It's Dangerous to Go Alone
Building a career in sound and music is better with friends.
Today, let’s talk about why building close professional friendships is so important for developing your audio career, how you can find your people, and the value of being there for one another.
Building a career in sound or music can, at times, feel daunting. You realize that, in reality, success requires so many more skills than simply the ability to make your art. It is almost doubly true if you choose the route of an independent artist: you are completely alone. But what if that wasn’t true?
That question — “Must we succeed all on our own?” — was at the center of a lecture I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference called Building Audio Careers, Together. The short answer is an emphatic no. In fact, I often think the opposite is true. Whether it’s clients or colleagues, the most successful people I know seem to be in a constant state of collaboration. In general, my view of other music and sound makers is thus: “colleagues not competition.”
In my lecture, I outlined a number of concrete strategies that people can use to build their career in a collaboratively minded focus. While my talk centered these practices around people working in game audio, they can be applied to a whole host of audio industries. Today, I want to focus on one of the most actionable steps you can take to build your career.
Find yourself a “high five”
As a composer and music producer, I find that I experience a tension between the need to be viewed as a professional and the need to continuously grow in my craft. To be a professional requires projecting a sense of capability and understanding, and yet, to grow, you have to be willing to be vulnerable and acknowledge the opposite.
This is where we can find value in establishing for ourselves a high five, or, a close knit group of colleagues that are walking through their careers together. The key here is the makeup of that close group.
What we’ll call a “standard” high five is made up of:
Somebody farther ahead in their career than you that can be your mentor
Somebody earlier on in their career than you that can be your mentee
Three people at a similar stage in their career as you that can share in your experiences
In reality, this number can be smaller or larger than five, but what matters most is having each of the three components: somebody to help guide you, somebody that you can help guide, and somebody to walk alongside you. Doing so helps you to see your career in the broadest possible light and maintain much needed perspective.
I also want to note that if you read this and balked at the idea of mentoring someone, you should take a moment and reconsider. Too many sound and music makers think they have nothing to contribute to juniors in their field and that is wrong. No matter how far along in your career you are, there is somebody coming up after you that wants to be where you are right now. If you’re able to, help them. It doesn’t have to be a great demand on your time (we’re talking an hour a month). Not only will it make their life easier, but it will help you gain perspective on your own career as well.
People are often afraid to seek out mentorship and feedback. It requires a willingness to put yourself out there and be ready for rejection. You have to be ready, open, and willing to learn. It isn’t easy but it matters — especially when it comes from people whose opinions you trust. I find that having people in your corner, with your development in mind, is the best place to seek feedback. A mentor and colleagues can help you identify the opportunities for growth in your work and career and help you get a plan of action together.
Let’s talk briefly about one of my favorite historical examples of a group not entirely unlike a high five.
From 1933 to 1949, a group of writers met weekly near the University of Oxford to read each other their works in progress and get feedback from one another. This informal literary club, The Inklings, is well-known to this day because its membership included literary titans such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
I often remind myself that if these literal college professors and world renowned writers met consistently for two decades to receive feedback and share in their careers with one another then perhaps I should seek out feedback, too.
While there is nobody else but us driving our careers, the road doesn’t need to be a lonely one.
My talk is available to watch on the GDC Vault.
My GDC talk, Building Audio Careers Together was recorded and available to watch on the GDC Vault. Unfortunately, it’s hidden behind a paywall. However, you can access my talk slides for free.
I’d love to give this talk again and continue to build on this conversation. If your group or organization would benefit from participating in this conversation, please connect with me. I’d love to give it at your next class, workshop, or event.
Until next time.
Do you need help with your music production or composition skills? I offer private one on one lessons over Zoom. You can sign up for lessons here.
My RM-10 sample pack has gotten a ton of downloads recently. If you want to check out this under the radar vintage drum machine, snag it here. I’ve got more sample packs on the way.
I contributed sound design to Dungeons & Dragons Minecraft. It was a ton of fun! You can check out the announcement trailer here.