Over the last ten years, video games have gone from a fun pastime to the main source of entertainment for younger generations. According to the Guardian, video games have become the most important aspect of youth culture. Yes, that means Gen Z prefers an online battle royal to losing themselves in a great record. The video games industry today is worth just under $160 billion, more than the music and film industry combined. For music creators and rights holders, the rise in video games means a growing opportunity for sync placements and commissioned music.
Music has a crucial part to play in the gaming experience. Where the visuals tell gamers what to do, how to think, and where to go, the music tells them how to feel when they’re playing the game. Through musical elements such as tempo, harmonic changes, dynamics, and melody, music creates empathetic links between the player, game characters, and storyline, which leads to a more immersive gaming experience. Similar to how a song will evoke certain emotions in a listener, a song in a video game will do the same thing, only the gamer will associate those emotions with the game world.
So, as a music creator and rightsholder, you have an invaluable contribution to make to the gaming industry. But how do you get your music placed in video games in the first place, and what do you need to consider when getting started?
Understand Your Audience
The first thing to consider when looking for opportunities is where you and your music fit in. Video games vary by genre, art style, 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.
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 in any game can vary on a game-by-game basis.
Indie Vs AAA
There’s a big difference between AAA (or “Triple-A,” a major high-budget studio) and independent game studios, and this affects how music is chosen. Independent studios operate with small budgets, small profit margins and can 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 to work with.
The 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.
Bespoke Composition Vs. Sync
There are two forms of music placement in video games. There’s bespoke composition and there’s sync.
Bespoke composition involves writing music specifically created for independent parts of a video game. Think music for the menu section, music for different levels of gameplay, different adventure scenarios, game theme songs, and so on. 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.
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 you know there are two different types of music placement. Great, so how do you get started, where do you go, 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
Show your face. Meet people from the industry. Let people know about your music and who you are. By attending video game industry events, you’ll have the chance to meet and speak with all kinds of professionals working in different areas of video game production. There will always be independent developers and AAA developers attending. Introduce yourself, find common ground, explain that you’re there to meet new people, and potentially 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 Packet to help prepare yourself to 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 to 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.
Take part in Game Jams. These are events that take place all over the world and can have hundreds of participants. Programmers, 3D artists, game designers, sound designers, and musicians get together into teams of three to six 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 work 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 which 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 globalgamejam.org, indiegamejams.com, 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.
The Money Side
When you do 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.
The video games industry is growing exponentially and is set to reach up to $300 billion during the next five years. 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.