When a Commission Conflicts with Your Brand
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
In 1970 a struggling, young, unknown actor named Sylvester Stallone made a soft-core pornographic movie as he needed the money. At the time, a fully justifiable situation for the aspiring, penniless actor, but a decision that perhaps didn’t age so well in light of his wider career and brand image.
That’s a pretty radical example and I’m not about to admit to doing anything quite as extreme. However, keeping the above in mind, I’m sure most musicians have said or done things at times in their careers that conflicted with their artistic brand image. I recently found myself at a brand-conflicting fork-in-the-road of sorts; I wanted to take on a paying commission because I was excited about the project and the music (and the money), but I was also unsure of what it could mean for the OSC brand that I’ve carefully cultivated over the last six years.
Flashback to February 2019
I received an email enquiry via my website about a video-game soundtrack commission. The long and short of it was that they wanted loop-able versions of the two tracks from the EP Girls On Bikes (“Girls On Bikes” and “Lipstick & Lollipops”) and to have several new pieces of music composed in the same vein. They were also in need of some 60+ sound effects.
I took the commission as it looked like a lot of fun, presented some interesting creative challenges and for reasons discussed below, really appealed to my love or retro, 16-bit video-gaming.
Why The Conflicted Feelings About The Brand-Alignment?
I take the OSC brand image very seriously. I like to think that you could look at any and all OSC online content with your kids in the room; i.e. it’s family friendly, doesn't push any agendas, has no bad language and certainly no adult-only or NSFW (not safe for work) content.
With this in mind, I’m sure you can appreciate my internal conflict when we consider that the soundtrack commission I’d agreed to in February was an animated soft-core pornographic block-puzzle video-game entitled “Crawlco Block Knockers”. Yeah… I know, right! How do I square this circle…?
Why Not Just Work Under a Pseudonym?
The developers wanted to use two tracks from Girls On Bikes and the rest of the music would be pretty unmistakably me. In the unlikely event that anyone who's familiar with my music were to play the game, they would probably (and correctly) join the dots very quickly, identifying the music as that of OSC.
Being called out for hiding behind a pseudonym in this context has the potential to backfired against my brand image. It would suggest having double standards and/or showing weakness of character or conviction. As unlikely as this turn of events might be, I believe this has more potential to undermine and harm my online brand as opposed to being open and upfront about the soundtrack work.
Furthermore, when starting the project I had high hopes for the music and I knew I'd want to share it with my audience, for their sake as much as my own. I needed however to figure out how to justify the work to the OSC brand-image and possibly anyone in my fan base who might look negatively upon the project, given its mature themes.
It’s a 16-Bit Thing!
Let’s dig a little deeper and explore why I decided take on this soundtrack commission under the OSC banner in spite of any initial branding concerns.
Firstly, the game is graphically stylised with a 16-Bit aesthetic (in-game screenshot pictured on the right). If you have read my article about the Yamaha DX21 and/or followed me on the social network for any time, you’ll know I’m a massive 16-Bit video-game fanboy, so this was a major plus-point and definitely on-brand with OSC.
Secondly, to better understand this gaming style and its ethos, we need to return to the world of 1990s Japanese video-arcade games. Crawlco Block Knockers spiritual roots lie firmly in 1990s, Japanese, adult-themed arcade video-games like Gals Panic and Pocket Gal, whereby upon completion of a level/stage, the player is presented with animated depictions of women in suggestive poses. As the levels get more difficult, the women wear ever-less clothes, culminating in images of a topless women.
Setting aside the nudity, we have 16-Bit aesthetics and paying homage to niche video-games from 1990s Japanese video-arcades. These two aspects are most definitely on-brand with what OSC is about, and a key aspect I'd like for my fan base to understand.
The Nudity Issue
It's fair to say that the nudity is inescapable! The developer's description on the Steam listing (before viewing the game) is as follows:
"Gameplay revolves around revealing illustrations of partially or fully nude adult women in suggestive poses, including depictions of breasts, nipples, and butts. Players may opt to partially or completely obscure these images via in-game options. Images appear in sequence to suggest a burlesque or strip show as items of clothing are gradually removed. Stripping elements are intended to be positive and consensual."
This more or less sums up the game's premise and it's clear to see how the above-mentioned games (Gals Panic and Pocket Gal) are strong influences on Crawlco Block Knockers. It's important to note the above point of "positive and consensual" as if the game utilised notions of voyeurism or other exploitative themes, I would not have taken on the project.
Below are some screenshots of gameplay (none are explicitly nude).
The key aspect I want people to understand is that it's not all about the nudity. The nudity is infrequent, and a small piece of the wider puzzle (so to speak). What motivated me to be involved with this project was the great gameplay mechanic, the well designed action and puzzles, the nostalgic charm of the graphical style and the overall notion of homage to a largely forgotten style of Japanese arcade video games.
Considering my fan base and how they might look upon this commission, I believe that on the whole, the lighthearted and cartoonish nature of the game would unlikely trouble most (if not all) of my audience. I hope also that my audience will recognise and appreciate the dedication to the 16-Bit video-game era.
As a parent however, I’m very aware of how easy it is for kids to stumble upon things they shouldn’t whilst online. I therefore studied the age demographics of my audiences across several streaming platforms and reassuringly found that a significant majority of my fans and followers are between the age of 25 and 45.
All things considered I decided to proceed with reserve and caution. As an example, here is the concept cover art (left) verses the finished revision (right).
On the left is the first mock-up of the cover art and it's rather in-your-face! On the right we can see the final version in which the female figure has been set back, amidst the background artefacts. Not only does this help better convey the 16-bit aesthetic, but also results in a more modest tone with the emphasis being placed on her face and Streets Of Rage style city-scape, as opposed to her cleavage.
I will not post risqué or revealing imagery from the game on my social network and have prepared artwork without any girls on whatever just in case. I will also forewarn readers of the adult nature of the game, detailing the 18+ nature of the game in BandCamp, SoundCloud, YouTube listings and so on.
Lastly, I also decided to write this article on my blog explaining my motivations and reasoning behind releasing music of this nature (which is what this article is). I hope I've been able to convey the lighthearted and multilayered aspects of this game that will help readers see beyond the mature themes and appreciate the level of commitment to design aesthetic across the game's graphical, gameplay and audio development.
Final Words on the Crawlco Block Knockers Soundtrack
I must say just how great the developer was. We were in almost daily communication via email and we had a shared Google-Drive folder into which I would put works-in-progress for feedback. They were very professional, supportive and also frank when things weren’t quite right, offering detailed descriptions of what I should aim to improve. Professional, yet always friendly. If Cosmi Kankei ever contact you for soundtrack work, take it from me, they’re great to work with and given the chance, I’d happily work with them again.
In all, the project (nine pieces of music, two edited revisions of tracks from Girls On Bikes and 60+ sound effects) was turned around in a month (in the days and evenings around my regular job). I’m very pleased with and proud of how the music shaped up, and I’m very excited to have composed for an entire game of this scale (more than just one or two tunes as I've done in the past), and one that’s actually seen completion and release (I’ve worked on similar scale projects but sadly they were stifled by outside influences and never saw the light of day).
Most importantly, I wanted to achieve two things with this soundtrack. Firstly, to fully capture the game’s feeling and for it to be the perfect companion to the visuals, and secondly for this soundtrack to stand up on its own two feet as something that can be enjoyed and appreciated separately from the game. I hope I’ve gone some way to achieving both, justifying my choice to take on a project that isn’t wholly typical of what one might expect from my brand image. Furthermore, I hope that this article has gone some way to shining a light on the historical context of the game's ethos and can lead listeners to have a heightened appreciation for exactly what the game is (more than just a puzzle game with some nudity in it). Whether I’ve achieved this or not, only time will tell, so I'll wait with cautious optimism for feedback from gamers and music fans alike.
If you wish to check out the game for yourself and see what all the fuss is about, you can do so here (obviously follow that link in the knowledge that you're heading towards a game that features nudity and adult themes). To hear the soundtrack, head over to my BandCamp listing, or check out the soundtrack as part of the game's DLC on Steam.
And just for the record, in case anyone was wondering; if the protagonist was female, rescuing men in states of undress (or any other gender/sexuality combination you care to think of), I'd have still just as happily taken on the commission (and likely written an article like this in support of my decision to undertake such work).