Featured, Game Music, Indie Music

The VGM Industry – Game Music, Composers & Fair Work

October 2, 2015 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook The VGM Industry – Game Music, Composers & Fair Workon Twitter

It’s often hard as one who simply appreciates game music and isn’t in the industry to really know what happens behind the scenes with regards to how game music composers and game musicians are treated. I would wager that a fair share of us are relatively ignorant as to the trials and tribulations that game music writers and composers face when trying to obtain and keep a steady flow of reasonable work, and what sacrifices need to be made.

Recently the hashtag #PerformanceMatters appeared trending on Twitter in regards to the plight that video game voice actors face in the games industry in terms of fair work for fair wages and worker’s rights. The hashtag made the general gaming public aware of some of the poor conditions video game VAs face from some of the biggest names in voice acting and got people talking. It also started to raise questions about how other aspects of video games fare in terms of treatment of their respective “parts”. Internet and Youtube game reviewer John “Total Biscuit” Bain raised the question as to how video game composers might also be treated in the industry.

This inquiry received responses and started a auxiliary discussion about just how the different levels of video game musicians and composers fare in what has become an increasingly difficult industry to break out into. Musical talent from up-and-coming and indie through AAA chimed in on the topic with varying answers, such as game-inspired musician Gavin “MiracleofSound” Dunne.

This response seems to be a popular one for younger indie composers, which would make sense when one is trying to break into an industry that has grown as large as gaming has, where everyone is competing to bring about the next Halo or Silent Hill. How does one break out into the spotlight when the market seems to be saturated and, much like artists, some are willing and able to work for peanuts just for a chance to get noticed? This could easily be manipulated by shrewd game creators and studios, or simply those that are too new to know how to compensate their music composers fairly (if they can at all, in terms of budget).

However, it seems as though it’s a tough situation for a good many composers, even those with a foot in the door already. Dren McDonald has composed for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Commander and the game adaption of Transformers: Age of Extinction, while Jimmy “Big Giant Circles” Hinson started arranging music on places like Overclocked Remix and now has written music for Borderlands 2 and Mass Effect 2. They offer their own insight.

Probably not a lot of folks, outside of composers who’ve been around a while, understand how our rates have basically been frozen. Nothing nefarious about it, just market supply/demand that has kept the base rate for the majority of composers at roughly the same rate for 15 years. Kind of weird that this has occurred, and there are now other options available to composers besides straight buy outs since indie and mobile games have become a real force. We can make creative deals that include full rights to our music, selling the soundtrack ourselves etc…so these things help in situations where one works on a high profile game that isn’t a buy out.Dren McDonald

This offers a bit of clarity on exactly what does happen behind the scenes for some game composers, and not simply those just beginning to enter the scene. The need to be savvy with one’s musical creations is a high priority for game composers who might not be making big bucks on high-profile titles. Certainly you can find some rather recognizable names selling the video game soundtracks of which they composed on their personal Bandcamp or iTunes accounts, such as Jake Kaufman and Danny Baranowsky. When you aren’t the Marty O’Donnells or the Jason Graves’ of the world with credits on AAA title soundtracks, the need to have as much control over your music is paramount.

Certainly, even big names in the game music community have gone through their fair share of struggles to make it where they are. Austin Wintory (Journey, The Banner Saga) only recently was announced as the composer for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, but started nearly a decade ago on indie games like flOw.


“The problem is that we have no metric for defining “fair.” I’m of the philosophy that we set our price, and if someone pays it, it means that the service we provide is sufficiently valuable for someone to agree to our price.

Do I think I’m paid fairly? Yes. Do I think other composers are too? I’d have to say yes. If they agree to take the job, they’re agreeing to its pay.

None of this means its’ easy to make a living wage in games by writing music. As with all creative fields, it’s brutal out there, at every tier of the industry, for all of us. Most who aspire to write music for games likely won’t make it (though not because they’ll fail, but because they’ll give up at some point). I’d just never call that unfair so much as how supply/demand works.”Austin Wintory

Another question to be raised is one regarding the concept of unions for game music composers, much like game voice actors have SAG-AFTRA, and if they should be considered. Wintory himself butted heads with the American Federation of Musicians, not over wages, but when they accused him of violating what Wintory called “failed policies” with the creation of The Banner Saga OST, which ended with his leaving the union. There are other musician’s unions, both local chapters and international, though concerns over contracts and composer rights negotiations can cause some level of trepidation if one does not understand the intricacies of such things. One wonders, in terms of both composer compensation and complete representation of composer rights with regards to their music overall, should a dedicated organization representing specifically video game composers be created if one does not already exist?

Clearly, it’s a complicated situation no matter how you slice it for a lot of game music composers, both homegrown and international. Every video game composer should be compensated as fairly as any other tier within a game’s creation, be they voice actors, artists, or developers. A greater number of games in production lends to a greater need for good music, thus the demand exists. It now seems like a matter of who is able to hang on for the wild ride that has become the video game industry and who gets off the rollercoaster after the first hill.

So what are your thoughts and opinions? Are you a game composer with some additional insight? Should there be greater representation for video game composers and musicians so as to prevent unfair wages, especially for newer indie games? Should new regulations be made determining rates for game composers, or are they good where they are?

Addendum: Big thank you to the musicians and composers who shared with me their knowledge and experience on the topic. All quotes and tweets were used with permission.

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