How to Become a Video Game Music Composer
Video Game Music Industry is Growing.
When it comes to monetizing your original music, one of the fasted growing but least mentioned markets is the video gaming industry. Consider this, in 2018; movie industry revenue was around $40 billion while video gaming revenue was around $80 billion. It’s fair to say that a video game is basically a movie that allows you to interact with it. As such, just like a movie, it requires a sound track, and it’s here that the original music composer can find a market for their music. However, it’s important to note that the video gaming environment places certain demands on the composer. These are summed up by Brandon Young, Activision Blizzard Inc.’s Director of Music Affairs.
Video games are nonlinear. We have audio engineers who do the implementations. They have to set up the music as stems that can be layered. For instance, if it’s Call of Duty and your guy is standing in the corner and it’s quiet, you need that to be low. When the action starts happening, you have to program it so it starts bringing in the different layers of stems to create that action feel behind it, which isn’t done in any other medium. The composer has to understand that early on, before we get into our projects, that we’re a nonlinear product; how to write and adapt for that.”
The sweet spot for video game soundtracks is high energy, instrumental music—from hard and aggressive rock to hip-hop and electronic with dark overtones. One of the biggest names in video game soundtrack composition is Nobuio Uematsu who created the soundtracks for the long-running Final Fantasy series. You can hear his work on Spotify.
Another noteworthy composer is Austin Wintory who’s soundtrack for Journey (Sony Playstation game) was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.
Know Your Market.
The number one piece of advice for someone seeking to sell their compositions for video game soundtracks is to know your market and be prepared. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row or Max Payne feature dark, edgy provocative music. Games like Super Mario, Zelda or Super Smash Bros. feature more melodic and upbeat music. While you are learning about the market, research who the gaming company’s music directors are. The aforementioned Brandon Young states that he listens to, and sometimes hires, composers directly from his email inbox. But before you rush out to send him an email, you need to have your ducks in a row. This means your music needs to be original, and you need to own the rights to it. You need to have a portfolio of your work. If you don’t yet have video game placements, you can snag some footage of a game from YouTube, strip out the existing music and insert your own composition. Finally, before sending out an unsolicited email to Brandon, or any other video game’s music director, make sure the music you send them is streamable—asking a busy music director to download a file will almost certainly create a negative impression. And make sure you conduct yourself professionally and have a viable social media presence.
Network a Lot!
The number two piece of advice for someone seeking to sell their compositions for video game soundtracks is to network. It’s a comparatively young industry which means that opportunities abound, but the path to these opportunities is constantly morphing. This means attending, and participating in game conferences, game jams, indie game meetup groups and make sure you follow up with those you meet. Two important conferences are E3, an annual event, and PAX which has six conferences per year (In the US it has an East, West and South Conference) plus a developer conference, an unplugged conference and an Australian conference.
Other Avenues to Get Your Music Placed
Other avenues to get your music into video games is to place it on Tunecore where a $75 one-time fee allows you to submit unlimited music for placement in video games (as well as Film and TV shows). They’ll take 15% of royalties or 20% of sync fees but can gain you valuable exposure and access to those who are seeking music for video games. They also handle the legal stuff—term limits, credits, royalties or one-off payments, licensing, etc.
Indie Game Music is another resource you might want to look at.
And about the Money…
Payment schedules vary and are negotiable. The going rate for a royalty deal ranges from eight to 15 cents per composition and buyouts range from $2500 to $30,000 and up. In-house music composers start around $50,000 per year, with veterans getting paid $200,000 per year and up. Another compensation schedule is the per-minute rate that runs anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars a minute. The average video game uses 60 to 90 minutes, so this can really add up. For anyone desiring a career in music, the video game industry is a fast growing, developing market where it is still possible to directly contact they key decision makers.