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Game Music Means Business

HOLLYWOOD, CA—Licensing music for use in films, television and other media platforms has become an attractive revenue stream in an industry that has seen record sales steadily decline over recent years.

HOLLYWOOD, CA—Licensing music for use in films, television and other media platforms has become an attractive revenue stream in an industry that has seen record sales steadily decline over recent years. “Music in Games,” a recent panel hosted by the National Association of Record Industry Professionals (NARIP), focused on a growing music-licensing market, video games.

There’s no denying that video games are big business. Call of Duty: Black Ops, from publisher Activision Blizzard, recently hit the headlines when it smashed the industry’s one-day sales record— 5.6 million copies in its first 24 hours—and hit the $1 billion mark within six weeks of release. The five-day sales figure for Black Ops was $650 million; in comparison, the top-grossing movie over a five-day period is The Dark Knight, with $200 million in revenue.

Licensing music into a video game can not only generate revenue but also allow an artist to reach a much bigger audience than through conventional distribution channels. As Scott McDaniel, senior music supervisor, Activision Blizzard, commented, “The reach of video games certainly lends itself to introducing music to people.”

Activision broke new ground when it made Metallica’s Death Magnetic album available as downloadable content for Guitar Hero the day of the record release. “We ended up selling more albums than any retailer outside of Apple and Best Buy,” he reported.

Then, Activision packaged 1 million copies of the new Soundgarden album with Guitar Hero 6. “We got the RIAA to recognize that as a platinum-certified album,” he said, noting that was the first time that has happened. (In the record business, an album can ship platinum, but stores may return copies; this package was non-returnable.)

Games may be played for dozens of hours each week, over a long period of time, so songs are being heard repeatedly. That’s good for older tracks, not just new and emerging artists, said Kim Nieva, A&R/artist relations, WaveGroup/Engine House Music. “There’s new life getting breathed into it by video games.”

As with movies, there are two basic music needs—songs and score. Typically, explained Michael Rajna, director of licensing, Konami, “If music is integral to the game and it’s part of what’s selling the game, you’re going to pay a royalty to the artist and publishers and labels based on that. If it’s a non-music-based game and you’re even using a well-established artist, you can probably get away with a flat fee. For composers, it’s a per-minute fee.”

As the panelists noted, they often have a very limited budget available, which means that there will be deals done at the low end for free exposure, or a token flat fee, or perhaps a chyron (onscreen graphic or credit). “We do at least $500 a side undefined as a thank you,” Rajna reported. “It’ll get as high as $10,000 for a song up front, with a running royalty.”

It helps if an artist is prepared to be flexible. “For unknown artists, you build your career off exposure and being flexible,” said McDaniel. “When you get to the next stage and have someone to represent you, there are precedents on things set by previous relationships or experience for guidance and to determine fees.”

As Chris Hood, chief creative officer, Blind Squirrel Games, explained, with no licensing involved, score music tends to be compensated by quantity. “We base everything on how much music we need. Let’s say the game is 10 hours playing time, and as a result, we need roughly two hours of music. Whatever that duration, we have a budget that’s based on an hourly rate per the amount of hours.”

Rajna added, “It varies based on number of minutes and who you are and how established you are. Many work for a few hundred dollars a minute, to $1,500 a minute.” At the start of a relationship with a publisher, the composer might work for free or inexpensively, he said. “You got the work done and on time, they enjoyed the experience with you, they’re going to come back to you and pay you double. So you keep building yourself from there.”