Life As A Freelance Musician Part 9: Making Music for Other People

Making music that someone else has the final say on can be really frustrating. After all, this is basically art. It is a way to express yourself. When you start doing it for money, one of the hardest things to let go of is that full control.

I have made some original video game songs that I thought were amazing, only to have a client say, “that’s not what we’re looking for at all”. I literally had a client for a while who pretty much just wants one long droning bass note with little else for his game’s background.

So here’s a few tips on how to find a happy medium between what your client wants and making something you still actually care about at the end of the day.

What Not To Do

Early on, I’d get a contract signed, and spend a few days making an entire song and then sending it to the client, as a pretty much completed product. This didn’t always work out so well. Usually they had their own ideas of how it would sound, or would tear it to pieces with criticism. I found a much better approach was to make a small, looping sample just to give them an idea and they can tell me what they like/don’t like about it. This also gives them an actual loop they can try in their game to get a feel for it. This is also good to do because down the line, they can’t really tell you they decided it doesn’t fit in the game when they had a chance early on to try it.

Interpreting What a Client Wants

One of the hardest things about working on someone else’s vision is getting on the same page for a specific sound. Here are a few little examples from some games I worked on. The links after quotes show the finished product.

For act I, the player’s going to be presented with a straight-faced arcade shooter. “Are you a bad enough dude to save the president”, sort of plot. I’m going to try to subvert a lot of the normal tropes in the shoot-em-up genre; while they’re presented with clear-cut mission goals and instructions (“defend against the alien menace”), ingame they’ll be shown to be helping civilians and the like. So, as far as music, I want it to be upbeat & heroic, but not altogether honest. -Wick, Rubicon Mission 1

I love the way Wick writes, but sometimes I had no idea how to get what he was going for. How do you make ‘not altogether honest’ music? I’m still not sure. What I took from this was the parts that made sense to me and tried to use some classic melodies that give that heroric shooter type sound.

Wouldn’t want to go overboard with that–I don’t want it to sound like the player is on vacation in Jamaica or something. But maybe the western guitar with some bongo type drums or some light steel drums. Maybe just the guitar with more of a island–or maybe Mexican–kind of feel. –Andy, IQ Soup, TBA Game

This is for a post-apocalyptic western styled game coming up. When you’re asked to make post-apocalyptic cowboy Mexican party music, you have to ask yourself how to combine all those influences together in a way that sounds natural. I took a few little things from each genre – nylon stringed picked guitar for the ‘mexican influence’, a slide guitar for western, blade runnerish synths for post-apocalyptic – but put them with some orchestral elements that you’d find in all these styles to blend it together. You sometimes just can’t put in everything they want, so you have to try to strike a balance between the feeling they’re going for and what they think it’ll take to get there.

A great tip I have is to ask the client up front, send me your favorite track or a youtube video game songs that you imagine playing during your game. You of course aren’t going to directly copy it, but it should put you in the ball park of what they mean and want. If they just say “space music” that could mean anything from Star Trek theme song to an ambient song or a vgm remix type thing. Having some sort of base point to start from is a great idea.

When They Don’t Like What You’ve Made

I think I only have three clients who pretty much accept whatever I give them on the first run. And that’s because they have a lot in common with me as far as influences go and they also give super clear instructions like “the Narshe song from FF6 but with some bongos”. It’s not hard to quickly create an original video game song when you have directions like that.

But if they don’t like the work, don’t take it personally. Most clients and I have a lot of back and forth. You should build this into your pricing since it will happen more often than not. Just keep working their feedback into your song until you find a happy medium.

Some people will just never be satisfied. Strangely, it seems to be the ones with the tightest budget. You’d think it’d be the other way around. I have pretty much just said “we’re done” to a few clients who after a myriad of revisions still was not happy. Don’t drive yourself crazy over a client who wants to pay pennies and get 40 hour a week service. It’s simply not worth it.

When You Don’t Like What You’ve Made

Some clients’ vision of their songs may be so far off from your own, that you might not even like the end product. What do you do then? Well, you are not obligated to put every song you make on your soundcloud or share it with the world. One thing I do sometimes is do my own little “remix” of one of the songs to share on my soundcloud. It’s good practice and good for your video game composer portfolio. I will say this though: when you aren’t inspired about a game or a project, it’s really hard to stay happy and passionate about working on it. It feels more like work. Keep this in mind when looking for jobs.

-The Secret Arts of Coming Up With Melodies
-My Biggest Mistakes as a Freelancer
-Beginner’s Guide to Compression


Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 2.36.44 PMBeatscribe is a full time indie composer, musician and writer. By day he creates soundtracks and sfx for various mobile gaming companies, by night creates megaman-inspired chiptunes, in the afternoons he drinks tea. Check out his latest releases, tutorials and retro ruminations at

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