For Aspiring Composers and Sound Designers

This is a re-post of an article I wrote back in 2007 or so. It's still pertinent so I thought I'd share...

Over the years, I’ve gotten a ton of email from many of you asking how to break into creating music and audio for games. This information is for all you aspiring composers and sound designers who are looking for that first step.

I’ve never heard anyone successful in the field say that becoming a working composer or sound designer was easy. The road to get to that point can seem especially daunting for those starting out, and with good reason. Many of you find that after much effort, that first real gig is still elusive.

Well, I believe the most difficult step is the first step. Why? Because it’s hard to get that first job without experience and it’s hard to get experience without that first job. If you are looking to become that successful composer or sound designer, below are some thoughts that may help you out. An important point to keep in mind is though I’m speaking from my 18+ years of experience in the field, others with ample experience will have differing opinions on what is the road to success. That’s what you need to keep in mind. Very important! There is no one path to success in this field. Everyone, more or less, finds a unique way in.

Following are some points to keep in mind as you reach for the first wrung on the ladder:
1. Build Relationships
Building relationships is the most important thing you can do for your career (along with nurturing your talent). Believe it or not, I know of a successful game composer who says that building relationships is more important than talent. There’s so much competition out there and there’s a lot of great talent vying for the same gigs. You’ll have a difficult time getting gigs if you don’t know anyone.
The kind of people you want to meet are those who make the decisions on hiring composers and sound designers. Every scenario will be different, but generally the people you want to target are audio directors, audio leads, producers, and creative directors.
Like the film industry, the best way to land a gig, permanent or freelance, is to get out there and network, meet people and make the commitment to develop relationships. Generally, decision makers would rather hire someone they know directly or via personal referral instead of bringing on a "cold" hire. Quite simply, it's all about trust.
For any open position you see on job boards, there are many that never get advertisted and are filled through networking and personal referrals. btw, that's how I've landed most of my gigs. You'll find this especially true with contract positions. Most of them are never posted anywhere. The jobs are taken long before it even gets to that point.
How do you get face-to-face time with decision makers? One idea: offer to take them out to lunch so you can ask questions about the field, the creation process, etc. Don't count on getting a job like this right off the bat, but the essential thing is your making contact. Relationships take a long time to build. You can't be in a hurry.
Getting that first good gig may take a couple years (or more). Remember that though talent is important, it’s not totally about how talented you are. I know of brilliant people who aren't reliable or are difficult to work with (that is, they can’t be trusted), so I wouldn’t hire them for a gig. People hire those they trust. Cultivating trust doesn’t happen overnight.
2. Location, Location, Location
Where you live can improve your chances of working as a composer. Move to a location where there is a concentration of game developers. Here in the U.S., there's Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. I live in LA where many of the biggest developers and publishers are. U.S. cities such as Austin, San Diego, Chicago and Boston have game development communities, too, but they are smaller. For our Canadian friends amongst us, there's Vancouver and Montreal though the scene is, as of this writing, smaller than that of LA and SF area. I'm not as familiar with developers in the UK, Europe or elsewhere, so you'll have to do your research if you want to work there.

Why live where the developers are? Even with all of our modern modes of communication, the most effective way to develop relationships is face-to-face interaction. You can’t do face-to-face if a potential client is in Los Angeles and you are in Toledo, Ohio.
I’m not saying that you can’t meet some success living outside a developer hot zone, but I am saying that you’re chances of success will greatly increase if you are in a place where it’s easy to get to meetings, have lunch, attend functions, etc. with decision makers present. It's easier to remember a face than an email.
3. Building a Resume
The great Catch-22: As I said before, it’s hard to get a job without experience. It’s hard to get experience without a job. I believe the hardest step is the first step. Sometimes you have to get creative and “create” experience:A possibility is working on MOD projects or no-budget indie games to start. You will most likely not make any money, but it will give you experience as well as showing that not only are you dedicated to getting a gig in the industry, but that you have an understanding of how to create audio for games. I know. Audio is audio, no matter what medium, right? Not totally true. Games tend to be technically quirky when it comes to producing audio. Showing that you have that knowledge and can speak the language will help. I think working in other mediums can be helpful, such as film. It’s hard to get these gigs, too, but working/collaborating with student filmmakers will help you build some experience and a pool of work to show off to potential clients/employers. Starting at the bottom can be frustrating, but you have to start somewhere.
4. Be A Gamer
I know of companies that passed on hiring talented (and experienced!) candidates because they didn't have knowledge of the game industry or an enthusiasm for it. You’ve gotta love it! Play the latest and greatest games. Keep up on industry news. For starters, a good news source is Know who’s developing the hottest games and know who the publishers are. Know what games have great audio. Learn what makes great audio in games. Attend events like the Game Developers Conference where you can attend seminars, lectures and round-tables with pros in the field.
5. Demo Reel
A demo reel is essential to getting gigs. There’s little chance of getting hired if people can’t experience your work. Everyone seems to have a different opinion on what should be on a demo reel.

Here’s my opinion. You should have 2 demo reels:

A. A general reel.
This is a reel you’ll have available whenever people ask for it. There’s nothing worse than being asked for a reel and not being prepared to give one. Get one ready before you try to get your name out there.
For composers- I like the idea of “less is more”. Don’t show off an hour's worth of material. Don't showcase the whole farm. If someone likes what they hear, they will ask for more. Ideally, I think 10-20 minutes of material should be fine. Tracks between 1-3 minutes are best. If your demo is online, you can get away with having more content than that but keep the navigation clean and easy. Genre diversity across tracks is nice but it's more important to show off what you are good at.
Sound designers/editors- people usually respond better when it's set to picture as opposed to an audio-only demo. Show off 4-6 scenes /cinematics /movie clips between approx. 1-3 minutes.

B. A customized reel.
This is the reel you put together to cater to the needs and ears of a potential client/employer. I believe that this is much more effective than a general reel in getting gigs. If an audio director is looking for electronica and all you send him/her is orchestral and jazz tracks, chances are you won’t get the gig. Always customize when possible. Which leads us to this point: Know your target! Do your research. What games has the company developed? What games has the person listening to your demo worked on? It will give you a much better idea of their aesthetic. It's always disappointing to interview a candidate who doesn’t understand the need of the project or the background of the company or the key people.

BTW, a demo reel should ONLY show off your best work. NEVER send work that is unfinished or rough. Why? Because you can’t expect listeners to bear the burden of imagining what should be there. Audio directors usually have a stack of demo reels waiting for them to listen to. If a demo reel doesn’t sound brilliant, it’s too easy to move on to the next. Don’t make it easy for them to throw your demo in the “No Good” pile. Leave nothing to the imagination. Show how great you are and not how great you could be.

It's helpful to reference current games (and even film) out there to see what kind of music or sound design is being used. For composers, don't copy the style of a game's composer but create something in that genre that is uniquely you. It's quite natural to be influenced by other composers or musicians and to take elements of other artists' work and make it your own. That's how art works, but I believe that nurturing a unique, emotionally moving sound is valuable to success.

Demo reel formats-- Having your demo on your web site is essential.

The hardest step is getting people to listen and people will only listen if it’s convenient, so make it as easy as possible for them. Additional idea for networking: start by asking for a smaller “yes” (“can you give me feedback on my demo reel since I value your opinion?”) before asking first for a big “yes” (“will you hire me as your sound designer for the project?”). Ask for feedback and advice on your demo from decision makers (audio directors, producers, creative directors, lead sound designers, music supervisors, etc.). It's a good way to establish a relationship and get people to open up to you. It also shows you're open to feedback and criticism, which is essential to successfully making a living in games. Game development is about collaboration.
6. Get Your Foot In a Different Door
Maybe you aren’t having much luck meeting the right people after pursuing it for a while. Well, there’s more than one way into the house than directly through the music/audio door. I’ve known of more than one person who started as a game tester at a game company before getting into their desired position. Game testing doesn’t have much to do with audio and the pay is crap, but it gives you these advantages:

A. It allows you to work in the same building as the audio department. Walking down the hall to chat with the audio director and building a relationship suddenly becomes much easier. Getting that audio director to listen to your sound design reel is much easier after you’ve run into him/her in the halls for 6 months.

B. It gives you insight into how games are built. Decision makers like to know that you understand how complex the process is and that you understand something about that process. You can’t be knowledgeable about audio or music exclusively. Having a grasp on the whole game dev process is advantageous. You don’t have to be a programmer, but you do have to understand the development process.
7. Showing Gratitude
Always say “thank you”! If a producer takes time out of their very busy day to listen to your demo, thank them. If you ask for advice and a successful veteran composer takes some time to reply back, thank them. At the end of any gig you work on, always follow up in some way with a “thank you”. Even if you don’t get the gig, thank those who took the time to see what you have to offer. Producers, audio directors and audio leads are faced with an overwhelming amount of tasks in the heat of a project and work long hours. They are often sacrificing time with family and friends to see the project through. So, if they give you some of their attention and focus, let them know you appreciate it. I’m not saying you have to fall to your your knees and kiss their feet or give up your first-born child. A simple, sincere “thanks” does the trick. It’s an easy thing to do. And it shows maturity and professionalism. Even if it seems like a detail, people remember those things.
8. The Statistics of Pain
I'm here to tell you that you will face more rejection than acceptance. Don't get too discouraged because this is normal. I definitely can say my work has been passed up far more than it's been accepted, and I'd bet that most successful game composers and sound designers out there have experienced the same. After college, I even worked as a bicycle messenger and also at a record store for a few years before I made any headway with composing work.

You know all that junk mail you get in the mailbox in front of your house? Most of us throw it away, but somebody out there is sending it because a small percentage of people are interested in buying. A mailing campaign like that is usually thought of as successful if 5% of the recipients make a purchase. So, for every 100 mailers, 95 are rejected and only 5 turn into sales. That rate of rejection seems like a pretty dismal success rate, but it's not.

For you, it will be the same. You will probably knock on a TON of doors before one opens for you. Opportunities always exist. You just have to prepare yourself for them when they arrive.
Hope this info helps you.
May you find find fortune and fantastic projects to be a part of.
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