Does working for free devalue the game audio profession?

The sound of money

Recently FluffyLogic launched a competition asking fans to make a track for its new social game Ur Zoo.

The competition invited composers to submit a short piece of music.

The winning entry will feature in the game and the musician’s name will be included in the credits. Interestingly, this sparked some heated debate on various game music forums, the Game Audio Professionals group on Linkedin, and FluffyLogic’s website. It really caused quite a stir.

Some of the opinions raised included: ‘This is just a way of getting free music,’ ‘You are devaluing games music,’ and moreover ‘This is really detrimental to game composers,’. And then there was the old chestnut ‘Anything you get for free will not be as good as something you pay for,’.

I would like to look at some of these points in a bit more detail as I think they shed light on a few memes floating around. I will make my position on this clear. I am a musician and sound designer. I run a record label called Deathsucker Records and I work as a freelancer for a local indie games company; FluffyLogic.

I have worked on most of FluffyLogic’s previous titles. Whilst producing a lot of the music myself we have also made an effort to source music produced by local – and some international – young musicians and composers. My contacts through my record label have been a good source for this.

In its recent game Eat Them! released on PlayStation3, FluffyLogic commissioned original music from two composers and licensed music from three UK record labels. That’s eight composers in total, who were all paid for their labours. For its 2009 title Savage Moon: The Hera Campaign on PSP, FluffyLogic commissioned music from four local musicians as well as myself. I mention this as it is an example of our attempt to bring young, enthusiastic people into the industry, if only in a small way.

A lesser known fact is that both of FluffyLogic’s directors create music themselves and have snuck their own tracks onto these games: one of which was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award for Best Original Video Game Score in 2010.

“FluffyLogic has supported musicians by commissioning original music for all of our games and it has always been a feature of them,” explains FluffyLogic CEO Ana Kronschnabl. “We are a small independent company and know how hard it is to get into the industry."

So does giving away your music for free devalue it? You could argue that if you gave all of your work away for free as you would never make a living. That is pretty obvious. But if you ask most well-established composers both within the games industry, and outside, how they got noticed, the answer that comes back is unsurprisingly that they gave their music away for nothing. In doing so they found that producers who liked what they heard called them back and offered them paid work.
On the flip side, nothing could come of giving your music away for free. But if you don’t give it a go, you will never find out.

There seems to be a big shift going on in the music industry currently. Certainly, as far as that sector is concerned; record sales have been dropping and illegal downloads increasing. This does not mean that fans are no longer paying for music. They pay when they like what they hear, and when they feel they are getting something more than an arguably overpriced £12.99 CD.

Bands and record labels are being forced to get creative in finding alternative ways of generating income; many bands will offer their music free to download and make their money on gigging or on merchandise.

There seems to be a similar attitude at work within the games industry; well-established music composers who have been in the industry for years wouldn’t dream of working for nothing. However, if you are a young musician with no previous experience how are you expected to get a foot in the door?

Game development is a bit of an arcane art and ways of entering the industry are not widely known. In fact, if we look at it, how do you get your music into computer games? Answers on the back of a postcard to ‘I would like to get a job in computergames, 8-Bit Recordings Rd….’

That said, game music has come a long way since the early days of Space Invaders in 1978. It is finally being taken seriously. This is evident by the number of awards that are popping up. Since 2010, the Ivor Novello Awards has included a category for Best Original Video Games Score, and in 2012, the Grammy Awards will include video game music as part of its Visual Media award. It’s wonderful that game composers can now have their scores played out by a full orchestra, and get paid for the pleasure.

However, the gaming industry has been mimicking its older siblings the film and television industries. Orchestral soundtracks are the norm for triple-A titles. So without the chance for new blood to enter the games industry, creativity will ultimately suffer. 
Having run a record label for the last 10 years means that I am actively involved in the new styles and sounds that are appearing on the electronic music scene. This is an exciting time for music producers who now have access to professional audio software at a price that won’t break the bank.

Anyone with an interest in music can now set up a studio in their bedroom or garage.

Of course, having all the right kit doesn’t mean you’ll instantly be as good as the pros. But what it does mean is that musicians have an opportunity to create music themselves, to experiment and push the boundaries of what’s gone before. There is a wealth of talent out there waiting to be discovered, and with the existence of the internet, composers are able to make their music available to the connected world.

In a recent talk at Game Horizons Kronschnabl stated: “We really want to connect with our fans. Ur Zoo is a free, social game and we want to involve our fans throughout the development process. Whilst we have always tried to listen to fan feedback, always replying to emails an so on, we also wanted our players to be involved from the outset. Offering competitions is a good way of doing this.

“The sociability comes from the user’s ability to interact with each other, with each other’s games, but also with the game makers and designers. Working together we can produce games that reflect all people, in all ways. Games can be about shooting angry birds at pigs, breeding freaky animals and shooting zombies with very big guns.”

This seems to have been the case from the off. FluffyLogic initiated engagement with its fans by holding a competition to name its zoo game. Back in April of this year it opened the music competition, and next it has plans to ask fans to design new, weird and wonderful animal cross-breads. This is also not just limited to FluffyLogic’s own IP; earlier this year it ran a competition, in conjunction with Sony, to create an Eat Them! inspired monster. The winning entries had their designs turned into themes for the PlayStation 3 and were made available as free downloads on the PlayStation Network store.

FluffyLogic also featured many more of the entries on their website. 
So, in conclusion, I understand the older, more established musicians, saying ‘Oi…no! Value yourself and your art!’ but that is a really easy thing to say from the other side of a mixing desk. Can they, hand on heart, say they never did a track for a mate on the off-chance that someone might hear it and give
them a job…or even, heaven forbid, done a track for someone just because they like making music?
I don’t intend this article to be seen as an open invitation for games companies to exploit musicians. However, as a musician who has been lucky enough to get a foot into computer games I both know how hard it is and also how much fun it is. It is a new, expanding industry with more platforms and hardware coming out all the time; and all of these should have original, awesome music.

Armin Elsaesser is a freelance musician with a wealth of experience working with games, boss of influential breakcore record label Deathsucker, and music producer Parasite.

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