A burned-out jazz musician in recovery: my halfway report

I made a career transition away from music to become a video game sound designer in 2023

A burned-out jazz musician in recovery: my halfway report

Hi! My name is Jamie, I’m a burned-out jazz musician in recovery. I made a huge career transition to become a video game sound designer in 2023 and this is my half-way report. This article is about sharing my experience, it is not intended to provide any advice or guide in switching careers.

How it started

After a ten year career in jazz, I had finally gotten to a place that 20 year old Jamie had dreamed about. I had released two albums, I was gigging all the time and playing at venues I had fantasized about. I was touring, I even got to the point where I was turning down cool opportunities because my schedule was so packed.

But I wasn’t happy. I got burnt out. Like, real badly. I had many physical and mental health problems caused by stress over the past few years, I was barely hanging on and struggling to survive.

Eventually I got to a point where I couldn’t ignore the emergency signals that my body was sending. It made me really scared. Why am I feeling this way? I’ve done my best to make my situation better and from the outside looking in they were better than ever. No matter what I did, it felt like I was crawling in a dark tunnel that had no end in sight.

Yeah, I know that’s pretty doom and gloom. But I’m not writing this article to commiserate, instead I want to share an important message to anyone struggling out here.

Give yourself a chance to be happy.

Why no music?

I had to re-assess my situation and reflect on why this career path was not working out for me. There were two main reasons. Firstly, not having strong enough boundaries between my music life and my personal life. Secondly, the lack of financial stability.

Music was so deeply integrated in my life that I was always working. It was impossible to escape from my work. When I’m eating dinner, I’m thinking of my next projects. Whenever I hear music, I’m analyzing it for ideas for my next composition. When I have free time, I feel guilty that I’m not practicing. The life of a self-employed artist does not let your mind rest. Music was my life and the only life I knew. Therefore, realizing this was the source of my problem was not fun. The only way I knew how to recover was to cut it out of my life completely. Cold turkey.

How did you do it?

Before I begin to share what I did, I want to remind you that if you’re a self-employed musician you have SO MANY valuable skills that will translate into other industries. The specific skills I harnessed myself were diligence and networking.

When I started transitioning careers, I had quite literally no idea how anything worked in the game industry. In the Vancouver music scene, I know many wonderful people I can turn to whenever I need help. But at that time, no one I knew had experience in video game sound design let alone game development. I knew I learnt best from people rather than reading books or watching YouTube, so I had to find someone that could guide me and feed me information. So I did the same thing I did as a musician - I went hard on networking.

I introduced myself to the game audio community on twitter, discord, and slack. I let people know that I am a noob that needs help and that I am eager to get my hands dirty. Also, I joined a few game jams which gave me the first taste of game development. For those who don’t know, game jams are events where you team up with strangers to design a game in a short time-frame, typically a weekend. Working in the game jams was a low-stakes way for me to meet people and confirm to myself that I really enjoyed this new way of creating.

Additionally, I found mentorship programs and scholarships. Through these programs, I have met many amazing people around the globe who went further than just answering my questions. They volunteered their time to show me around the software I had to learn, resources I could use, reviewing my designs and CV, giving away gears for free, and so much more. I found my community and they welcomed me with big open arms.

One thing I want to emphasize here is that I wasn’t afraid to show my inexperience. Now, this wasn’t some kind of bold move to show vulnerability, it was about knowing exactly who I was and what I needed. On the other hand, I wasn’t shy to show my progress, and it eventually led to my current job at A Shell in the Pit.

How is it going?

It’s going great so far. I have all the perks that I wanted from this transition: work life balance and financial stability. The people I work with are inspiring, and the work I do gives me fulfillment. I’m also giving back what I can to the community. I spend some free hours each week reviewing people’s work, sharing my experience, creating talks and giving away my old gears.

On a more personal level, I enjoy listening to music now! I used to refrain from listening to music unless I had to for work reasons. Now I have my pop punk playlist I rock to all the time.

I’m doing a ton of self care! I do therapy, eating healthy food, working out, trying new hobbies, and so on.

I have time to spend with and for my people! I have more energy and time to take care of my people because of the boundaries I set. And this makes me really happy.

What’s next?

I’m still in recovery from my burnout in music. It’s a complicated feeling and I don’t know how exactly I’ll navigate this in the future - but I’m hoping to come back to it next year. All I know is it will look very different from what I was doing as a full-time musician.

In the meantime, I’m focusing on my game audio career. I still have lots to learn and lots that I want to achieve. I have some talks coming up at various game development conferences in the summer and fall.

I am happy. And I’m glad I gave myself a chance to be happy. And you, who are reading this article, also deserve to be happy. Give yourself a chance to live the best version of yourself and be kind in the process. Self-awareness, mindfulness, and determination can take you far and I’m rooting for you.

To hear more from Jamie, listen to this episode of the Vicarious podcast: