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Surviving The Overflow

Having trouble managing your audio projects? This article tackles the tough topic on what to do when you have too many commitments and not enough time to handle them.

Jesse Harlin, Blogger

March 3, 2009

5 Min Read

[Originally printed in Game Developer magazine's August 2008 issue, this article tackles the tough topic on what to do when you have too many commitments and not enough time to handle them.] 

The guiding philosophy of all freelance audio work -- whether it's sound design, music, or voice work -- can be summed up with the simple mantra, "Always say yes."

Unfortunately, saying "yes" to everything sometimes means finding oneself with more work than a single person can actually tackle by all given deadlines. As everyone in the game industry knows, schedules slip, milestones push out, and deadlines have a way of floating around the calendar, anchorless, creating all manner of scheduling headaches.

Few things in the game industry are more stressful than juggling multiple creative projects simultaneously. Unfortunately for freelancers, it's an all too common occurrence and a risk that comes from successful networking. This flood of overlapping work can seem insurmountable at times.

Thankfully, two different lifejackets exist to help content creators stay afloat and survive the overflow.

Ghost of a Chance

Ghostwriting has had nearly as long a history as art itself. Even Mozart is known to have been a ghostwriter for Austrian nobility. These days, ghostwriting is a staple of freelance creative work for games, television, and film. However, because secrecy is the cornerstone of the gig, it's difficult to find information on the subject.

After some networking of my own, I found six different contractors -- those who have been ghostwriters and those who have hired ghostwriters -- willing to speak to me anonymously in order to give me a sense of the ins and outs of the work.

I started by asking about compensation. As with all freelance contractor work, fees are negotiable. Some ghostwriters charge a typical "per minute of music" fee. Others can charge by the day, week, or even month. Another approach is to hire a ghostwriter for a percentage of the total creative fee, the percentage being proportional to the amount of work the ghostwriter is doing for the project.

Ghostwriting is a gig born from stress and, as such, some ghostwriters recognize this and can take it as a means to negotiate higher fees. Taking too great an advantage of the situation, however, will likely destroy all hope at a second ghostwriting opportunity.

Giving people credit for their ghostwriting is a tricky situation. As one contractor stated, "Contracts generally grant complete ownership and control of the music to the publisher, yet saddle all of the liability on the contractor. In order to make the liability as binding as possible, there is usually legal language asking the contractor to warrant that all of the content delivered has been created entirely by the contract signatory."

Some contractors will offer anything from "additional music/sound design by" down to a simple "special thanks" in the credits.

Others aren't so generous. Some contractors hire ghostwriters as a matter of survival and regard crediting their ghostwriters as a potential threat to their professional personas. Even in these situations, permission to list the game on resumes, demos, or web sites may be given in lieu of actual in-game credit.

Bowing Out Gracefully

If the contracts haven't been signed yet, another option exists: backing out of the gig altogether. Of the freelance contractors I spoke with, none had ever taken a gig and then backed out of it -- or none would admit to it.

Declining a gig can be a treacherous professional hazard, especially if you want to maintain the professional relationship and foster future work. After networking your way into a job by convincing the client that you're the right person to hire, turning around and informing them that you can't handle their project is a waste of both their time and trust.

According to music industry author and networking guru Dan Kimpel, author of Networking Strategies for the New Music Business (ArtistPro/Thomson PTR), there are graceful ways to pass on a gig without damaging the professional relationship. "What the freelancer needs to be aware of is not to disparage the gig, or to make it feel inconsequential."

According to Kimpel, it's possible to absorb the impact of declining the work with statements such as "I'm so deluged by commitments right now that I don't feel I'd be able to devote the necessary bandwidth and give your project the attention it deserves."

He also stressed to me the importance of making sure the response to the potential employer is laced with emotional language. Words such as "feel" or "for me" have a psychological effect that implies empathy and a connection to their project, even while trying to deflect the work from your already busy schedule.

Lastly, one final approach to declining work without saying "no" is to price your services out of the running for the gig. By asking for a rate that is higher than the project has budgeted or by insisting on residuals, the team looking to hire you may be forced to decline your bid. The risk here is that they won't decline and will instead agree to your higher rates leaving you with the overflow of work you were looking to avoid.

But then again, with an increased rate you could always hire a ghostwriter...


Title photo by Jan Ramroth, used under Creative Commons license.

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About the Author(s)

Jesse Harlin


Jesse Harlin has been composing music for games since 1999. He is currently the staff composer for LucasArts.You can email him at [email protected].

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