13 min read

Free Music and where it fits into the game industry.

A hot topic among composers at the moment is that "free music is crippling the livelihoods of workers writing music for games and other media". I explore this controversial subject and offer advice on how to make things work.

Hot Topic

I am a moderator for the facebook group "Video Game - Composers & Sound Desginers" (, one of the hottest topics in the group is about how much should a composer charge, should composers work for free, or give music away? Its a topic that just never seems to die down.

This particular week a composer called Fabian Gremper posted the following: 

Hey. I make free music for video games.  This new track is inspired by casino sounds – and it definitely feels like you're winning  smiley . This and all other tracks for SUPER GAME MUSIC are licensed under Creative Commons. You're free to use them in any projects of yours.Let me know what you think!  smiley Have a great day.

Jeff Lawhead then quipped :


and Fabian replied :

Fabian Gremper If this is ruining the industry, then the industry is in really bad shape yo 

Nils Orwell didn't agree :

Nils Orwell Well...the industry is in a pretty bad shape actually. because of the amount of people that are offering stuff for free to everyone (not only music). In general i think everyone who has contributed to a commercial project, should benefit from it financially, because if people want to pay for a game, then your work has a value to it.

In your case I would give those tracks to either nonprofit projects (there are tons of them out there) or to student projects. And leave the commercial market for people who are working for money. 

My view is that writing music like this and giving it away under a creative commons license is great, as it doesn't really effect the work for hire composer industry. Mainly because publishers, and developers really do want to own all their assets, and they also like their assets to be original and exclusive to their product. So this is great for no budget indie developers who like Fabian make games content for fun. But anyone intending to monetize their release will want it to be exclusive and owned by them. There will of course be exceptions to the rule, there always is, but highly unlikely.

I am more concerned that composers offer to work for funded developers exclusively for free. But there is just no justification to work for a funded developer for free. But that doesn't mean a composer cannot choose to work for a revenue share if the project is exciting to them. Not all dev's have funding, especially if they are just starting out. I have recently offered my services to 3 indie developers to work on a revenue share deal, because I like the people and the projects they are doing.

Julian Beeston had this to say :

Julian Beeston FREE = BAD Bad for the industry, bad for you, bad for me, bad for everyone trying to make a living in this field or any other related field. Please don't offer you're services for free unless it's a registered charity or your brothers' scout group cake sale.

I don't believe that free music non-exclusive music affects AAA productions in anyway. I feel that this is more an issue of the so called "indie" scene, where indie means home made, or low budget teams that are doing it for fun in the hope they make a living from it some day. Yes, the app store is a wash with home made titles that use free resources, but I don't see those games as part of the professional side of the industry - however that does not mean that they are not quality games and worth buying, its about how they are made. I just cannot see the impact it has on the likes of established premier developers like Rebellion, Rock Star, and Sumo Digital.

But not everyone agrees with me, Sylvio Pretsch had this to say.

Sylvio Pretsch The industry is in a bad situation! A lot of well-known composers had to look for a normal job to be able to earn enough money to pay their bills because a lot of music producers like you offers their music for free. This is really bad! Why do you offer your music for free? Did you get your music equipment for free? I'm sure you paid a lot of money to create your own recording studio. Everyone of us has got fixed costs every month! We have to pay the rent for our recording studio and our flats. We have to pay for foods, insurance and other things. And when somebody wants to use my music he or she has to pay for! Your music equipment can break at any time where you need money to let it be repaired by a technician or where you need money to buy you something new. That's not nice what you are doing

Syvlio's reaction to Fabian is common amongst professionals who make their living from writing music, but I think that there is a misunderstanding between what constitutes as professionally made, and what is hobbyiest work.  In part this is an issue with the Indie Scene in general because teams, and individuals present themselves as professionals, but the hard truth is that the true difference between being a professional and a amateur is not, talent, ability or skill, it is simply down to if they are funded or not.  Indie Developers will bristle at this distinction because they feel they are doing quality work (and some are!), and that they conduct themselves in a professional manner (which some do!), but when it comes down to clearly defining if you are a professional company or not, funding is the very heart and soul of it.  

Definitions of Developers

At this point in the discussion it occured to me that part of the issue for both developers and composers was they didn't clearly understand where they slotted in with each other at the various levels of developer within the industry, from bedroom indie to boardroom giant.

Self Funded or Bedroom Developer

An indie with no capital, and no up front milestone funding from a publisher. They are self funded, a solo or small team, and perhaps are all working from home. My advice to those teams is to find a composer who is in the same position. Don't ask established composers for their help for free, most will just ignore you, some might be polite and say no, and yes others might join your team and do it for a revenue share later. But never expect composers who make their living to just want to work for nothing because you ask nicely. I wouldn't mind free bus rides into town, but the Bus driver won't let me on the bus even if I ask nicely.

Now lets flip it, if you are a bedroom composer, you need to think about who you approach. If you have a kick ass portfolio then you can aim as high as you like, and chase those very rare jobs that come up at the major publishers and developers, but it is more likely that you will be looking for work with people who are in a similar situation to yourself.  Embrace this, find teams via the various support sties like: Indie Gamer

or : TIGSource Forums

Profit Funded

So lets say you run an indie company that has made some money, in my view you are now "profit" funded. You are using the profit from your first game to fund your next game. Now if the profit was below a certain threshold then you are still technically "self funded", so stick to plan A. However if you do have a few thousand kicking around, and you fancy having a composer with a proven track record, or if you have always liked a particular composer then maybe some of that budget can go on audio. You need to decide how much you want to spend. Never think about it from the point of view of "how cheap" because that's the wrong way of thinking. You have a budget, and lets say you have a composer in mind. JUST ASK THEM, it really is that simple, send them an email, tell them your budget, and ask if they will do it. Now if your budget is £50 per minute of music. Lets hope the composer who you love isn't busy or in a bad mood, because that's at least £200 short for a reasonable level of experience. Now if your budget can stretch to £200+ per minute of music. Then you will be taken seriously, and you can expect professional behavior and quality material. Now of course if your composer hero is Jesper Kyd, or Marty O'Donnel then you might need to have an even bigger budget. But then again you never know. Be polite and ask. 

Now a note for experience composers, do not dismiss these approaches out of hand, ALWAYS take a look at their game first, they may be creating the next Minecraft, or Angry Birds, or Tomb Raider.  It is always worth considering what these small developers have to say, it might be small money now but it "could" lead on to the most rewarding experience of your working life, both creatively and financially.

Funded Small Developers

"Funded Small Devs" well, you have made it this far, you are doing well, and you have a milestone based contract with a publisher. Or perhaps you have crowd funded your game on Kick Starter. Again its similar to "profit funded" in terms that you are looking for a professional composer who is known in the industry and has a good pedigree of games behind them. But there are other options, you might want to hire someone if your year on year budget can now support this. Getting an audio producer (like me), someone who can do all the audio jobs on a project can be a GOLD MINE for some small funded dev teams. I have done some stellar work where I have been the only audio person on the team, making everything and implementing it all - its quite an amazing thing to do, and in the long run you can really save yourself money, especially if you have multiple games in development for different publishers. When I worked at APE, I worked on several titles over my 2 years, but if I had worked freelance on each one, I would have been paid twice as much, so they saved well.

Working in house seems like a great gig, and to be fair it is.  Its a regular wage and you get hardware and software bought for you, and you'll be working on games all the time, and have lots of things to focus on, this can be some of the most rewarding work you will ever do, however!

There are some pitfalls, not being your own boss can be frustrating for some people, also working directly with other people in an office can be difficult, especially if there are bad apples there who make things hard for you, this can be soul destroying.  As a free lancer you seldom suffer this kind of behavior but sadly it is common in most work places not just our industry.  Another pitfall is that you may have to move a long way from your home town to follow your career.  The final and worst part of working in house is that permenant does not really mean forever.  Redundancies happen, and sadly in the video game industry they can happen even if a project was successful, so be mindful of that and make sure you are invaluable to the company, or make sure you have an escape plan if the worst does come to the worst.

Funded Large Developers / Publishers

"Funded Large Devs" - This "should" be obvious. Hire an in house team, or use professionally qualified external contractors, and stick to your budget. I've hired audio teams for Frontier and Acclaim, and that is a whole new level of complication, because then you have to manage them, as well as doing other audio work. It can get quite complicated. But by this stage the company "should" be well setup and know how to hire the right people, for the right money, and get great quality games out of the door.

Composers and other sound people who work at this level know how the industry has changed over the years, and those that have continous careers have evolved with the industry, there is little I can say to you, except that you will need to keep evolving and changing, and that may mean embracing the indie scene as well, doing some low paid work, not for the money but because you are creating amazing works of art, so pick wisely and enjoy.

Summing Up

Clearly composers feel that free music harms their chances at getting paid work, but from my experience, most Funded small devs and upward will always pay for exclusive music. I do think there is some confusion, certainly with members of the gaming community between what is a "proper" development company, and what is essentially a team of talented people, who just do not have the funding in place to hire composers. I am approached on a weekly basis by teams who want me to work for them but have no grasp of the difference between their setup and what a company like Rebellion, or Frontier actually do. I admire the people working in the "indie" scene, I think there is some exceptional talent there, but they are not business men, they are not registered companies, so to me there is no surprise that some of them have no clue about how to behave with professional people. But these guys probably do need composers like Fabian, so they can get there first game out and perhaps take that next step up to being in a position that they can pay for music, and perhaps they will come to Fabian and say - hey man, we are doing a sequel to "insert unicorn joke name here" and this time we can pay you XXX for YYY but can you do us some exclusive music this time, and then maybe the next game they will be well funded and they suddenly realize they have come from bedroom to boardroom, and now they have to understand scary stuff like Corpation Tax, Copyrights, and Health insurance.


Tim Haywood is an Audio Director, Composer and Sound Designer of 25 years of experience

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