I’m not exaggerating when I say this is one of the weirdest, most diverse, and most fun projects I’ve ever gotten to write for. I got to do everything from Final Fantasy style combat music, Seinfeld parodies, and Gregorian chant. Finally got to use my master’s degree for something!
While I wrote a majority of the soundtrack, I was also joined by a ton of insanely talented musicians like Danny Baranowsky, Ben Prunty, and Francisco Cerda, as well as many new friends whose music I lamentably didn’t know about before, but who I’m now a huge fan of!
You can currently grab the soundtrack here on Bandcamp, with Spotify, iTunes, and everywhere else soon to follow. Or hey, you could, like, scroll down a bit, and listen to some of it right now.
If you’ve been to my site before, you might notice that things are looking a bit, uh . . . not . . . not good.
Due to some problems with the old host, I’ve had to relocate all my content to this temporary site. If you’re looking for my music, links to past and current games I’ve written for, or my blog posts on audio and game dev in general, it’s all still here! I’m currently in the process of redesigning everything, so this rather odd-looking template is only temporary. Thanks for your patience!
In the meantime, if you’re looking for the fastest and easiest way to hear my work, consider checking out my Soundcloud page!
Wait, where are you going? No this is serious, I was about to use those two things as a clever framing device for a lesson on how to make amazing creative work without expensive equipment and a massive budget! I can do it, I was an English minor in college! I have a master’s degree oh god please come back I’m so lonelyyyyyyyyyyyy
Oh…oh you’re…you’re still here. Oh god thank you. This means a lot. Having someone to listen, I mean. You can only give so many impassioned speeches about the power of community or the creative spirit to the lady ringing up your plastic bottle Canadian scotch before they slap your picture on a wall and ban you from Fred Meyer, you know?
I wanted to talk to you this week about a phenomenon every creative professional must face. It’s that feeling that you can’t really make something truly great until you have that shiny new toy. That the only thing holding you back is that your equipment isn’t nice enough, that you shouldn’t even bother starting on any of the great ideas you have because without that expensive mcguffin, whatever you’d make would be trash compared to everyone else’s.
This phenomenon is called Gear Lust, and it is the bright red Kia Sorrento of the creative world. It seems harmless, and might even get you places for a bit, but eventually, it’ll leave you stranded in a ditch, on fire, with hillbillies groping around in your mouth trying to pull out your fillings.
To prove that as a creative, you can (and should) make amazing stuff without first investing hundreds in top notch gear, I’m going to reference pertinent examples from real-life professionals to put everything into a tangible, grounded context that anyone can relate to.
Nah, I’m fucking with you, let’s talk about Ghostbusters and Power Rangers.
Both are amazing super teams of kind-of-but-not-really ethnically diverse professionals keeping America and parts of a soundstage in Japan safe from supernatural jerks. But while one is an excellent example of being scrappy and inventive with the equipment on hand, the other one tends to blow things out of proportion.
No really, I’m sticking with this metaphor. I’m gonna beat this dead horse until I either bring it back to life or animal control has to deploy bald eagles with stinger missiles to stop me. Buckle up.
Power Rangers? More like . . . like Power Dangers of . . . of buying. . . of when you, when you buy too much stuff . . . ?
I LOVED this show when I was a kid, and not just because it was essentially created in a lab to target childrens’ brains and shoot a beam of pure capitalism into their cerebral cortexes. Every toy store back then sold replicas of the butt-ton of weapons, robots, and characters featured in every episode, all of them hastily assembled, all of them lead-based. Like, holy shit, so much lead. If a nuke had fallen on my house, all I’d have to do was hold my dragonzord above my head and I’d emerge from the flames unscathed like some post-apocalyptic child-god.
So, predatory, kid-targeted merchandizing empire aside, the show was a treat. For those of you who never got into it (WHAT) or if it was beyond your time (GO BACK IN TIME THEN), Power Rangers was about 5 teens who get bestowed with superpowers by a giant head in a jar and his buddy, a robot costume with a little person slowly suffocating inside. And by “powers” I mean the martial arts they already knew how to do for some reason, coupled by a Dragoncon’s worth of crazy anime shit. Bows that turned into guns, guns that turned into bigger guns, and in one very special episode, bigger guns that turned into an MRI machine because Billy had brain cancer. It was . . . misguided.
Anyway, every episode followed a specific curve: Rita Repulsa, who lives on the moon and has nothing better to do than fuck with five specific kids in SoCal, makes a crazy monster and sends it to town. Power Rangers stomp it’s ass, at which point Rita hurls her crazy staff to earth by hand, which she can do because under her weird astro-frock she’s yoked as fuck, and it makes the monster super-sized.
The Power Rangers hop in their separate, prehistoric-themed giant robots, which they then plug together into a larger robot because they already color-coordinate their everyday outfits to their power ranger suits, so fuck it, we passed any modicum of restraint forever ago. They get their asses kicked while destroying half of Angel Grove, until they suddenly remember they can SUMMON A GIANT GLEAMING SWORD FROM THE CLOUDS LIKE ANY TIME THEY WANT. They light that bad boy up and then this happens.
You see the problem here? The Power Rangers have insane tech coming out their butts, but they only use it in this incredibly rigid, limited way. Whenever a problem comes along that they can’t solve with the above routine, they freak out and bring in even more equipment because they’re not using what they already have to it’s fullest potential. Instead of needing to get a second giant robot involved, what if you tried intercepting Rita’s monster-enlarging staff and snapped it in two? Before you add a sixth ranger who’s a total dick to everyone off camera, have you considered letting NASA know that crazy horned space witches aren’t just for Yes album covers, but that there’s actually one living on the moon?
Instead of shouting “It’s Morphin’ Time!” whenever they transform, the Power Rangers might as well scream “We Are The 1%!” because they are incredibly privileged but unable to adapt to change in any way.
Bustin’ (Preconceived Notions of How Much Fancy Equipment A Creative Professional Really Needs to Succeed) Makes Me Feel Good
Now let’s discuss a team that handles their business the smart way, and I’m not just referring to the fact that they decided to hire Ernie Hudson, with all of his smoldering “I’m a New Yorker and I’ve seen it all” sexuality. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.
The Ghostbusters, by the end of the movie, have created a successful business, gone to and gotten out of jail, gotten a recommendation from the mayor, saved New York City from destruction, and created a situation where a ton of budding young teens in the 80s had their sexual awakening while watching Bill Murray bat way out of his league with Sigourney Weaver and crush the shit out of it.
They achieved all of this with the following:
A. Car to get to where ghost is at
B. Blasty Thing to trap ghost temporarily
C. Portable Boxy Thing to trap ghost for longer
D. Bigger Red Boxy Thing to trap all ghosts forever in a freaky purgatory where they never rest and are never reunited with their loved ones in the afterlife
The Power Rangers, as much as I love them, punk out if a big rubber guy doesn’t fall down in three hits. The Ghostbusters fought a literal god and, instead of running back to base to invent anti Gozerian spray or an Ecto Catapult or something (note to self, patent pending on anti Gozerian spray and Ecto Catapult), they pushed the equipment they had to the limit with clever problem solving. And by clever problem solving, I mean risking ending all life on earth and all of our molecules exploding at the speed of light.
As creative professionals it is very tempting to give into the idea that we can’t do our job to our fullest without top-tier equipment, but the fact is that almost no one starts out with that stuff. Name anyone you look up to or respect in your field, and I almost guarantee they got where they are by cutting their teeth on cheap, crappy, or minimal equipment, and only upgraded after they had a higher understanding of what they could do with less.
I’m not saying upgrading your gear in order to solve unique problems is bad. I’m saying doing it in that order is. The next time you run into an obstacle, or a client makes a request you don’t think your current tech will allow, try to find a creative way around it first before giving in to that need to upgrade. Hire a friend who plays that instrument you don’t have in your library. Borrow a colleague’s gear in return for buying them a drink. See if you can find a creative solution in the software or equipment you have now to meet your needs.
If you work this way, I promise that, when you do upgrade your gear, you’ll make smarter choices, and be a thousand times better at your job. Because you fooled everybody into thinking your shitty, free music writing software sounds like the New York Philharmonic.
That’s it for this week, but I’d love to hear from you! Any examples of times you’ve given in to Gear Lust? I know I have. What about times you overcame a tech or gear limitation creatively, without buying something new? How bullshit was Power Rangers Turbo?
P.S. Those free sounds I posted are leaving Dropbox this weekend, so grab them here if you haven’t yet!
Predator is the greatest creative business seminar I’ve ever seen.
Oh, shit, I’m back with the newsletter, by the way. Took some time off for the holidays and to get my sister acclimated to Seattle (she moved in with us until she finds her own place), but was gone longer than I intended. I’ll probably write a post on balancing personal and business goals just as soon as it’s been long enough for everyone to forget how hypocritical it would be for me to do that.
What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, aliens, sweaty beef boys and hot jungle nights, like usual.
The other day, I was thinking about the fact that Jessie Ventura ran my home state of Minnesota for a while. No, not “ran across” it, like he’d just gotten new trainers and really wanted to break them in. Ran it. The guy who somehow managed to perfectlyannunciate the phrase “sexual tyrannosaurus” through a glob of chewing tobacco the size of a Big Mac was in charge of making sure people got their pensions and shit. It got us on the national news for something other than the record number of heart attacks our state fair produced every year, so for the most part, I was down with it.
Later, my wife and I moved to California, where Arnold was already running things. His first act in charge was to knock out all the walls of the capital building with his bare hands, and then hold the entire ceiling aloft over his head wherever he went because “I am de guhvunah, so de guhvunment goes whayuh I go.” At least that’s how I remember it. It was great.
Anyway, that whole train of thought lead me to two realizations:
I live in Seattle now, so either Carl Weathers or the Predator needs to become the next governor of Washington. I’d be fine with either.
Arnold Scharzenegger movies are a perfect lesson for creative professionals on how to create a “supporting cast” that can elevate your work to a level of awesome that will explode peoples’ balls.
We begin, indeed, we must, with a weird hypermasculine mid-air arm-wrestling handshake thingy.
This is a movie where a crab-faced alien with dreadlocks and neon blood blows a grapefruit sized hole in a man’s chest, but if someone yelled “Hey! Predator!” at me, this is the scene I would think of first. The veins in Arnold’s arm have an executive producer credit on this film. I recently started weightlifting, and it’s exclusively so that every time I go to Starbucks I can say “Barista! You son of a bitch” and challenge them to a contest of strength to see if maybe I can get 10% off my frap.
But now imagine if Dillon was played by someone who wasn’t as equally committed to that handshake as Carl Weathers, someone who wasn’t as into male posturing and pumping up them guns real nice. Tom Hiddelston, Jude Law. Andy Dick, maybe. Giants of the silver screen, all of them, but Arnold probably would’ve ripped their arm out of the socket on the first take and swallowed it in front of them, as is the Austrian custom.
In fact, while the whole team is just as committed to being a jacked-out ‘roid monster as he is, they all have unique and varied skills, which is part of why the Predator ends up biting it in the end. You got Jessie the Body rocking that minigun, a CIA agent, a guy who can speak the local language, a demolitions expert, and, in a master-stroke of 80s political correctness, a Native American guy who can, sigh, talk to the jungle. They wind up taking on an invisible intergalactic hunter who’s been wrecking fools for decades, but in the end, Arnold crushes him with a big-ass counterweight, Ewok style.
Do you see what I’m getting at? The only reason Arnold lives long enough to scream “GET TOAH DE CHOPPAH” is because his team was every bit as committed as he was, but they all had different specialties. Sure, like, all of them died, mostly, but the good news for you creatives is that rarely happens when you’re doing game audio or blowing artisanal glass or whatever.
Want another example? How about a movie where Danny DeVito gets Arnold Scharzenegger pregnant?
First off, Danny DeVito and Arnold Scharzenegger look like the end examples you’d see on a chart labeled “Extremes of Human Physical Anatomy.” They look like what would happen if an already ripped dude from a high gravity planet and a toll booth worker from a low gravity planet suddenly switched places. If a mad scientist did an experiment where he took one, perfect human being and rendered all his component parts into two bodies, probably while screaming “What was once ONE, shall be ripped in TWAIN!!!!!!” these two would be what slid out of the tube at the end.
They’re not just different physically, either; nearly everything about the way they perform, deliver dialogue, and their comedic timing is different. Their skill sets don’t overlap very much, but they compliment each other great. More than that, though, they were both equally committed to the 90 minute dumpster fire that is this movie. Akash Thakkar (my friend, sound designer extraordinaire, and resident Junior expert, apparently) told me that, before production started, DeVito and Scharz-dog made an agreement that they’d be in the film for essentially no money up front, but for profit-share on the back end. The producers knew they were making the movie-equivalent of kombucha (in that nobody likes it or really asked for it to exist), they said “sure,” figuring they’d barely have to pay.
The kicker? Because these two actors were talented in different ways, but equally committed, they made a SHIT TON of money off of this train wreck and are still collecting checks to this day.
Ok, one more short one. Jingle All The Way is the greatest Christmas movie that has or will ever be made. That is a statement, moving on.
In this holiday romp about an irresponsible dad waiting until the last minute to get his kid the perfect toy for Christmas, Arnold acts like a cartoon, endangers countless lives, and wins back his son’s love by ruining the Minneapolis Holidazzle parade. And if that was all it was, this movie wouldn’t be the cinematic masterpiece that it is don’t argue with me about that I swear I’ll fight you.
See, everyone in this movie fully commits to being a complete goofball, but all of them do it in ways that Scharzenegger doesn’t. Phil Hartman (RIP) plays the perfect smug asshole in a way Arnold never could. Robert Conrad makes a great straight man as the cop chasing Arnold down, but responds to every crazy situation with the quintessential “bwah bwah bwah bwhaaaaaat?” face. And Sinbad fills this children’s holiday tale with rants about homicidal postal workers and race relations that would just sound weird coming out of a seven foot tall white European.
If even one character had screamed out “but there’s a child in mortal danger and also that human jar of Muscle Milk just knocked a man to his apparent death with a child’s toy” this scene would have a real bummer vibe to it. But it works because the whole cast fills their own niche while being equally gung-ho about making the smartest-dumbest thing that’s ever been filmed.
As creative professionals, we often need to work with other creatives to get things done. If we’re lucky, we get to choose some of those people ourselves. When that happens, choose collaborators who are just as enthusiastic about the project as you, but are amazing at things you aren’t.
In short, remember the Arnold Rule: Assemble a team that shares your vision, not your skill set.
I’m working on a game called Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. We released a trailer a few months back that, I’m proud to say, got a great response, including a lot of positive feedback about the music. I know for a fact that the reason the score worked is because I hired performers who were every bit as psyched as me about the game and understood the direction I was going for, but were amazing at all the things I wasn’t. I can’t sing, play guitar or fiddle a fiddle for jack, but boy, they can. Here, check it out:
So the next time you get a chance to collaborate with people on a project, follow the Arnold Rule. Go out of your way to find those who really “get” what you’re trying to do, but can do things you absolutely can’t. Consider letting them have some creative freedom to put their own spin on parts of it. Chat with them extensively before, during, and even after everything’s done. I guarantee that, once you start collaborating this way and seeing what comes out of it, you’ll never go back.
That’s it for this week, so let me hear from you! Want to share a great team you’ve been on, or plans to put one together? Favorite Arnold quote?
Reply back here, and until next time, I leave you with this precious (NSFW) gift:
So, listen. I know I normally start one of these things with some weird non-sequitur. I babble on about Biker Mice from Mars or phrenology for dogs or whatever, and then eventually ramble my way toward the actual subject I wanted to spend time on. I’m a 90s kid, ok? I watched a lot of Simpsons. Respect the game.
But that’s not gonna happen this time! It’s the holidays! A time for earnestness. Sincerity. Getting shitfaced at Grandma’s and telling Aunt Florette her Etsy store sucks. So, in the spirit of this wonderful time of year, I’m going to start on-topic this week.
Let’s talk about Peter Parker’s sweet, sweet ass.
See, when I was in middle school (“junior high” for all you cool kids who went to school on the set of The OC or Gossip Girl or whatever), I got way deep into pogs. Like, ketamine-bender deep. It was the height of the pog craze which, being in Minnesota, probably meant all the cool kids on the west coast had already gotten over them and moved on to Devil Sticks or Moon Shoes or something.
My parents made the incredibly grievous error of getting me a Milkcap Maker for my birthday around this time. You’d slide in a picture of whatever you wanted, twist the thingy and stamp down on it, and it’d cut a circle out and fix it to an adhesive blank pog.
Do you guys understand? You could make your own pogs. My parents had to know I wasn’t ready to use this kind of power responsibly. I rode my big wheel down a flight of stairs when I was five. And this was before YouTube; I wasn’t imitating Bam Margera. I just thought that’s what “going offroad” was. I mean, they knew what kind of kid they raised.
So of course, I immediately shoved all of my comic books into this contraption and started cutting out pictures of everyone’s butts. Wolverine, Black Widow, Nightwing. Men, women, animals, robots, Marvel, DC, etc. I didn’t discriminate. And you have to understand, these were 90s comics. You all remember what the art looked like in those, right? No, you don’t. The same way you only recall bits and pieces of any tragic event you experience, like a clown car pileup, or an explosion at a ginsu knife factory. Your mind has ways of blocking these things out.
Here! Let me refresh your memory.
I brought a ton of freshly-minted butt pogs to school that week, and because I’m a genius at marketing and human behavior and NOT because I was an idiot kid who got lucky, they were a HUGE hit. I went from being an unpopular loser to being a mildly-less unpopular loser within an insular community of other losers who liked to stack cardboard circles and knock them down with plastic circles.
I was like unto a god. Everybody wanted to slam my stack, if you know what I’m sayin’.
After a while, my fame started to wane, but I was ready. I had a plan. I knew just how ol’ Ryan was going to stay on top of the cut-throat hierarchy of pog culture.
Think about it! If everyone liked what I had to show them out back, wait until they saw the front!
Long story short, I spent a week amassing a new collection of terrifying, 90s-era superhero bulge pogs. Don’t act like you don’t know what I mean.
You can see where this is going. I brought my hideous new gallery to school, ready to blow peoples’ minds with some Andy Warhol-level avant-garde shit. But I was too late. In the span of, like, two weeks, pogs were lame now. Everyone had moved on to Tamagotchis, and since mine ended it’s sad life alone, in my parent’s car in a Sea World parking lot, covered in it’s own digital feces, I’d rather not say anything more about them. It’s too painful. The point is, they were the new thing, and I was left standing there with a literal bag of dicks in my hand.
When you work in a creative field, trends like this come along all the time, and it can be incredibly tempting to give into them when they do. If you enjoy, like, eating food, it’s totally fine to indulge in pumpkin flavored everything in November. But if you were a chef, you wouldn’t only cook with that flavor all the time, right? Or consider fashion; people are always going to follow the latest trends in clothing and try to adapt to whatever designs or traits are up-and-coming, and that’s totally fine! But if fashion designers saw the popularity of drop-crotch pants this year and decided to only make those from now on, the earth would turn into a deep, deep floppy-junk hell from which there is no escape.
I’ll give you an example from my line of work; when indie games were still relatively new, we went through a period where it seemed like the only type of music you’d hear in them was chiptunes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love chiptunes, and it’s obviously a genre that’s still around, doing great, and has tons of fans. But for a bit there, they were everywhere, whether it fit the game in question or not, and I noticed a lot of composers who didn’t really write in that style started making chiptunes exclusively. As if this would be the only type of game music we’d need or want from here on out. When the craze ended and indie game soundtracks moved on to experiment with new ideas, a lot of the composers who’d gotten lost in the trend were left behind, and had to scramble to catch up.
And that’s kind of the point; no matter what creative field you work in, you’re going to run into trends and fads, and getting too wrapped up in them is never great for your work. Trends aren’t necessarily all bad, and it’s actually great to experiment with them! For example, I messed around with chiptunes a bit myself when they were taking over game music. I learned a lot about how they’re made, why people like them, what connections and feelings they evoke in players. I just didn’t write chiptunes to the exclusion of everything else, and so when the industry started obsessing over other stuff, I wasn’t completely left behind.
If you’re not convinced, just look at the trends we run into in popular culture. Read the title of this blog for god’s sake; how many of those things are going to matter or be recognizable in a few months? A year? Hopefully none!
So keep an eye out for whatever the cool “new thing” is in your creative world. Explore it! Learn from it! Try to figure out what makes it so appealing and how you can use it in your own work! Just don’t get lost in it. If you do that, the Tamagotchis win.
That’s it for this week, so let me hear from you? Ever run into any trends or fads in your line of work? How did you deal with them? Did you get sucked in, and what was the fallout if so? Which superhero has the hottest bulge? Let me know!
I had an important lesson to share with you this week, but then I started thinking about 90s cartoons and now everything’s all fucked up.
Let me…let me just work through this for a minute and hopefully it’ll come back to me.
When I was a kid, all my favorite tv shows revolved around teams of color-coordinated teenagers saving the world from robots with brain-squids for tummies and badly animated claymation pigs and stuff. Ninja Turtles, The Real Ghostbusters, Power Rangers, things like that. Those shows were to me what Sex and the City was to adult women in the 90s. I’d sit on the playground with my friends, drinking my Capri Sun out of a cosmo glass; “Oh, Marshal’s definitely a Tommy. He always wears green, he’s a born leader, and he’s the only one of us who wields the fabled dagger capable of summoning the mighty Dragonzord from the depths of the sea.”
Anyway, one of my favorite shows was Captain Planet and the Planeteers. It was about a bunch of kids with elementally-powered rings, and when they combined them, they summoned a muscly blue dude who’s shirt was somehow both a V-neck and a crop top.
There were five Planeteers, and most of them ruled. Linka was a Russian girl with the power to blast her foes with hot, Soviet wind. Gi controlled water, and wore a gold medal around her neck all the time, which was probably the award for “Most Off-Screen Drownings Committed by a Single Person.” Kwame could make literal earthquakes, but who gives a crap because he was voiced by LeVar Burton, and being able to move tectonic plates is weak sauce compared to having Geordi La Forge for a voice box. Wheeler could start stuff on fire, and his name was “Wheeler,” so you know he had a promising future as a lead in a high school sex-ed video later in life.
And then, there was Ma-Ti.
See, the thing about Ma-Ti is that Ma-Ti sucks shit. His power was “Heart,” which is A) Not an element, B) The name of a 70s rock band that’s a trillion times cooler than what his ring actually does, and C) The worst. He had the ability to talk to animals, which, for some reason, he almost exclusively used on rodents. How many squirrels did it take to clean up the BP oil spill again? Oh, that’s right, none, because squirrels don’t give a flying-squirrel fuck about the environment.
He could also use his ring to “instill empathy” in people, which is like…what. What is that. God, that sucks. That’s not a thing. Kwame just swallowed the villain’s base into the gaping, ragged maw of the earth, but it’s totally cool because this other bad guy over here is, like, totally feeling my vibe, you know?
In addition, he could kind of do mind control, and by “kind of,” I mean, not at all, ever. He could beg a rhinoceros for a ride into battle and it would still have the power to kick him in the head and peace-the-eff out. That rhinoceros had the courage to do what his friends could not.
Wait, oh my god you guys! I just remembered what the point of all this was! I’m Ma-Ti! And you can be too!
As creative people, it’s important to know how your work “fits in.” What your niche is. While a few people achieve success by being a jack-of-all-trades in their field, many, many more do it by figuring out what their “thing” is and doing the absolute hell out of it.
But! It’s not just enough to find a niche for your creativity. You have to like the one you find, and that’s a whole other thing altogether. You might be a game dev who’s amazing at making shmups, but if you hate shmups, then none of it matters, does it?
I’ll give you an example; it’s taken me years to figure it out, but my niche is that I’m a very melodic composer. That’s just how I write; some composers base their music on ambience or rhythm, but I like to figure out a catchy tune first and hang everything else on that. That’s my thing. It’s definitely not the only thing I can do, but it’s probably what I’m best at, musically.
Thing is, I used to not like that about myself. Maybe it was all the atonal stuff I studied in grad school, but I used to think it was simple or naive that all I really wanted out of music was to make melodies people got stuck in their heads. Shouldn’t I want more? Shouldn’t I want to push the boundaries of what music is?
It was only when I realized that a massive percentage of everyone’s favorite game music is just catchy melodies that things clicked for me. Super Mario, Pokemon, Zelda, they all have tunes that stick with us, that we want to hum and sing and make our own renditions of.
Realizing that was what caused me to accept my niche as a melodic composer, and when I did, my writing changed completely. I was more productive, more confident in what I was doing, and best of all, the stuff I was making was better received by both me and my audience.
That’s the thing about Ma-Ti. Some people (cough) might think his ability to talk to animals could be equally achieved by spending four minutes googling birdcalls, but he knows what his role on the team is and he goes for it. He’s the emotional core of the Planeteers, and when one of your teammates is an angry ginger who can start fires with his mind, that’s a good thing to have. While the rest of the squad are busy trying to fix pollution by leveling buildings and flooding people’s basements, he’s trying to change the hearts and minds of the bad guys so they won’t want to dump toxic waste in that fish hatchery in the first place. They literally can’t summon Captain Planet without him.
Ma-Ti knows his niche. He knows what he’s good at, he’s proud of it, and he (somehow) kicks ass because of it.
Does finding your creative niche mean you’re only limited to doing that one thing? That you can only write noir thrillers, or only bake mini cupcakes, or only make side scrolling shooters? Of course not. But there’s power in knowing what you’re best at, and accepting why it’s awesome carries a lot of weight. It can turn you from someone who’s good at a specific thing into the guy or girl people come to because of that thing. Even if that thing is a stupid heart ring that wouldn’t even help you get a job managing the robotic mice at Circus Pizza.
So, how about you? What’s your niche? In your creative realm, what are you best at? What’s your favorite 90s cartoon? Does anyone remember Swat Cats? How dope was that show? Let me hear from you!
I’m going to teach you how to get people to love your work. But first, let me talk to you about The Streets.
No, not the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen, where I often imagine I’m a silent, acrobatic protector, defending the city from the creeping tendrils of a criminal underworld until Audrey at Whole Foods yells at me to stop pretending those zucchinis are combat batons and get the fuck out.
No, you guys. You guys. I’m talking about The Streets.
I’m begging you; don’t read any further until you’ve watched at least the first 30 seconds of that. As a millennial, I understand that committing to an entire YouTube video is a lot to ask. Working six unpaid internships and selling your bone marrow to a black market organ dealer behind Jack-In-The-Box just to pay your student loans means you don’t have a lot of free time. But, please, just give me 30 seconds. And don’t just listen.
This is an English rap group called The Streets, and they are professionally, and completely unintentionally, the worst. They sing out of tune, they clearly show up to their music videos in whatever they were wearing that day, and I love them.
Oh, what’s that? You want another? Despite the fact that you’re vigorously and definitively shaking your head “no,” I can see your heart, reader. You need this. No, no, don’t get up.
In this video, he rhymes “yeah, yeah, I do want it” with “chips and drinks.” He’s got a stack of polaroids as thick as a fresh ream of printer paper despite the fact that this song came out in 2004. At one point, he stops to accuse an investment banker who bumps into him on the street if he’s “smoking crack or something” and it has so little to do with the rest of the song that I’m convinced it actually happened during filming and the editor was so bombed on Four Locos that it got left in.
So why have I gifted this incredible cultural treasure to you? Because this week, I want to talk to you about recognition, self-worth, and believing in your work, and through a hilarious cosmic joke, it turns out this band is the perfect example.
As creative people, we all crave recognition for what we do. Whether it’s from friends or family, our professional peers, fans, or just a few anonymous likes on Twitter, recognition is often the fuel that keeps us going, keeps us moving on to the next project. It’s certainly not the only reason we make stuff, but it can often be the thing that gives us the drive to soldier on when we miss out on that great gig, or when writer’s block has been hounding us for days.
The problem is, a lot of creators seek recognition from others first. They freeze before they hit “publish” on that next article, before going out on stage, before submitting that next big track to a client. The tense up and wonder “Will other people like this?”
They crazy thing? It totally doesn’t matter.
Agonizing over whether or not an amorphous, non-defined group of strangers will like a thing you’re working on doesn’t bring fans. It doesn’t bring recognition. Even if you successfully managed to tweak and twist your work into something that has massive appeal, now you’re stuck with a group of people who love a fake version of yourself that you only made up to make them happy. And what’s worse, you probably hate the thing you made for them now.
If you want recognition, and the financial and spiritual success that comes with it, the only question you should be asking about your work is not “Will this make them happy?” but “Does this make me happy?”
Absolutely not. They did all of those things because they thought it was cool. And yet both the videos above have over a million views. They’ve sold out shows, have numerous hit singles in the UK, and throngs of adoring fans who legitimately like them for the stuff they wanted to make anyway!
This is what happens when you work to please yourself first, and stop worrying about how to make a bunch of made up strangers happy. Your fanbase will grow, you’ll gain that recognition, and it’ll be because of work you truly believe in. Is it a harder, longer path than simply trying to pander to the largest, most bland crowd possible? Totally. But if that was all you wanted out of life, you’d be Michael Bay. And no one wants to be Michael Bay, not even Michael Bay!
This tactic of putting your own creative desires first can even win over people who don’t like what you’re making. When I was in high school, me and some of my friends listened to The Streets ironically. And rural Minnesotans don’t even know what irony is, so this was some advanced, theoretical-physics level poop behavior we were working with. “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we actually listened to this stuff?” we’d say as it blared out of our stereo on one of our many runs down to Dairy Queen before meth addicts eventually turned it into a molten hole in the ground, filled with used “cookin’ spoons” and flaming popsicle sticks.
But Here’s The Thing: The Streets are so genuine in what they’re doing, so 100% behind whatever baffling musical decision they’ve just made, that I actually just like them now. They have a song called “Hotel Expressionism” that’s about being so good at utterly brutalizing a platinum suite at Holiday Inn that you’ve elevated its destruction to an art form, and I get it stuck in my head ALL THE TIME.
So please, the next time you catch yourself wondering if you’re making something that will appeal to others, something that’s “proper” or “right” or “acceptable,” stop yourself and, instead, ask if you’re making something that appeals to you. When you eventually start getting that recognition, and you will, it’ll be for something you actually don’t hate.
Your turn! What projects are you working on right now, and what do you like about them? Was there a time when you changed your work at the last minute to make others happy, and how did it go? Which Streets song is your favorite, and why is it “Sharp Darts?” Reply below and let me know!
Let me tell you about my (literally) deepest fear.
See, I’m absolutely terrified of the deep ocean. Usually, the word “irrational” would appear somewhere in that last sentence, but I’m not being irrational, you’re being irrational mom!
Sorry, that got away from me a bit. So by “deep” ocean, I don’t mean the pretty, sparkly blue part that makes up the first couple thousand feet or so. That’s where dolphins romp and play and, I assume, press their blowholes together to make hilarious water farts when no one is watching. Ariel lives there when she’s not rearranging her entire life and everything that makes her special so that a boy will like her!
No, when I say “deep” ocean, I mean the black part at the bottom. The part closest to hell, where there’s no light and the pressure alone could crush your skull like an empty Capri Sun. The part where this lives:
This happy fellow is called a black swallower, and I’m very afraid of it because it’s called a black swallower. H.P. Lovecraft monsters think about this thing when they’re walking to their car late at night in a bad neighborhood of the Far Realm.
“Well, fine, but that’s gotta be a special case right?” I can hear you asking. “Not everything down there looks like a sketch H.R. Giger threw away because it was wigging him out.” Well to that, reader, I say SURPRISEVIPERFISH
Nature forgot to tell this thing that you’re only allowed 2 fangs per mouth. Not every tooth can be a fang, viper fish. Oh, also, they’re so huge that it literally can’t close its jaws, and its eyeball looks like a window into a purgatory full of unfulfilled souls. So there’s that.
Need more convincing? Goblin sharks are real creatures that live on the same planet as us and can smell your nightmares from thousands of miles away.
Ocean. *Snaps fingers* OCEAN. Enough.
So why am telling you about this realm of horrors that scares the shit out of me? A place that makes up MOST OF THE EARTH, I might add?
It’s because I want to talk to you about fear this week. It’s because, as creative professionals, we deal with fear constantly, and on a daily basis. Fear that we can’t do it. Fear that we aren’t good enough. That we won’t get the gig, that people will hate our work, that everyone will figure out we’re frauds, etc.
It can be crippling at it’s worst, and anyone who tells you they never deal with it is a liar.
But don’t worry; I’m going to tell you two simple ways you can deal with fear in your creative life! While I’ll be speaking from the viewpoint of a composer for games, this applies to any creative field, whether you’re in game dev or not.
1) Make a Plan
Feeling fear is one thing, but part of the reason we stay afraid is that we don’t prepare for what we’d do if that fear came to pass. Not only does planning ahead help you face your professional fears head on, but the very act of making a plan at all makes you less afraid in the first place! Neat, huh?
I’d encourage all of you to make a list of your professional fears sometime in the next week. Literally write it on paper, like an old person. Try to focus your fears into tangible events, rather than vague notions of “everything will be awful forever.” Again, this makes them less scary and helps you obliterate the shit out of them.
Then, write down one or two things you’ll do to if this fear comes to pass. I’ll give you a few examples of my own fears/contingency plans:
Fear: People will hate my next track.
Plan: Remind myself that literally every great artist who ever lived (John Williams, Walt Disney, The Rock) has made or helped create absolute garbage to get where they are (Superman Returns, Racism, Pain & Gain). See what I can learn from the track no-one liked and apply it to my next one.
Fear: I won’t get the gig I want.
Plan: Spend the night drinking and playing Metal Gear Solid V, wallowing in self pity. Then, the next day, get back up on it and start reaching out to developers I’m interested in working with, because there are a near infinite number of cool games being made right now, and they all need music.
Fear: James Cameron will try to coax me into his submarine and drag me to the bottom of the sea on one of his I’m-A-Crazy-Bajillionaire expeditions.
Plan: I will plant my feet firmly, make eye contact, and say “No, acclaimed writer-direction James Cameron. No. You get back to Hollywood and come up with more stupid names for fake minerals to appear in Avatar 2 where you belong.
See? Many or even most of the fears you write down will never even be a reality, but if they do come up, having a plan in place reminds you that you can’t control your fear, but you can control how you handle it.
2) Remember You’ve Already Won
This one’s even more important. I got the chance to chat with Auston Wintory (Journey, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate) a bit at Indiecade a few years back. When I was asking for advice on how composers like me can forward their careers, he said this cool thing (paraphrasing):
“Just by getting out of the house and being here, you’ve already done it. Even if you don’t make any new contacts or get any new gigs, you’re better off than if you just stayed at home.”
As a creative person, think about what your professional fear’s ultimate goal is. It’s to make you stop. Make you quit. Step away from your piano, put down your brush, close the novel you’re writing and never open it again.
If you’re creating the thing you love right now, or on the path to being able to so (school, internship, whatever), then you’ve already won. Whether or not you’re acclaimed yet, whether or not you can support yourself with your creative work (if that’s your goal), as long as you keep making the thing you want to make, it doesn’t matter if every fear on your list comes true. The absolute worst-case scenario for every single thing you’re afraid of is that you give up and never come back. Just by posting that blog, or starting that YouTube channel, or drawing a few more panels of that comic book, you’ve stopped your fears from doing the one thing they want to do more than anything: shut you down. And it only gets easier; the more you create, the better and more confident you get, and the more your fears shrink and fade.
Being creatively afraid is totally normal and ok. But our fear of failure is a lot less scary when you realize it has absolutely no power to make you stop doing what you do.
In a minute, I’m gonna talk to you about creativity and being the best artistic version of yourself you can be and blah blah whatever. But first, let’s talk about a gorilla in smart business wear with a hoarding problem.
See, I’ve always been kind of a closet Donkey Kong fan. Donkey Kong Country taught me how to enslave rhinoceroses and turn them against their fellow jungle creatures in a sickening display of bacchanalian power. Donkey Kong 64 is still one of the greatest games on the N64, which I’m aware is kind of like saying “I found some costume jewelry in the dumpster behind a Value Village, and it was way prettier than all the the other garbage” but still. Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat gave a struggling mid-2000’s America the bongo peripheral it needed to overcome the housing crisis. I could go on!
But did you know the original Donkey Kong was ported to Atari 7800? I didn’t, so when a friend told me about it, I hurried to YouTube to look it up and found:
Oh. Oh god.
It sounds like something a horse would write if you taped a potato masher to it’s face, parked it in front of a midi controller and started juggling apples. This is the musical equivalent of that split second before you realize the killer is wearing your mailman’s face as a mask.
So why did I do this to you, other than the fact that Shigeru Miyamoto would crawl out of my tv and eat my brain in seven days if I didn’t?
It’s likely that many of you reading this are in a creative line of work, or looking to get into one. Game audio, game dev, glass blowing, whatever! In creative fields, we spend most of our time using our talents for someone else’s vision. We get to put our own spin on it, but in the end, it doesn’t completely belong to us.
This is why I want to encourage you to take the time to make something for yourself.
It’s incredibly important as a creator to step away from hired work every now and then and simply be alone with your talent. No restrictions, no guidelines except the ones you choose to set. Are you a chef who’s got a kickin’ Wasabi Cupcake recipe that no one’s ordering? Fuck it, make a batch at home! Got a neat idea for a manga series about a detective who solves historical crimes via a time-travelling pogo stick, but publishers aren’t buying? Screw the man, draw a few panels anyway!
I myself am working on an 80s-inspired horror album, some YouTube piano covers, and, along with a friend, the music for a Phoenix Wright fan game. I can pretty much guarantee that none of these projects will net me any money, but the important thing is that I’m doing them for me. I get to decide every aspect of how they’re put together. I get to try weird, experimental stuff if I want to. I get to truly get to know myself artistically, and when I go back to my next for-hire project, I’m more in touch than ever with my creative voice and what makes my work unique.
If you don’t occasionally take time to step away from paid gigs and just make art for yourself, your work could end up like that horrifying musical homunculus above. Warped out of shape, out of touch with itself. Barely recognizable for what it is.
Don’t be like Dankey Kang up there. Take some time, even a few minutes a month, and creatively treat yo’ self.
Your turn; what passion projects are you working on currently, something you’re doing for you and you alone? Which ones have you dreamed about, but just haven’t dug into yet? Reply and let’s chat about it!