The Music Game: Why Indie Artists are Writing for Videogame Soundtracks

In late August, 343 Industries announced the full details surrounding Halo 4’s soundtrack, a work scored by Massive Attack producer Neil Davidge. Davidge spent approximately 18 months composing hour upon hour of original music for the fourth installment of the multi-billion dollar video game franchise. “We presented around seven hours worth of material, of which they whittled it down to four hours of material,” Davidge says.

Los Angeles noise rockers HEALTH provided Rockstar Games with an estimated six hours of recorded work for Max Payne 3’s soundtrack, which also came out this year. Trent Reznor, Beck, and Deadmau5 have joined this list of musicians working with game developers.

“A couple years ago I would’ve said [traditional revenue streams] are going away,” he says. “Now I’ll say, 'It’s gone away.'”

It all shows how these two industries have joined to combat a mutual problem: declining sales. Developers and musicians alike are searching for new ways to improve their positions in their respective struggling markets. For the former, it means engaging games in a fresh way by incorporating unique musical moments into a game’s development. The latter has had to adjust the methods in which they write music in order to adapt to these non-traditional music deals.

Sony Computer Entertainment’s Alex Hackford understands this better than most people in either industry. Having worked for years as a video game music supervisor, he’s made a career out of including commercial acts as part of his video game soundtracks, ranging from unsigned bands to established artists. As someone who obtained licensed tracks from the Black Keys and Justice early in their careers, he’s convinced that game developers are providing increasingly beneficial opportunities to musicians. “A couple years ago I would’ve said [traditional revenue streams] are going away,” he says. “Now I’ll say, 'It’s gone away.'” Recently, he’s worked with Beck and Deadmau5 for the newly released interactive music game, Sound Shapes. The game, which came out in early August for both Playstation 3 and Vita, deviates from traditional scoring by, according to Hackford, “tailoring levels around the music that the artist delivered as opposed to asking the artists to tailor their music around pre-existing experience.” In the game, a player can take previously composed musical elements and design their own levels based on various parts of original stems. Gamers can then upload their work to share with an online community, sharing their interpretations with other Sound Shapes players, which potentially even include the original artists themselves.

Shaw-Han Liem, one of the games’ co-creators and a musician under the moniker I Am Robot and Proud, believes Sound Shapes’ multidisciplinary innovations offer the chance for music elements to be experienced in a way that’s unique to an individual’s own gameplay. “You compose music for Sound Shapes, but what you’re really creating is a set of possibilities," he says. There’s no definitive version of a song, everyone who plays through the song will hear a slightly different version of it. A lot of the control is given to the person playing through the level ...Traditionally; of course, those are things that the composer would control. In this case, they’re sort of sharing some of that authorship with the audience or whoever the person is playing on the other end.” “For Beck,” he adds, “he seems to be someone interested in finding interesting ways in releasing his music… it seems clear that he’s interested in getting his music out there and playing with the idea of ‘what does it mean to release music?’ and ‘what does the idea of authorship mean?’”

While these new and creative release ideas can be exciting, they also raise the need for an accompanying licensing and fee structure. This may not matter as much to an established artist like Beck or Reznor, but it makes a world of difference for emerging acts entering this world. Game developers typically employ musicians on a work-for-hire basis, meaning that artists receive an upfront fixed fee but usually don’t receive royalties when a game is sold, and only occasionally earn modest royalties for sales of an accompanying soundtrack. According to a 2007 article by ASCAP Executive VP of Membership Todd Brabec, these fees can “range from $2,500 to over $20,000,” or higher depending on “the value of the composition, the prior history or anticipated sales of the game, bargaining power of the parties and the needs of the video game producer, music publisher and songwriter.”

"Getting a song placed in a soundtrack ... it’s basically the equivalent of Lisa Loeb’s 'Stay' in [Reality Bites]."

While it means that artists often receive pay up front (no artists disclosed how much they received, but HEALTH were able to largely fund the recording of their next album), it comes with the trade-off that game developers retain ownership of the music used within games. Coulton, Davidge and HEALTH have all entered work-for-hire agreements, each with mixed opinions. “It’s a work-for-hire agreement,” Davidge explains about his deal with 343 Industries, “but I’m used to that anyway from doing film score work--the fact you don’t get publishing, you don’t get a percentage of the game sales. It’s a fee. When it comes to putting out the soundtrack album, I do--as an artist and a composer--get royalty on that, but you don’t get it on the game itself.” Coulton wrote two songs, “Still Alive” and “Want You Gone,” for GLaDOS, the antagonist of the two Portal games by Washington-based developers Valve. He then rerecorded them and released them as part of his 2011 album, Artificial Heart. He plays these songs at most of his performances, and has had fans regularly discover his work through his involvement with Valve and Portal.

“It’s interesting. [“Still Alive”] is my most well-known song and I don’t own it!  Which is a strange position to be in,” Coulton says, laughing. “My standard business practice is to not do work for hire. I don’t like to do it for obvious reasons. I like to own the stuff that I do, but in this case it was certainly not a business decision that I regret.” While financial compensation remains an important aspect, songwriters are attracted to this kind of work for its artistic merits as well as video game fandom.

After years of downtime in the studio, Davidge spent hours of downtime in the studio playing Halo, eventually becoming a huge fan of the series. “I was working with Massive Attack on 100th Window, and there was plenty of time in the studio where nothing was really going on, which is when I got introduced to Halo,” he recalls. “The Xbox had just come out, and Halo came with it. I spent a lot time playing the game with my assistant programmer and got hooked on the game and have been playing it ever since.” In Coulton’s case, Valve initially approached him about a partnership. Coulton had previously been a Valve devotee, loving their critically acclaimed first-person shooter Half-Life. He jumped at the chance to work on a game where his involvement was “custom-tailored for this specific purpose,” while exposing him to a new audience down the road. “First and foremost, it was just a really cool thing to be involved with,” Coulton recalls. “But of course, I felt like it would not be a bad thing career-wise to have something associated with what I was pretty sure would be a game with a lot of reach.”

Liem has noticed a similar pattern in the career of contributing Sound Shapes musician Jim Guthrie. “Jim [Guthrie] comes from more of a traditional singer/songwriter world, but he’s found this whole new way of putting his music out connecting with a totally different audience by composing for games,” Liem adds. “Now his music is available to everyone carrying around an iPhone or PS3 or whatever.” While the benefits of video game composition are evident, there’s also a downside that’s not always as noticeable. It’s one thing to contribute a song or two to a soundtrack, but Hackford cautions artists about entering the world of game scoring, which has a “steep and treacherous learning curve.” In his experience, he finds that writing shorter, more conventional pieces in a band’s conventional style is something that’s obviously familiar with a given artist. Stepping out of that box -- one whereby the sheer volume of music composed grows, only to be paired down due to the parameters of the game itself -- can result in a difficult and seemingly fruitless process outside of the artist’s control.

HEALTH knows this firsthand: their work for Max Payne 3 took “four times longer” than expected. Bassist John Famiglietti echoes Hackford’s sentiments, even though he believes that overall the project was a positive experience for the group. “We had to learn a whole new language. It’s completely different from how we’ve done music before,” he says. “Be prepared that you’re putting aside nearly a year and postponing your band’s trajectory by a year. That’s pretty rough.” Even Davidge, a veteran composer and producer, recognizes the difficulties compared to working on personal material. “It’s different. When you’re writing a piece for an album, you’re really starting from a blank sheet of paper,” he explains. “It was great I wasn’t starting with that and I had all the previous [Halo] games to play and the books to read and people [to talk to]…I had input there. It’s still hard, it was a very hard, grueling project, working 14 hours a day, seven days a week for 18 months.” While the relationship between musicians and developers is sometimes complicated, it’s seemingly like any other revenue source in the music industry these days. Perhaps the biggest difference with game deals is that the market isn’t as saturated at the moment. “Getting a song placed in a soundtrack is like getting a song in a commercial,” Coulton says. “I would say it’s the same [effect]. The numbers of people who are exposed to music are similar.” “It’s basically the equivalent of Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” in [Reality Bites],” Coulton (while trying not to laugh).

For artists, that means more opportunity, less competition and creative partnerships that can’t be found elsewhere. Not only do these collaborative chances bode well for them financially, but they also open the realms of possibility for how individuals engage with their music in a relatively untapped video game music market. “You look for non-traditional means to make income,” he says. But he found working with another, different set of creatives fulfilling too. “I don’t think it was all about the finance. It was also about the opportunity to be on the cutting edge and doing something new with how people experience their music.”