Over the last decade, video games have gone from a fun pastime to the main source of entertainment for younger generations. Or as The Guardian put it in a recent opinion piece, “video games have replaced music as the most important aspect of youth culture.”
Writer Sean Monahan shares lots of evidence for this shift, from the big-money budget of “Cyberpunk 2077” — a game that cost $317 million to make and licensed music from Miles Davis, Grimes and A$AP Rocky — to the 12 million fans who watched Travis Scott’s “Fortnite” concert in 2020. To give you an idea of just how many people that is, MTV only managed to attract about 6.4 million viewers to its once-unmissable Video Music Awards that very same year.
According to the research firm Newzoo, the video game industry was worth around $184.4 billion as of 2022. While that signaled a slight decline as lockdown restrictions waned and people returned to public life, video games still outshined the NFL ($27 billion), NBA ($10 billion), and the film industry’s global box office ($26 billion).
For music creators and rights holders, the rise in video games means a growing opportunity for sync placements and commissioned music. After all, music plays a crucial part in the gaming experience. While visuals tell gamers what to do, how to think, and where to go, the music tells them how to feel.
As a creator and rightsholder, you can make an invaluable contribution to video game developers looking for music. Here is how to get your music in video games, and what you need to consider before you even get started.
How Do You Know What Your Video Game Audience Is?
The first thing to consider when looking for opportunities is where you and your music fit in. Video games vary by genre, aesthetic, and production value, so it’s natural that aspects of a game call for different types of music. Is the stripped-back acoustic version of your first single the perfect theme for an indie horror game? Does your latest drill beat suit the opening scenes of an arcade-style racer?
Doing some preliminary research and figuring out what game genres match your music style will make all the difference, saving you time when pitching your music.
Who Is Involved in Music Licensing for Video Games?
The people who make the decisions on what music is appropriate for use in games are the audio directors and music supervisors. The audio director will have discussed the artistic direction of the game with the concept artists, game designers, and other creative personnel. They’ll have a vision for what musical styles should be implemented. Music supervisors will also have a say when collaborating with the audio team, searching for music, and obtaining all the required licenses.
A&R execs and other sync creatives might work on music syncs for games, too, but who and how many people are involved can vary on a game-by-game basis.
What’s the Difference Between Indie and AAA Studios?
There’s a big difference between AAA (or “Triple-A,” a major high-budget studio) and independent game studios. Independent studios operate with tight budgets, small profit margins, and often have a dozen employees or less. They don’t have the funds to splurge on hit songs and well-known composers, so they’ll typically work with independent music creators, labels and publishers because they're usually less expensive.
AAA studios are the complete opposite. They have offices around the world, with hundreds and even thousands of employees, working with significant production budgets. They will typically commission a major label’s sync team to source music from the label’s catalog, employ a team of music supervisors, or hire an established game composer.
As an independent music creator and rightsholder, you’ve got a great chance of getting your music placed in independent games. The AAA games will be a challenge and a realistic option only if you can get representation from a large music publisher, label or sync company.
What Kinds of Music Placements Are in Video Games?
There are two forms of music placement in video games: bespoke composition and sync.
Bespoke composition involves writing music specifically created for independent parts of a video game. Think music for the menu section, different levels of gameplay, adventure scenarios, and theme songs. You don’t need to identify as a composer to “compose” for video games; all kinds of music creators can write bespoke music for games. For example, Imagine Dragons wrote a soundtrack for “League of Legends”, Skrillex famously co-wrote the theme for “Kingdom of Hearts III” and Beck created soundtracks to “Sound Shapes”.
The second method is getting your existing music placed through a typical sync agreement, where a music supervisor might want to use your song for specific scenes. It’s worth considering both forms and doing your research to know what’s involved and what makes the most sense for you at this stage of your career.
How Do You Get in the Room With the People Making Sync Decisions?
So, you’ve identified what game genres your music can be synced to, who’s involved in music placements, what kind of studio to work with, and the two different types of music placement. Great, so how do you get started — where do you go, and what do you do? The following three networking strategies will help you get your music noticed and considered for game placements.
Attend Video Game Industry Events
By attending video game industry events, you’ll have the chance to speak with all kinds of professionals working in different areas of video game production. There will always be independent and AAA developers attending. Introduce yourself, find common ground, explain that you’re there to meet new people, and you just might get your music placed.
Make sure your online presence and music are up-to-date and accessible. Some very well-known games industry events include GamesBeat Summit, London Games Festival, and the Sweden Game Conference. Game industry sites like gamesindustry.biz and eventsforgamers feature a regularly updated list of industry events. The important thing is to do your research and find events near you.
Not sure where to start when it comes to networking? Unsure how to shift to virtual networking? Download our Networking Checklist to help prepare yourself and expand your network.
Approach Sync Agencies and Freelance Music Supervisors
As mentioned, video game studios often hire music supervisors to search for and license appropriate music for them. If you’re an independent artist, producer, songwriter, or composer, it’s worth doing some research and finding sync agencies and music supervisors that work with games frequently, and see if they’re interested in working with you. If you’re producing music at a high standard and have a growing catalog, there’s a good chance they’ll want to work with you. There’s also a good chance you’ll meet music supervisors at game industry events, too.
Participate in Game Jams
Game jams take place all over the world and can have hundreds of participants. Programmers, 3D artists, game designers, sound designers, and musicians get together into small teams and compete to create a video game over a weekend or longer.
Typically, game jams are in-person events hosted at a hired venue — like a university building, community center, or business incubator. However, game jams can also be hosted online via Discord. You make great business and personal connections at game jams because you’re working so closely and collaboratively with others. Your relationships last after the game jam is over.
What’s more, the majority of participants are either just breaking into the games industry themselves or already working at a games studio, so you’ll be making direct links to the games industry. All it takes is your old team member to recommend you or call you up to ask about using your music. Another benefit of game jams is the fact that some teams will take their game to market. If your team sees potential in what they’ve created, they’ll develop it further, fix any bugs, and publish it. In this case, you can negotiate a licensing fee for your music and have your first-ever music placement in a game.
To get started, there are sites like Global Game Jam, Indie Game Jams, and itch.io that list game jams all year round. Some AAA game studios like Ubisoft also host their own annual game jam. As always, do your research to stay on top of these opportunities.
What Kind of Royalties and Revenue Do You Earn With Video Game Syncs?
When you land a sync placement in a video game, you’ll generate income through the initial license fee itself. The royalty infrastructure between game publishers and PROs (performing rights organizations) is still being built and so you shouldn’t count on receiving royalties from video games — for the time being at least.
There is, however, a market for video game soundtrack vinyl releases. For example, popular games like "The Last of Us” and “Silent Hill" have had their own soundtrack vinyl releases. Streaming services also have video game soundtrack playlists amounting to hundreds of millions of streams. If your video game music were to ever be released on vinyl or distributed through a streaming service, then you’ll be able to collect mechanical and performance royalties. Keep this potential lack of after-the-fact royalties in mind when negotiating a licensing fee for the use of your music.
How Much Is the Video Game Industry Expected to Grow Over the Next Five Years?
According to a Statista report, the video games industry is expected to hit $384.90 billion in 2023, maintain an annual growth rate of 7.89%, and reach $521.60 billion by 2027. The demand for music in games is only going to compound and grow with it, as well as the opportunity to get your music placed in them.
Getting sync placements in video games is attainable, but beginning the process can seem daunting. However, doing your research, having a plan of action, and building your network of games industry contacts is the best way to start.