I was exceptionally lucky to have stumbled/lied my way into a dream job designing sound for video games twenty years ago, and am even more fortunate to have somehow made a career out of it. Sometimes people ask me how I’ve managed to stay afloat in this tumultuous industry having braved numerous crunches, layoffs, studio shutdowns, moral dilemmas, and crises of confidence. When most people ask me how I’ve persisted, my usual answer is “luck,” which I feel– at least in my situation– is one of many factors. There are plenty of other facets at work here: a strong work ethic, persistence/doggedness, good interviewing skills, etc. But every situation is different, so I decided to canvas the greater industry, asking people with ten or more years experience how they’ve managed to keep going in order to distill down some useful advice on how to maintain a career and stay relevant in this ever-shifting industry. Many of these tips and processes seem obvious on the surface, but how we go about them is critical and when we get too tied up in other facets of our work, sometimes we lose or forget about these other important factors, so it’s always good to remind yourself.
Define your goals/expectations
Perhaps the easiest thing to overlook when thinking about how to stay in your job is yourself. Staying healthy and trying to do things that make you feel happy or fulfilled can be crucial to making you want to stay in such a kooky industry.
Kristen Quebe points out the importance of, “taking time for self care,” and this cannot be overstated. Burnout is a critical factor in many people leaving the industry too soon. Therefore, it’s important to continually ask yourself what you want to be doing, or as Matthew Grimm puts it, “what kind of work environments make you happy? Is it more important to work on a major title or to have a work life balance that is more manageable?” Work situations are often not so binary, but you need to be taking time to check in with yourself and make sure you’re doing what you want to and not harming yourself long-term as a result.
For Kenny Young, his drive is, to create sublime work. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve that, but I’m more than happy to spend my days trying. It’s nice to have a goal you can’t achieve because it’s impossible to fail, all you can do is get better/closer.” This continual practice of self-reflection also transcends where you work or who you work with. Kenny notes, “if you’ve stopped growing, it’s time to move on. Everything is built on top of your love of the relationship between sound and the moving image. If you ever find yourself lost or adrift, come back to this foundation stone because it’s a great lens to view career decisions through.”
Which brings us to one of the more obvious, yet critical keys to longevity in a creative industry: passion. Passion can take the form of many different outlets from the mantra “always be recording” to it’s equally important cousin brought up by numerous people: Always be learning. We live in a very fluid industry and one thing you must do to stay relevant is, as Mark Kilborn says, “Always be learning new things. Always be developing your skills. Always be looking for inspiration.” These are key practices echoed by many.
Mike Niederquell sums it up as,”’love what you do.’ If that holds true, you will continuously educate yourself with trends, workflows, processes.” Kristen Quebe similarly mentioned the importance of, “learning on all fronts. Listen with intention, work on skills that make you a good collaborator, always study and take time to practice and follow what others are doing.” This brings up a great point: our industry is one of collaboration. Few projects are done solo and relying on colleagues whether audio or non-audio people is critical to achieving– and maintaining– success. More on that later, but this sentiment is echoed by Kenny Young with the brilliant advice to, “seek out the best of the best. Be inquisitive. Ask for help and guidance on your quest. Always be a student. When you stumble upon something that moves you in a profound way, learn everything that you can about it. When you start to dig in to how these experiences came to be, one truth that becomes inescapable is that collaborations and creative relationships are everything. Without mutual trust, support, encouragement and respectful criticism all you will ever achieve is ‘good’ work, ‘nice sounds’. Which is totally valid as a starting point, but if you want to create meaningful work – “the good shit” – sublime work, then you can’t and won’t achieve that on your own.”
We are very fortunate then that our industry is a very open one in that there are numerous resources for dialogue with colleagues. Kristen Quebe recommends we, “develop support systems and mentors, mentor others.” For Ariel Gross, “one thing that has kept me afloat in this industry is my reputation, and the way I got that was by helping people, and I think that helping people is a tried and true method for staying relevant in this field. Probably any field. Take time to listen to people, think about them, help them, and be there for them when they need someone.“ Audio people are generally a very communicative sort and the regular meetups of sound people around the world are testament to the availability of like-minded people to discuss and grow your skills and continue to fan the flames of sonic passion.
It is this combination of inspiration, passion and learning that keep many people fresh and relevant in this industry. There is always something new to learn, whether that’s a new technique, a new skill, new terminology, a new scripting language, or developing a new audio system. Once we stop learning, our skills and our passion begin to atrophy. In order to stay relevant we need to be able to know where our industry is and be able to speculate where its going. Furthermore, to keep our creative juices flowing, we should be continually challenging ourselves creatively. Clark Wen brought up an example when, “working in house, it’s easy to rest on your laurels and become complacent. . . by focusing only the projects I was working on instead of doing more extracurricular, exploratory work.” It’s easy to fall into these traps, especially as work can often consume our and make it harder to carve out time to try new things or learn new concepts, but to be successful you need to make time for yourself to continue developing your skills.
As noted above, our jobs are never solo efforts, so while taking care of yourself and maintaining your passion and inspiration are so important, it’s also critical to treat others with respect in order to maintain relevance and longevity in your career. Clark Wen advises, “Always be respectful of your peers! Thank people if they’ve helped you and always be looking for ways to return the favor. It’s a small industry and you better believe I’ll remember someone that treats others like dirt!”
There’s A LOT of talented people out there and no one like to work with a jerk. So, as Mark Kilborn advises, “Always keep your ego in check. Always serve the project. Be kind.” Matthew Grimm adds to this by noting the importance of learning, “the value of humility. Finding value and knowledge in your current role, no matter what that might be.”
Whether you’re a contractor or generally work in-house, a positive attitude and friendly demeanor goes a long way. Martin Kvale has found sucess by being, “fair, open and treat people well. If you are a freelancer, communicate and give notice when you realize you will be late.”
Somewhat related here is not just being respectful, but also realizing that when working with others, another core competency is to be, “very flexible and very well-rounded,” as Jeff Hinton suggests. Adam Croft expands on this by, “serving everyone I work with unbelievably well. I always make sure I get what I need, but not at the expense of others.” This allows you not only to sharpen your talents and create a more diverse skillset, but makes you a person who’s easier to work with, and if there’s one way to make people want to hire you again and again, it’s by being both talented AND amiable.
The Social Network(ing)
Staying connected can be the most uncomfortable part of staying relevant and employed for some people as it requires some level of extroverted behavior, but as mentioned above, the relationships we form at any point in our career can help us in the future. Being respectful and being flexible are core to having good working relationships, but you also need to maintain those relationships and there are so many ways to do so via networking, social media, and just keeping the chain of communication open with others. There weren’t any big surprising comments about this but nearly everyone brought up the important of keeping in touch. Clark Wen brought this up and realized that, “The work I’m doing now is largely because of people that I met back in 1997 and 2000! My biggest regret is that I didn’t keep in touch more with my other coworkers as I never gave much thought to it back then.” Mark Kilborn also stressed the importance of not just cultivating and maintaining contacts with audio people but to, “establish friendships in the industry, both in and out of game audio specifically. Be kind. Don’t burn bridges.”
Matthew Marteinsson may be the poster child for networking skills. Although professional he’s known for work on lots of great indie titles, he’s made a name for himself as one of the hosts of the popular podcast, Beard Cats and Indie Game Audio, running the popular Game Audio Slack, doing demo reel evaluations with Reel Talk, coordinateing the CarouselCon at the Game Developers Conference every year in addition to helping with the bi-annual Game Audio Bash meetup. To top it off, even though he lives in Vancouver, on a nearly monthly basis he will, “drive 3 hours to attend Seattle meetups.” While his motivation is largely to share and gather information and stay in touch with friends, all of these activities collectively form into a strong network of contacts and part of maintaining relevance is to nurture the relationships you have and continually develop new ones.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with networking is that’s it’s not a fire and forget task, it’s something you need to always be following up on. As musician D-Hydrate, mentions networking is, “not just meeting people and exchanging information, but keeping in contact and checking in with them periodically to see how they’re doing and what they’re working on. This is especially true when you’ve been booked for awhile on a particular project and if people know you’re busy on that, they won’t bother you with more work. So staying in touch and letting people know when you are available is important.”
There’s a lot of strategies we all employ to maintain relevance and stay employed. And while I think luck plays at least some small role for most of us, it is a combination of some of these concepts listed above that gives us the foundation to continue to grow, evolve, develop and maintain relationships and stay employed. Together we change our industry as our industry changes around us.
Special thanks to those who contributed to this post: Adam Croft, Ariel Gross, Clark Wen, D-Hydrate, Jeff Hinton,. Kenny Young, Kristen Quebe, Mark Kilborn, Martin Kvale, Matthew Grimm, Matthew Marteinsson and Mike Niederquell.