Hi! I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips. These are the times that try our musical souls, with live concerts enduring an avalanche of cancelations and postponements due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For our community as game music composers and game audio pros, this means that most video game concert tours have gone silent. As one of the composers whose work was featured in the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, I was honored to join the players onstage during the Montreal performance last year (pictured below). It was a thrill to have my music from Assassin’s Creed Liberation performed in Berlin, Milan, and all around the world.
While we all have reason to be sad about this, there is some light in the darkness. A few touring companies and orchestras have nimbly shifted to online live-streaming events as a way to sustain their fan bases and keep enthusiasm alive through the Covid-19 pandemic. Other video game music shows are holding things together while continuing to sell tickets, with optimistic plans to resume their in-person tours later in 2021. As both game audio pros and game music fans, we all want to enjoy and support this music, so let’s check out what’s happening this year in the world of VGM concerts! We’ll start by taking a look at those organizations that have moved their concerts online with live-streamed events. After that, we’ll check out the concert tours that are still selling tickets with hopes to return to their stages sometime later this year.
Delighted you’re here! I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this past year has been particularly busy for me. I’ve released several projects this year, including Sackboy: A Big Adventure (my latest, pictured above) – and I’m very pleased that my Waltz of the Bubbles composition from Sackboy: A Big Adventure just won a Global Music Award, and is nominated along with the rest of the game’s soundtrack in this year’s NAVGTR Awards! In between projects, I’ve given three virtual talks this past year at the Game Developers Conference in March, the VGM Academy Live event in April, and the GDC Summer event in August. Popular events like these are great opportunities to touch base with the community and exchange ideas about the art of game composition and the business of being a video game composer.
All during this time, I’ve been keeping up with this blog, writing monthly articles that explore different topics of interest to us as game composers. In addition to the regular monthly entries, every year I write an article that tries to answer the question, “how does an aspiring composer break into the video game industry?” This is the question I’m personally asked most often, and it’s one I always struggle to answer.
Part of the reason for this is that my own “breaking into the business” story is so unusual. My first video game project happened to be a triple-A blockbuster (God of War from Sony Interactive), and I was able to land the gig because an example of my work landed on the desk of a music supervisor for the project at exactly the right time. What are the chances of that? It’s akin to being struck by lightning, and I certainly can’t advise young composers to depend on that kind of lightning to strike. But I don’t want to leave hopeful young composers in the lurch either.
So every year, I revisit the subject, trying to learn what helpful advice might be offered by virtue of the common wisdom that exists at the time. In expert articles and community posts, the subject is ceaselessly examined and reconsidered. It’s an evolving conversation that shifts in subtle but appreciable ways from year to year. So this is the 2021 edition, in which I share the interesting observations I’ve gathered from online sources during the previous year. Hopefully, this article will provide some guidance and support for those who are embarking on their own game music careers. But first, in case anyone might like to hear a fuller retelling of my own “breaking into the business” story, here’s an interview I gave in 2011 with GameSpot in which I recount how I landed my first gig. The relevant discussion begins at 4 minutes and 15 seconds:
Hey everyone! I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips. In the photo above I’m working on the project that launched my career as a game composer – God of War. Starting a viable career in the game development industry as a composer can be an awesome task, and I’m often asked for advice about how to break into this business. So each year I revisit the subject in an article that allows us to consider current ideas and strategies. Along the way, we contemplate multiple viewpoints, both from expert music and game audio practitioners and by anonymous game audio folks in community forums. This can be helpful, because the common wisdom on this subject changes in subtle but appreciable ways with each passing year. By revisiting the topic periodically, I hope that we’ll be able to obtain a deeper understanding of what it takes to land the coveted first gig as a composer of music for games.
Part of the reason I write this article each year is personal. My own “big break” story is so extraordinarily unusual that it can’t provide much useful guidance for newcomers. Being fortunate enough to have a famous game like God of War as your first game credit isn’t the typical entry path for a budding video game composer. Yet, because I’m a fairly visible member of the game audio community who has written a book called A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (pictured), I’m constantly asked for advice by aspiring composers who want to start their professional careers and are having trouble getting out of the gate. Since my own story is such a ‘bolt-of-lightning’ case study, I think it’s useful for us to study the more traditional entry paths when we’re trying to understand how aspiring game composers can get their start. By the way, in case you’re wondering, here’s the story of how I landed my first gig – I told the story during a Society of Composers and Lyricists event in NYC, and it’s captured in this video:
I explored some of these social media approaches in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (chapter 14, page 246), but Candace adds a new perspective to the topic from her vantage as a recruiter. I’ll be exploring some of the best highlights from her talk in this blog.
But first, let’s watch a short video created by best selling author Erik Qualman, author of What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube. This video focuses on the power of social media, in case any of us were unsure of what impact it might have on our professional lives:
The Goals of Social Presence
Candace Walker began her talk at GDC Europe by emphasizing four important guiding considerations that should shape our online efforts in the realm of social media.
What is our goal? What are we trying to achieve? As game audio freelancers, we want our potential clients to be aware of our availability and (hopefully) our awesome skills as game composers! We may also want to reach out to the game audio community at large, contributing to the overall body of knowledge and/or making friends and contacts. Whatever our ultimate purpose in regards to social media, we should always define our goals specifically and keep them at the forefront of our online efforts.
Who is our audience? For game composers, the online audience may be composed of potential clients, fellow composers, game press, game music fans, etc. Different messages are meant to reach different audiences, and we need to keep this in mind.
Does our intended message have value for its audience? Social media has parallels with consumer culture, in that an online audience is investing something of worth in order to obtain something valuable. In this case, the investment takes the form of time, and the valuable return may be educational or entertaining content. With any social media message, we need to evaluate the inherent value of our content. Will our audience think it’s valuable enough? Will our message be worth their time?
Does our intended message have the potential to incite conflict? This one is a tricky issue for us to ponder. If we’re simply reaching out to potential clients, the issue of unexpected conflict shouldn’t be particularly problematic. However, if we’re discussing the craft of game audio in social media and we suddenly stumble across a contentious topic that starts ruffling feathers, we need to take a breath and consider the possible ramifications. In this case, Candace advises us to take a step back and favor the cautious approach.
At this point, Candace continued her presentation by taking her audience on a tour of the most famous and popular social media platforms.
Candace tells us that having a YouTube channel and producing videos can be useful for the game industry professional with expertise to share. YouTube tutorials and educational videos are fantastic ways to spread knowledge. As game composers, we can avail ourself of this avenue of social media outreach by producing educational videos that explore important skills, or tutorial videos that explain the use of vital game audio tools.
According to Candace, this social media platform is growing in usefulness to game industry recruiters. Pinterest allows a user to set up a “pinboard” of relevant links that fall within a single subject of interest.
Using Facebook as our conduit for professional outreach is entirely possible, Candace assures us. However, we have to be clear about our purpose on Facebook. If we’re on Facebook in a professional capacity, then we have to refrain from sharing too many personal posts. Candace warns us against diluting our message with day-to-day observations and pet peeves. Our initial goals for our social media presence should help us make decisions about what to post.
This social media platform is Candace’s #1 tool for finding new talent. According to Candace, LinkedIn has the potential to put us on the radar of our industry colleagues, and can deliver vital information about our services to potential clients. In her presentation, Candace advises that we complete our LinkedIn profiles as thoroughly as possible, including all the relevant information about our experience in the industry and our skills. An added side benefit is the ability of the LinkedIn site to reformat the content of a user’s profile page into a serviceable résumé that we can then use to woo potential clients.
Candace ended her presentation by recommending the social media strategies of several of her colleagues at Naughty Dog. Here are some of the links she provided:
Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.
Just a quick note – I was pleased and surprised to ring in the New Year by stumbling on my music being used in the television commercials for the Breaking Bad New Years marathon on AMC. I had no idea that Breaking Bad had incorporated some of the music from my Christmas album into this promo, which aired in heavy rotation prior to the marathan and also many, many times over the course of the four-day marathon event. Sometimes, life decides to surprise you. I’ve had a brush with Breaking Bad – Happy 2014, everyone!! Here’s a video of the promo:
If you (or any of your friends) are members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), please consider voting for my soundtrack in these three categories: Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement.
Here’s an Assassin’s Creed III Liberation trailer that features the main theme I composed for the game. This music has already won a Hollywood Music in Media Award, a Global Music Award, a Game Audio Network Guild Award and a GameFocus Award:
Also, here’s a trailer for the high-definition re-release of the Assassin’s Creed Liberation video game, coming in early 2014. This trailer also features my music from the soundtrack to the game:
I’m very pleased that my music for Assassin’s Creed III Liberation has made the first-round voting ballot for this year’s Grammy Awards!
Over at the Designing Sound website, there’s an interesting article about loudness metering in video game middleware. While reading the article, I paused on a particular phrase: loudness war. The music industry is painfully familiar with this form of sonic warfare. It’s been an ongoing conflict for years, based on a pretty vicious cycle of reasoning that goes like this:
We want our music to be exciting.
Listeners get most excited when the music gets loud.
Therefore, we want our music mixes to feel loud.
Other people are mixing their music to be more exciting by being louder than ours.
To counteract this, we have to make our music as loud as theirs, or better yet, louder.
Like an audio arms race, each side piles on the volume until everything overloads, then squashes their mixes with massive compression in order to avoid clipping. This leads to painfully flattened music that explodes from the speakers like a tsunami of sound, always pouring forth, never ebbing. It’s the ultimate apocalypse of the loudness war.
But does it actually feel loud?
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, there’s another kind of loudness war about to break out once again in a couple of weeks. The big game publishers mount some of the showiest booths each year, complete with enormous video screens, stacks of speakers and rumbling subwoofers installed under the floor. The result can feel pretty thunderous. The noise levels were so migrane-inducing that in 2006 the Electronic Software Association began enforcing a cap on the loudness levels, with fines levied against the transgressors. Nevertheless, from my perspective as an annual attendee, the war seems to rage on. Entering one of the big E3 booths sometimes makes me feel like the “Maxell Man” from the classic commercial in which the power of sound is portrayed like the driving force of a wind tunnel. It hits me with a solid whomp, and I can almost imagine it whipping my hair back. Whoosh.
Despite this, I find that after only a little while wandering the expo floor, none of the sounds feel particularly powerful or impressive anymore. Sure, it’s all still quite loud, but it’s also all the same kind of loud. Likewise with the sonic arms race in the music industry – when every song strives to push itself into listener’s faces with aggressive sonic intensity throughout, it becomes numbing. Our senses deaden, and the music blends into a loud but featureless white noise.
How does this relate to our work as game composers, sound designers and audio engineers? The article at Designing Sound briefly discussed the lack of clear standards for levels of loudness in video games, and the loudness war that has resulted as game developers attempt to outdo each other in making their games sonically exciting. Like the big booths at E3, we’re all trying to shout each other down. As a game composer, I’m always aware of the place my music occupies in the sonic landscape of the game. If the game is loud, should my music be loud too? And will this turn into a mush of sonic white noise? How can I prevent this, and still create that level of excitement that is the holy grail of the loudness war?
My brilliant music producer Winnie Waldron has a saying when it comes to this subject. Since we tend to communicate in our own shorthand, I’ll need to translate it for you. When talking about loudness, she says, “Contast, contrast, contrast! Yin and yang, yin and yang!!” What does this mean? We only know a thing if we also know its opposite. Therefore, we only recognize something as loud when we have experienced something soft in close proximity to it. This is also true for all manner of musical effects, from tempos and pitch elevation to texture and rhythmic devices, but for loudness its particularly meaningful. In order to create an epically loud moment, we have to preface it with something hushed. Really effective popular music uses this phenomenon by incorporating unexpected pauses, stutters and breakdowns that challenge expectations and create those hushed moments. In game audio, moments of stillness can be our subtle weapons in the loudness war.