Jeffrey Carter, chair of Webster University’s department of music, was walking down a Thompson House hallway last January when he ran into junior music composition major
who casually mentioned a piece of news that stopped Carter dead in his tracks.
Fendelman told Carter that he had written the music for a game that, at the time, was being featured on the front page of the App Store.
“He’s walking down the stairs, and he stops,” Fendelman said of Carter, who replied, “Wait, what?” Fendelman suggested that Carter open up his phone. Carter did so, saw what Fendelman was talking about, and said, “Oh, wow. I’ve got to send an email about this!”
The game, called Crashlands, an action-adventure, role-playing game, was a featured application on the front page of Apple’s App Store for two consecutive weeks.
“That was crazy,” Fendelman said. “Just being able to open up my phone, clicking the iTunes Store, not having to do anything and just seeing it on the front page was the coolest.” In the two months following its January 21 release, the game was downloaded more than 200,000 times.
Fendelman and his business partner, Berklee College of Music graduate Patrick Crecelius, created the game’s music. The game itself was developed by St. Louis-based Butterscotch Shenannigans. Fendelman and Crecelius co-own the music company Fat Bard. They met the owners of Butterscotch Shenanigans at a 2013 game jam and, within a year, were given the green light to begin making music for “Crashlands.”
Fendelman and Crecelius knew they were going to be part of something big. One of Butterscotch Shenanigans’ previous releases, “Quadropus Rampage,” has been downloaded more than 2 million times. “Crashlands” — which costs $4.99 to own on Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store and $14.99 on Steam for PC play — has provided Fendelman a revenue stream unique for a college student.
“These are the kind of student success stories that people want to hear,” Carter said. “Any time I hear the good news of a student doing something well, we want to make sure we trumpet it. … [When I found out his game was on the front page of the App Store], I was so pleased for him. I was pleased for us. And, honestly, I thought, ‘How cool is this that we have a student who’s having this kind of success even while he’s a junior in college?’”
Fendelman found his passion for music at the age of 12. He’d research random facts about the bands he liked and watched episodes of VH1’s “Behind the Music.” He also picked up an instrument — the guitar — for the first time at that age.
Fendelman taught himself to play by watching YouTube videos of guitarists — from professionals like Jimmy Page and Buckethead to random musicians he just stumbled upon. Fendelman didn’t take a guitar lesson until his freshman year at Webster.
“I wanted to play guitar for the girls,” Fendelman said. “Then, when I didn’t get girls, I realized I liked guitar better, so I just did it anyway.”
Fendelman also wanted to learn guitar so he could be in a band. He first got that opportunity in 2007 when he joined an after-school band, Boom Group, run by a music teacher in the Rockwood School District.
After that, from 2009 to 2010, Fendelman played for Turbulance. In the process, he learned he enjoyed writing songs just as much, if not more, than playing guitar or singing. Fendelman then joined Nintendo power-pop band Losing Controllers, which mostly played covers of video-game songs. He was in that band for four years.
Fendelman, who plays a Fender Telecaster left-handed, has been the lead vocalist and guitarist for the band Lobby Boxer for the past three years. Lobby Boxer is composed of three Webster students. The band went on an eight-day, seven-city tour during Webster’s 2016 spring break, and then followed that up with a two-week nationwide tour this past July. Fendelman, who plans on graduating from Webster in May 2017, hopes to continue playing and touring with Lobby Boxer as long as time allows after college comes to a close.
“This guy is a go-getter,” Carter said of Fendelman. “We’re teaching our students how to do and what to do, and Zach is already doing it. He just came off a tour with a band. He has this music-writing business on the side. He has had some success with a team of app developers and hit it big on the Apple website. On top of that, he is just a really nice guy.”
After graduating from Clayton High School in suburban St. Louis in 2013, Fendelman knew Webster would be his next educational stop. He wanted to stay in town and had heard good things about Webster’s music program. Additionally, he liked the idea of attending a college small enough to allow him to highlight his many talents.
Fendelman didn’t know how to read music at the time, so as he prepared to audition to get into Webster’s program, he picked up a jazz song and classical prelude by ear. The third song he selected to play, appropriately, was “Big Blue” from the 1990 Nintendo racing game “F-Zero.”
“They got a kick out of it,” Fendelman said. “They were laughing while I was shredding. I don’t know how often people do stuff like that.”
Though he initially applied to be in Webster’s music education program, toward the end of his freshman year, Fendelman settled on music composition, as he realized that was his passion.
During the summer of 2014, Fendelman spent a month interning at Mutato Muzika — a music production company established by Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh — in Los Angeles. While there, Fendelman learned about film scoring.
He was hooked. Fendelman hopes one day his video-game music will help him break into the competitive field of film composing. One of his other long-term goals is to be a pop-music ghostwriter. He thinks doing it all — be it film composing, performing and writing in a band, creating music for video games — is feasible in today’s industry.
“I feel like dipping my feet in a bunch of different things is going to be beneficial in the long run,” Fendelman said. “I want music to be my actual career. Today, you can’t really just do one. You have to do it all. That’s what people always told me when I was younger. So, every time I had an opportunity to do something musical, I just said yes. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t.”
Since he’s been at Webster, Fendelman’s music decisions have certainly panned out. In addition to “Crashlands,” Fendelman and Crecelius have composed music for about 20 games. One recent release, “Blitz Breaker,” has garnered positive reception from players and positive reviews from gaming sites. They also have created music for the games “Cards and Castles,” “Iggy’s Egg Adventure” and a John Deere holiday children’s game.
Though he sometimes will plug in his guitar to record a segment, Fendelman does the vast majority of his work on the computer. He uses a program called Pro Tools, which he described as “GarageBand on steroids.”
Fendelman said Webster has been instrumental in teaching him to trust his ear when he listens to or makes music. Webster’s classes also have taught him how to read music and the importance of theory, which has helped him in the creative process of developing music. Perhaps most important, Webster has helped him to maintain his individuality.
“When I came here, like most people, I wanted to reinvent myself and do something different,” Fendelman said. “I rediscovered my own personality. After my freshman year, I just said screw it and did whatever I wanted and wore whatever I wanted. And that actually really helped with the music, too. I stopped caring about what other people thought of me and just did what I wanted to do.”
That mindset already has paid huge dividends. And “Crashlands” — with its thousands of downloads and high aggregate rating of 93 on Metacritic, a popular review site — appears to be only the beginning for the Webster junior. That’s certainly the way Carter sees it.
“The world is at Zach’s feet,” Carter said. “He is so talented. He has so many reference points he can draw on. He doesn’t speak only one language. He’s OK thinking in orchestral terms. He’s OK thinking in rock terms. He’s OK thinking in jazz terms. This makes him, musically, a much stronger presence in the world.
“And I think this kid is going to go a long, long way.”