry by now to get the attention of someone looking for something unique. A person with the grit, the hustle, the hunger to give them what they need on their next project. Thanks to MidBoss, I’ve worked with professional voice actors and gone to huge gaming events across the country. Thanks to Zero Dimension, I have the chance to revolutionize the sound of fighting games, and I’ve been introduced to the “FGC”. Thanks to anyone who has had faith in me, I’ve been able to lend my touch to countless creative wonders. Stick with me, and we’ll see what this next step is together.
Can’t believe this has all happened thanks to a gimmicky mixtape.
It’s been a long time since I wrote the last one of these—a LONG time—but I’ve been thinking about what to write a lot. I’ve reached another time for decision that would be referred to in videogame lingo as choosing a “critical path”. This seems like a better time than ever to gather my thoughts and display them to you in hopes that it may help you make your own decisions in this field, or that it may simply entertain and enlighten.
Eating every day, being able to take trips for business when I need to, keeping my car in good repair, paying my health insurance, and even being able to buy a game now and then. I’m able to do all of these things with the help of my Patreon, steady work from Midboss on additional Read Only Memories content, occasional revenue from the prototyped fighting game Cerebrawl I continue to work on, small and large contract work and steady merch and album sales.
HOWEVER—the rest of my life feels hollow. I am at the bare minimum. I live in an isolated area with little relevance to my career because it is cheap. I socialize in a very limited fashion. I have about two free hours a day before I go to sleep to relax and work on passion projects. The weekends, which I originally intended to have off, are usually filled with the remainders of work I couldn’t finish during the weeks. I feel most of my time is spent thinking about how to make money in the now, with little consideration to how to profit and succeed for the long-term, for life.
I’m sure I am still MUCH happier now than I would have been doing all this in addition to my previous part-time jobs. I’m aware my amount of freedom in my work outranks many other types of employment, but every choice we make regarding work has its downsides, and these are those for me, represented honestly with as little emotional baggage as possible!
As many of you know, I’ve promised a three-album mashup trilogy to be completed within 2016! The first and only confirmed one of these is EarthBIG, an Earthbound and Notorious B.I.G. album built around a very personal story about my creative process. Two more albums—a secret project, and my announced sequel to Night Walks, NIGHT TERRORS, are hopefully coming. NIGHT TERRORS will be released in Fall without a doubt, and it will be a perfect marriage of the music of Silent Hill, the uneasy feeling of listening to a mysterious radio broadcast, and the queasy horror evoked by the imagery of manga artist Junji Ito. There’s also my new work for Read Only Memories Deluxe Edition, which involves implementation of voice acting into the game and creation of some new music, AND my ongoing soundtrack for fighting game Cerebrawl, currently in production.
TAX SEASON FOR FREELANCERS
Oh, man. I’ll probably write an entire separate blog post about this after I get back from my session with a tax professional later this week. Going to figure out how to report a large amount of income/transactions processed through Paypal from Bandcamp, Patreon and direct payments (but not large enough to qualify for a Paypal W-2). The anxiety is real. Please hug me.
THE NEXT BIG DECISION
OK, so this is the most present thing on my mind, right above taxes—where to go with this career next. Right now, I have two choices.
1. Continue with what I’m doing, living the hollow life, while hoping that my current game projects and music projects will pay me back in a big way, and that bigger opportunities will come in 2016. Cannot stress this last bit enough—they NEED to come in 2016 or this ain’t happening.
2. Get a full-time job in the games industry, or at least producing music or sound for an agency or company on a regular basis, and move from Kentucky. This has the risk of cutting me off from doing all the personal work I currently do because of exclusivity agreements or conflict-of-interest stuff, and would certainly reduce the time I have to dedicate to those personal projects even if I could still do them. However, it would allow me to begin my life comfortably, in earnest, in a fresh place, and not worry about money.
I’m currently leaning towards option 2. I feel confident (perhaps over-confident) that I’ll be able to maintain everything that is important to patrons and supporters of my music even if I did take one of these positions. I won’t settle for one that would have me completely shut off outside creative projects in order to work with a company—they’re too dear to me. My main goal is to become a known-name composer/sound designer who pushes the creative boundaries of interactive media, at the top of the industry. I have a fear that I might lose my name and become just a worker in a bigger company, but there’s also the possibility that the right small, supportive team could help me rise faster.
I’ll report back on the process of this decision whenever I have significant updates.
SOME ADVICE ON PROFESSIONALISM
Just want to end this with a little bit of advice to the aspiring musician that could probably apply to a creative person in any field. Learn to properly carry yourself online as well as in-person. Remember that you are completely dependent on any person who has ever taken a listen to your music. Never act superior to anyone that you meet. Judge every business opportunity with equal weight, no matter who it comes from, how uncouthly it may be presented, how quickly it is set in front of you. When you must reject someone, do it politely and make any criticism constructive. DON’T WORK FOR FREE, figure out what you think you’re worth and translate that to an hourly rate, ASAP. And if you tweet trash, make it GOOD trash, trash that reflects your personality so well that no one could be upset about it.
Really happy to announce that my Patreon has reached (and sailed past) the benchmark of $300 a month, enabling me to set out my plans for a second mashup trilogy. The plan is for the trilogy to take place through 2016, with one album dropping every four months! And the first is...EarthB.I.G.
No more details or hard release dates yet. I know what dates I am shooting for, however. I will be revealing each project as we go. Hope everyone is looking forward to this as much as I am!
Another big announcement--I want to share the development of these albums with every patron. If you sign up to pledge even just one dollar on http://www.patreon.com/2mello, it will make a HUGE difference and get you access to the album as I create it, from the first roughest draft to an early release of the final product!
When something changes or when I change something, my instinct is to worry.
If you see me making a decision, you can safely say that there was a great amount of bellyaching taking place prior to it. The same can definitely be said for most of the life decisions I've made in the past two months (we made it!) regarding my music career. Multiple times, I have set myself down and said "you're crazy, you know that. You're actually doing crazy things."
"NO", I have to say, with conviction. "What would be crazy would be going back to the way I used to live, working for other people so they can make money. It's my turn to make a living the way I want."
But still, these times do come, which brings me to a very important part of being self-employed as a musician that I have dealt with in the past month--staying sane. Here are a few tips: If you're floundering, make a plan or schedule. Maybe even a hypothetical plan for something you actually can't do yet. Some structure-building does wonders for distracting your brain. Here's another tip: exercise. This is great no matter what your occupation is, by the way. After I exercise, I feel accomplished and relaxed, regardless of what I have or haven't already gotten done that day. Third tip, and this is the last resort: Do something to make yourself happy, within reason, financially. If you feel like you're really at the brink of your sanity, don't push yourself any further. Go out and split a pizza and some drinks with a friend. Do some light "retail therapy". Figure out how to make up the money loss to yourself later, for now, think about what YOU need to feel better and get back in the zone.
Besides keeping myself sane, the other thing I've done in the last month is to create several different types and pieces of merch for myself. I already had some merch--some handmade copies of my albums that were not physically sound enough for me to feel comfortable selling at a premium price, but were charming enough to bring out to shows. I needed something better, and I found it at Kunaki -- cheap CD printing and distribution. VERY CHEAP. I produced some nice physical copies of my album Night Walks. They came in shrink-wrap! Nothing was more official and exciting than the shrink-wrap. Kunaki is amazing.
So, that's CDs. What about T-shirts? This was the scary one. T-shirts are monsters in pricing, complication and logistics. How many do I want of each size? Do I want full-color, which is extremely costly, or can I find a way to pare my design down to 1 or 2 colors? Will I make this crazy amount of money I'm spending to print them back? So, yes, these are all relevant issues. I would recommend trying to find a printer at which you have a personal connection, and work with them to see how you can get the best and cheapest shirts to print on, the best deal on screen creation (the screen is a physical object that prints the image on the shirts) and the best price of the printing itself. For smaller runs of shirts: if you know someone who has screen-printing capabilities, you could buy some shirts on your own and just have them make a screen and do the printing. That way, you can get the shirts any way you want and only have to pay someone else for a screen and the printing costs!
Lastly is patches--I'm sure stickers are much more simple and I'll have those too soon, but for now people seemed pretty excited about patches. I got my 2 Mello logo patches made at 24/7 Patches, and they were a little expensive for what they are, but they're a great little add-on item to give people if they buy the physical copy of an album that already came out, or to offer as a pack-in with other items at shows. Also, it's nice to have a little item if someone wants to buy something but doesn't want to spend too much.
All right, that is it for this month. We'll see what's coming my way by September. Stay Mello, y'all.
PLANET ROCK EP is my upcoming ode to Final Fantasy VII's music. I will be giving it a similar treatment as my previous mashup albums, mixing favorite tracks from hip-hop with popular songs from the game. However, rather than having a story or theme like the others, it will simply be a fun dedication to the soundtrack with rappers I like.
As some of you may know, I recently began a new stage of life as a full-time musician, leaving my job and relying on my musical endeavors to earn my way. Even before I began, I knew that I would want to record my experiences in some way in order to help others who might try to do this, and to help myself if I fail or falter. So, here is the first entry in the series, "Stay Mello".
It has been a month since I left my job, my last day there being June 5, 2015. Since then, I have done three very important things:
- Managed my spending
- Maximized my opportunities
- Reassured my people
Managing spending is a simple one to explain. I'm saving money anywhere I can! I used to go out for coffee multiple times a week; now I designate one coffee shop day, because it is helpful to work away from home sometimes. I have planned a very simple rotating pattern of cheap, easy meals. I try to never drive, or drive much less. I give myself $30 of spending money a week, not including gas or my phone bill, which have separate monthly allocations. I calculated the minimum amount of money I'd need per month to survive, and then calculated the ideal amount, as well. Keeping this amount in my head at all times helps me know exactly when I've hit my goal each month, and with that comes great relief, and an ability to shift my priorities a bit towards more long-term work, rather than stuff to help me GET PAID NOW. I have also stowed away some money in an IRA in order to work towards the future while I have money to do so. Investing/saving is extremely advisable when possible.
Maximizing opportunities is making sure that my fans, friends and other business contacts have as many ways to pay me for things they want as possible. I opened up my services offered to include everything I could possibly do, created a Patreon with multiple new ways for people to support me, including what is essentially a subscription service to me, and I am currently producing merch so that I can make every live show worth it and make some cash on the side of the stage. The greatest advantage to me as a full-time musician is that I am already engaged in a long-term contract project making music for a video game (Read Only Memories) and have another one coming up; these are the BIG opportunities that may be the only things keeping me afloat some months, and they are very important. Try to find a big project for yourself, whether it's working on an album with someone as a session musician or collaborator, or scoring a series of commissions from the same client. Maximizing opportunity is about opening more lanes of possible revenue and getting paid more often as a result. If you have no work, good! You have time to look for it.
Reassuring my people involves talking to the people in my life closest to me--close friends, family, significant other--about what I am about to do with my life and what it means, what I have planned and why I think I can succeed. Nothing is more important than having a support network, especially with something as risky as this. If you are very open with the people who are going to be that network, they will understand your situation better if things go bad, and hopefully be ready to go to bat for you. Alternatively, if you leave the people who love you out of what you're doing, you are endangering their trust in you and perhaps even making them feel of less value by showing them they aren't a factor in this big decision. If someone very important to you criticizes your decision, it can be very hard, but try to make them understand as best they can, and do your business. If you have people who are directly depending on you, like a family, it may be a wise idea to stick with your secure job and do music on the side as efficiently as you can--pursuing music is not worth endangering others' well-being! I realize I am very fortunate in being a young single person without these barriers, at least.
That will be it for my first post, and I'm looking forward to the next one I write, in which we'll all see how I'm getting along. If you feel particularly inclined, there are some donation options at the bottom of the site. Thanks for reading!
Mashups are hard. They're not just hard because they involve making two tonally different things sound like they were made for the same purpose, in the same place and by the same people. They're also hard because they are fun to make, loved by thousands, and completely unable to make you any money due to a real mess of copyright laws. While I'm waiting for the copyright situation to either get itself together or collapse completely, I've had to look for alternate methods of funding my mashup projects. A donation button doesn't feel connected enough to the direct receipt of mashups, so I've begun a Patreon completely designed around delivering new mashups, and delivering them early and on-demand to patrons.
Some of the perks of becoming a patron involve exclusive patron-only song releases, voting on biweekly remixes to hear what you want to be heard, and (once we hit the goal) a new mashup trilogy! There's also an option to "subscribe" to 2 Mello if you pledge a certain amount per month, wherein you'll receive all my previous and future albums for free if you remain a subscriber. You help with a lot of this stuff, and help me a lot, even if you just give a dollar a month! Check it out and see if you like it. If there's other things you'd want to see offered, let me know in the comments!
Welcome to 2Mello.net. I'm really excited to have this slick new website that I didn't have to build myself out of painstaking HTML half-remembered from when I was 12 years old. I mean, my old website was fine, but just look at this one! So much more dynamic and easier to update. In this blog space I'll be doing some posts about becoming a full-time musician, posting some videos and project announcements, and otherwise keeping you updated on everything that is 2 Mello!