This may sound like a stupid question, if you’ve paid for your game music surely you own it, right?
Well the answer turns out to be ‘yes’ and/or ‘no’… in other words, it depends – annoying right?
Turns out ‘ownership’ is not a simple status to claim, unless you as the music buyer are careful.
In this article (which is the first in a more technical Game Music Business Series) I’ll try and guide you through exactly what you need to know as a game developer who wants to buy music for your game.
The Music Industry Is A Mess
If someone was designing the way the music industry should be structured, it certainly wouldn’t be anything like what actually exists at the moment. It’s a complicated, contradictory and very confusing mess.
I’ve been involved in it for over twenty years and I still learn new things each year which I didn’t know or can’t beleive are structured in that way. Plus it’s always changing.
Every Piece Of Music Is In Fact Two Pieces Of Music
Yes it’s true, there are two sides (or rights) to every piece of music.
You may hear any and all of the above terms used interchangeably but to put it simply, there is the recording the band made (usually owned by the record company) and there is the song or composition the composer wrote (usually owned by the publisher).
Think The Beatles recordings (owned originally by Parlophone who signed the band and paid for the recordings) vs Lennon & McCartney (The composers, published by Northern Songs – later Michael Jackson!)
Look at the credit on any Beatles record or CD (possibly an MP3) and you’ll see the record company listed and the composers.
Now sometimes these rights are one and the same, the recording artist is self released, self written and self published. He’s a one stop shop – and this is very often the case with most freelance game composers. But as you can see above with The Beatles, it could be multiple people.
Why The Hell Does This Matter?
Because, if you are hiring a composer to make some music for your game, you need to make sure you are licensing or buying both rights off them. This is why it’s vital to have some kind of formal agreement between the game developer and the composer.
If these specifics are never gone into in detail, you could potentially be leaving yourself open to any manner of claims, compensation requests or even court cases if you suddenly hit the top of the Steam charts.
Although boring, seemingly too formal and not very Indie, get yourself a bloody contract with your composer!
Licensing vs Buying Game Music?
This is where we get into the subtleties of the music business and something of a specialty of mine.
A music licence is basically a rent or a lease. You are using/borrowing the music for a predetermined length of time under certain agreed conditions.
At some point those rights will end either when the contract ends or certain conditions are met (or not met).
A Buyout on the other hands means the composer will be assigning the rights to the music over to the music user.
The purchaser (That’s the game dev) will own the rights to use the music indefinitely (in perpetuity in legal speak) under any circumstances they see fit.
This includes any re-selling, re-licensing, selling soundtrack recordings, downloadable content featuring the music or anything else. The music now essentially belongs to the game developer.
In any assignment/buyout, providing the writer and recording owner is the same person, the game developer is covered.
What About Using Existing Music In A Game?
There really two categories of existing music:
Pre-Existing Commercially Available Music
If you wanted to use an existing piece of music in your game (as in a piece of music that has previously been written and released) there would very often be a separate record company and publisher involved (as in our Beatles example).
In this case you would need to find out who the releasing record company is and who the publisher is, and approach both those companies. Remember, looking at the song credits will give you this information.
To reiterate, sometimes all these rights will be owned and controlled by one person in his bedroom, in other cases the rights will be owned by multiple companies around the world. Obviously the more commercial success the track has had, the more complicated the ownership and permissions will likely be.
Production or Library Music
Now this is where a lot of you as game developers are likely to come into contact with previously existing music, via specific companies and web sites that are set up to offer affordable music for games, film and TV etc.
I’ve written about this before, but the most notable disadvantage of using library music is that the music you pick could just as easily be used in your competitor’s games, and you won’t have a unique soundtrack crafted to fit your visuals and player’s experience.
it’s generic stock music which is off the shelf. If that fits your needs ok, then fill your boots, it’s a great option for some budget games.
These companies are set up specifically to license music out to game devs and film directors etc so all the rights you need will be bundled up in one go. It’s an easy affordable option.
The Performing Right
Now, if you’ve been reading carefully you’ll remember that at the start I hinted that the term ‘ownership’ wasn’t exactly black and white. This is where performing rights come in.
Performing Rights are basically a form of compensation for music owners and creators when their music is broadcast (or performed) to the public. This could be through film and TV shows and radio broadcasts etc.
The Elephant In The Room is that even though a composer might assign the rights to the music over to the game developer, he still retains his authorship of the musical composition. This can’t be taken away from him. We all know he wrote the song, and this aspect can’t be ignored legally.
So, if for example, you sold your music soundtrack from your new game separately, lots of people heard it and a track got picked up for an advert for Coke, yes you would be paid handsomely as the music owner, but so would the composer/writer still.
This is good from the composer’s point of view, but also yours as his writer income won’t detract from yours as the owner. You cannot touch the writer’s share anyway.
Phew, that was complicated, but that last point is worth mentioning.
To Sum Up
I hope I’ve highlighted exactly what you are getting into when you buy, rent or otherwise get hold of music for your game.
I’ve really just scratched the surface and on behalf of the music industry I really do have to apologise for just how complicated and arcane the whole process music must seem to an outsider. Its complicated and confusing, but I hope I’ve helped a bit.
As a final note, if you are in the middle of a game music licensing, purchasing or commissioning nightmare for your game, drop me a line and I’ll see if I can offer some pointers.