Where can I find music for my game?

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If you're an indie game developer then I want to help you get the most out of the music for your game. I want to help you punch above your weight and create memorable, unique game experiences that connect with people. Why? Because I love brilliant indie games and because I love to compose music for creative, original projects. 

In this blog I'm going to talk you through the process of getting music into your title, from bespoke composition to licensing existing music. 


Where can I find music for my game? 

For indie game developers finding freelancers to bring the project to life is essential; Large studios can afford full time, salaried staff members to take care of every stage of development but that doesn't mean that smaller companies can't create equally compelling experiences. 

Some of the games that have connected with me most recently have been indies, with standout titles such as Firewatch and The Banner Saga high on my list.

So where do you find a composer to bring the soundtrack for your game alive? 

Before we get stuck into answering that question I'll ask you to make a value judgement. Ask yourself, how important is music to the success of my game? 

The importance of great music

If you want your title to connect with people on an emotional level then music is very important to you. Nothing speaks to our emotions more directly than music. You need only imagine something like the final scene of Blade Runner and the famous Rutger Hauer "tears in the rain" monologue without the underscore, to know that this is true. 

So if you've decided that a great soundtrack for your game is indeed vital, it's time to answer the first question, where can I find music for my game?

I know what I like

If you listen to a lot of music or watch a lot of films you might have a clear idea about the kind of soundtrack that you're interested in. If so, I'd encourage you to make a list of the composers who's music inspires you. 

Once you've done this you can begin your research. 

Search the composer's name in YouTube, Soundcloud or Spotify, make a note of the soundtracks that you like the most and the label or publisher if that information is available. Whilst many of the composers you like may be out of reach, as established composers can easily command fees upwards of £100,000, you can hunt for lesser known composers who sound similar. Using a platform like last.fm or Spotify for similar artist recommendations can be very handy at this stage. 

Research is really important! It expands your knowledge of music and establishes clear goals for the soundtrack of your game. As is common in the film industry I'd recommend downloading a couple of tracks that you think work really well with your production and dropping them into the scene as a temp track (temporary track - intended to be replaced). Although you cannot use this music in your final release without acquiring the proper licenses you can at least start to get a good sense of how the music is working with the game. Also temp tracks can be very useful guides for the composer that you eventually choose.

Once you've made a shortlist of potential composers have a dig about online for past work and demos of compositions that you can audition. Try to get a feel for each composer, for instance do they sound versatile, can they work in different genres or are they focused on one particular style of music. Some composers also produce the music and have access to their own studios and sample libraries. This can greatly influence how cost effectively they can produce music for you. 

As a guide you can get an idea of the quality of the production by comparing music made by the prospective composer to the commercial recordings you're using as temp tracks. If the work is good you shouldn't notice a qualitative difference between the two productions. 

Generally speaking the composes you want to look out for are those who are on the up, composers that are producing high quality material but are still approachable with a simple email or phone call. 

It's worth mentioning sites like indiegamemusic.com and the Unity jobs forum as good hunting grounds for potential freelance composers. 


An original soundtrack for my game

Commissioning an original soundtrack for your game is perhaps the best way to achieve the best fit soundtrack for your production. An original soundtrack has the distinct advantage of being written to scene with the express intention of creating the right mood for your title. 

So having found a potential composer for your production you'd like them to produce an original soundtrack for your game but how much is it going to cost you? Well, this is a hard question to answer with any certainty and you'll need to get stuck in with negotiations. 

My advice is to be realistic from the beginning. Ask up front if the composer will do the gig for the money that you have available. It's also worth remembering that you have the potential success of your game to trade with. If you've developed significant press or any developer accolades share this information right away. It never hurts to share your success with people and invite them to be part of it. 

Composers are not risk averse people. Being a composer is a risky business and composers are usually well aware of the risk associated with a new project. However, you have an option in negotiations to offer the composer some incentives, namely a percentage of future income derived from sales i.e. shares in the game. 


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Intellectual property, publishing, licenses & Royalties

On a large budget production the composer can be employed under a 'work for hire'  contract. This is where a fee for composing the music is fixed at the beginning of the process and the intellectual property is owned by the game company. Effectively the composer is seen as an employee of the producer and the producer who commissioned the score owns the music. This way the game company can control the terms of use for the music and collect any royalties. The composer having sold the copyright is no longer able to influence future use of the music or collect royalties. 

If you don't have the budget to buy the rights to the music and a lot of small indie companies are in this position, then you'll most likely be working with a licence. 

What is a music license?  

In the UK when a composer puts pen to paper the music that is written is automatically afforded copyright. The only legal requirement is that proof of the date of authorship be provided in the event of a copyright legal challenge to establish authenticity. 

A licence is a legal document that assigns permission to exploit the copyrighted music for commercial gain. The licence stipulates the terms under which the music can be used and for how long and provides a legal framework for the licence holder and the copyright owner to work together. The composer being the copyright holder grants a licence to the game company in order that the music be used legally in the game. Licenses vary in cost and scope depending on the music involved and the terms that are being agreed to. 

There are two types of licence: 

  • Exclusive -  Where the owner of the licence is guaranteed that the music will not be used in any other productions for the duration of the licence.
  • Non exclusive - Where the owner of the licence may use the copyright material but is not granted exclusivity; additional licences could be granted to a third party by the copyright owner at any time. 

If you're looking to buy 'off the shelf' compositions from a library such as Audio Network the terms of use will be clearly stipulated in the licence agreement along with the cost per track. 

So wether you commission an original soundtrack or want to use existing music you will need a licence or contract to legally use the music. 

Publishers

Sometimes licensing a great track can work really well. As an example I was reminded of how much I loved the game Homeworld when it was announced that the original Relic game was being remastered for a second release. 

Homeworld prominently features Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, which is not only Barber's most famous work but is also the perfect piece of music to lend the game a wonderful melancholy. I remember often playing the game just to inhabit the emotional space that it created. 

If you want to use a piece of music that already exists the chances are that it's controlled by a publisher. Effectively the publisher looks after copyright issues for the composer and collects royalties generated form sales of the music or any synchronisations: where the music is placed in media such as film or game. The publisher deducts fees for managing the music and writers have the peace of mind that the money owed them is being collected. 

As I mentioned earlier, when hunting for tracks and composers make a note of the publisher. If you have an existing piece of music in mind for your production it's worth contacting the publisher to enquire about purchasing a licence for using the music. You won't know the costs involved until you make the query but it's worth checking to see if it's something you can achieve. 

As a ballpark figure expect between $5,000 and  $10,000 for a 'buy-out' but as mentioned before prices vary...a lot! 

Royalties

Most games companies toady are operating with the 'buy-out' model. This is also how many film companies now work. It means that royalties are not payed on each copy sold like they are with CDs or downloads. However, this means that the game company has to have the money upfront to purchase a 'buy out' license or secure contract to commission an original soundtrack. 

However, if you're a small company with limited budget you might be able to secure the services of a good composer by offering some extra incentives. Obviously this is entirely up to you but it's with consideration, especially if your budget is tight and you want to get the very best quality music for your money. The composer also has the opportunity to earn extra money for taking the risk to invest in your game by composing music for a low fee but with the potential to generate more income in the future. 

Another incentive you may offer the composer is making the soundtrack available as a soundtrack album. Mechanical royalties generated through the sale of records is typically shared between the composer and the label releasing the soundtrack, although if the game company has negotiated shared ownership of the soundtrack this income could be a valuable source of additional income.

The royalties can be collected by an appointed publisher or directly from one of the collection societies such as PRS or ASCAP. 

If you'd like to dig deeper into the world of publishing and learn about the potential gains to be made by understanding intellectual property and copyright law there's lots more information available at the PRS For Music or ASCAP websites.


You get what you pay for or don't pay for!

There is much discussion online about wether using royalty free music for your indie game is a good or bad idea. As the term suggests the copyright and licenses allowing people to use the music are free of any charge.

Whilst this sounds great ask yourself another quick question. Do I know of anything that's free and also of superb quality? 

Mostly I would say the answer is probably no.

The problem with free stuff is in the very nature of it being free! People that are invested in their craft and passionate about what they produce don't tend to give it away. They want other people to value it and to invest in it with a degree of sincerity. So why do people give their music away? 

Musicians like many creatives want to have some acknowledgement of their work and hopefully affirmation that the work is good. With so much music in the world it seems that it's increasingly difficult to be heard and coupled with this abundance of music is a remorseless devaluation of recorded output, driven by decades of poor business practice on behalf of labels and aggressive competition from outside the traditional music industry in the form of Apple, Spotify et al. For many musicians the desire to be heard and the difficulty of making a living writing music are the driving forces behind giving their music away for free, hoping to be discovered by a well intentioned label who will make their dreams come true. The rub here is that most of the music that labels are interested in happens to be the music that's already making money and Facebook likes and nice comments don't keep a roof over your head or the lights on. 

Unfortunately there's also a sting in the tail and it's a point that is equally valid in the world of indie games. Once you've given something away for free it becomes increasingly hard to encourage people to invest in your work and pay for it. 

Often and not surprisingly royalty free music is of inferior quality both from a production point of view and compositionally. It's often being given away because it ultimately has little potential for commercial use. As I mentioned earlier you can perform an A B listening test, where you compare the royalty free music to a professionally produced track that you're inspired by.


Conclusion

So, now you know some of the important points about securing music for your game it's time to get hunting. Here are some of the key points to remember: 

  • Listen to lots of music
  • Gather detailed notes
  • Contact publishers and composers
  • Negotiate and offer incentives
  • Secure the correct license or contract

I hope that this blog has been of some use to you. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or hear anything you like at JoffWinks.com.

Good luck with your search. 

Joff Winks

Greetings my name is Joff Winks I’m a musician, composer, teacher, professional daydreamer and passionate advocate of the arts.