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Tips, tricks and the many experiences of being a freelance video game composer in an ever-evolving industry.

Craig Dodge, Blogger

November 10, 2009

8 Min Read

Getting Organized

Ok, so this could mean any number of things. When making the decision to pursue your dreams of being a freelance composer for film or video games, it is important to realize one thing from the very beginning – THIS IS A FULL TIME JOB! You are starting your own business!

Because you are starting down the path to working for yourself, in your dream career, there are a number of important factors to understand, and the most important one of all is being organized.

Organization is of the utmost importance when working as a freelancer. You are a one-person show and you do not have the ability to delegate responsibilities to others (unless you are fortunate to have an additional person working for or with you).

There are many aspects that have to be organized obviously; your physical space (studio), your tools (samples, plug-ins, cords, software, etc), your time, etc. but we will focus more on the business side of organization.

There are a few very simple ways in which you can help your cause and also be able to see your business from 30,000 feet (be able to look at it rationally based on its successes or failures). At the end of the day, if you are not making headway in getting contacts or contracts or making enough money to support yourself and your business, you need to know the areas that are making it difficult for you.

On the other hand if you are having successes in certain areas (for example getting a lot of clients in the mobile games arena), you also need to know that too so that you can exploit that market segment more.

The key component to all of this is organization. Having good organizational skills helps promote a solid feeling of worth and seriousness to your business and also removes the guesswork associated with explaining to your clients, accountant, friends and associates, just how well or not well you are doing.

The simple way to keep everything organized is sitting in your computer right now – the spreadsheet. I use them for all things related to my day-to-day work. It does not sound as exciting as working on your next epic video game score, but it is a necessity nonetheless.

Here are a few ideas on what you should be tracking on these spreadsheets to help you gain a clearer perspective on how your overall plan is working:

Finances – Obviously you need to know how much money is coming in (always the best part) and how much money is going out (we gear-heads are notorious for not wanting this number to be put down on paper!). All kidding aside this is a true measure of how you are doing and if you need to tighten up on spending or are you able to add that new Apogee Symphony system to your arsenal.

Keep a detailed ledger of the amount money coming in, from which client, for what services and date. This will help you see how much work you are earning from which clients and help you see who your time should be focused on in the future.

On the money going out side, keep track of monthly spending on everything. Gear licenses or rentals, video games you buy for being up to date on current trends, cabs, travel, electricity bills, etc. Not only do you need to know these hard numbers to see strengths or weaknesses in your business plan, but also as a valuable and time saving tool for you accountant come tax time.

Business Development Tracking – Also set up a spreadsheet with all of the companies that you contact on a day-to-day basis. If you are sending an email about the possibility of potential work, enter the company name, contact person, phone number, website, contact email, and date. Leave a place for your comments if they get back to you as well.  This is an important record of all things associated with pursuing new game contracts. There is nothing more embarrassing than contacting the same person, who a week earlier said that they have their own in-house sound designer. It’s not only embarrassing, it also has a tendency to make you feel a little awkward and unprofessional and none of us want to have negative feelings about what we are doing. You need a lot of confidence to try and be a freelance video game composer and negative feelings and self-doubt just get in the way.

Contacts List – This one is your personal Rolodex. You should have a spreadsheet set up with all of your contacts that you meet at GDC, online, through music school, etc. Having all of this information documented helps you to not have to go looking for that business card that fell down behind the piano and will only be found when you move house. This entire industry is based on people so have an up to date list of who and where they all are.

Project Recaps, Time sheets, and Asset Lists – These three are important to each one of us because they are completely related to our efficiency as composers and sound designers. Asset Lists are of the utmost importance when you are hired by a company to be an outsourced sound designer for their game project. Before you negotiate any contract you need to know how much work is going to be involved. Having a good price for a good client is great, but at the end of the day if you have no idea how many sound effects, loops, original music, cut scene music, trailer music, etc. they need, you are not helping your cause. Create a spreadsheet that outlines all of the things that you do and once you are approached by a company to possibly do work for them, have them complete the list or complete it with them. Developers are notorious for not stopping to write down each gun blast, footstep, or bounce of the ball, but someone has to do it. Otherwise your dream gig that you negotiated $$$$$ for, turns out to be ten times more work!

Time sheets are vital to the freelance game composer. Every time you sit down in your studio to work on a game project, it should be documented. Documented with how long you are spending, what type of project (mobile game, console game) what you are working on – sound effects, loops, etc. This information will be of the utmost importance on your project recap. Also if you are working on more that one game or projects with more than one client you need to know where you are spending your time.

Finally the project recap spreadsheet comes into play once you have completed a project. This is kind of your project postmortem. On this sheet you put in all of the total hours you worked on effects for the projects, how many hours on music or loops. Did you spend some time helping the developers with the audio implementation or scripting in the game? How much time did it take to archive everything for the client? How many meetings did you have to attend? What were your expenses for the project – cab fares to meetings, lunches with the dev team, DVDs or hard drives for storage and archiving, guitar strings, etc.

This spreadsheet basically tells you how much you made per hour while in your studio working and that is a number that you need to know. If you negotiated a flat fee agreement and spent so much time and money on the project due to your inefficiencies whereby you end up making $8 per hour, you may want to tune up your workflow processes or get a job flipping burgers.

The project recap sheet also serves as a wind up to the project itself. We all know what it is like to work for long hours on one thing, with this type of postmortem a feeling of closure comes with completing the paperwork and a sense of success comes with that.

So there you have it… a few of the things that I like to keep track of in my freelance business. It is important to note that some people like to think that anyone that works as a freelance anything is just avoiding a good old’ fashioned day job. We all know that this is not true; we just like to spend our lives doing something that we love, and because it is working with video games it makes it that much better.

I guess the point here with all of the spreadsheet talk is that if you want to feel more professional about what you do as a freelance composer and sound designer, and have people take you as a serious professional, you have to act it, and that starts with understanding just how your business works by tracking every detail that you feel is necessary.

Until next time, thanks for reading.

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