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Game Composers Get Their Fair Share


Those who work in the videogame industry now face most of the same issues as their counterparts in the film and television industries. For example, in the days of transistors in game audio, and even simple PCM reproduction, no one in the videogame business really cared about agents or unions. Then, everything exploded. In the mid-’90s, great studios began to be built, Hollywood star talent was courted and some heavy-hitting composers began providing music for games — for example, in 2004, when Danny Elfman wrote the title theme for the game Fable. Administrative and legal issues skyrocketed.

Now, agencies that traditionally represent film and television composers are also representing game music composers. I had the opportunity to chat with Cheryl Tiano, who has been an agent at the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (GSA) for 15 years, to discuss just what game companies should expect when they plan their next project’s soundtrack. GSA represents practically a who’s who of film composers, including John Williams, Alan Silvestri and Thomas Newman, and composers who cross genres such as Michael Giacchino, who scored the Disney/Pixar film Ratatouille and Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor series.

Let’s talk a little bit about what an agency does. Why have agencies in the first place? Can’t composers approach a company to offer their services, strike a deal and leave it at that?

It is definitely more complicated than that. In the game world, we often pitch the clients to the music/audio directors and owners of the game companies. We make the clients’ deals, troubleshoot problems that arise and provide guidance on how to manage their careers. As for deal-making, agents can push the boundaries a lot further than the composer can and/or should do. The composer needs to be the person who says, “I’ll be there for you.” Composing music for film, television and games is a service industry. People expect agents to fight for more money and other deal terms such as soundtrack royalties, credit and placement, paid advertising, additional money for use in sequels and prequels, publishing income, et cetera. It doesn’t help composers to be service-oriented if they are arguing about deal terms. Plus, the composers often are not creative deal-makers, and they don’t know the many terms that need to be discussed and negotiated because they don’t make deals every day like agents do.

So you enable a composer to forget about the complicated, boring biz and do what they love, which is write music.

That’s the idea, exactly.

The average rate per minute for game music these days is around $1,200. Is there an average film rate?

It varies.

Can you give me a ballpark figure?

Sometimes a well-known film composer becomes interested in working on an independent or smaller-budget project, so we negotiate smaller fees for those projects.

Is there a “highest amount yet paid” figure you can quote?

Unfortunately, I can’t give out details like that.

When it comes to standard entertainment industry agreement practices, game companies are unfamiliar with a lot of the terms. For example, there’s the certificate of authorship, which is akin to a letter of intent. There is also the deal memo, which precedes a contract. Can you explain this concept?

A deal memo outlines terms that are negotiated. Often, the deal memo is then passed on to the attorneys as a reference for creating and reviewing the contract. This can enable work to begin before the longer process of a contract is complete, although most companies want a signed certificate of authorship prior to sending any payments.

Have there been projects completed before a contract was signed?

Yes. This is why GSA has an in-house attorney. The agents explain the terms and the attorney at GSA makes sure that those terms are reflected in the contract. Our attorney understands every aspect of contracts and can explain this to our clients.

There is also the difference in a contract in film/television and games — that difference is Writer’s Share. Can you explain this term?

Regarding the Writer’s Share of performing rights, a composer and/or music editor and/or audio director indicates the titles of the music cues, as well as the name of the writer and publisher on those cues on a cue sheet. The composer is always the writer, and can also be the publisher, depending on the situation. When the composer is not the publisher, the studio/production company or game publisher/developer is listed on the cue sheets. This cue sheet is submitted to performing-rights societies like ASCAP or BMI by the music editors or audio directors, and so on.

In TV, for instance, the composer deal is between the composer and the studio or production company (not with the network). When the music is aired on network or cable TV, the networks pay money to the performing-rights societies for the right to air the music. Typically, the networks pay a blanket license fee to the societies for the rights to air the music. Then, the societies pay a royalty to their respective writer and publisher members for the music that has been aired.

So all this fear from game companies that they’re not getting a buy out of the work actually means they get money for free from the music on the back end and they don’t have to pay anything?

In a sense, yes. They have to register with the performing-rights societies and submit the cue sheets. Then, if any performing rights monies come in, they are paid to the writer and to the game companies, if they are the publisher. For instance, if there is a commercial on television advertising the game and a composer’s music is also aired on the commercial, both the writer of the music and the publisher of the music will receive performing-rights income from the performing-rights society. This doesn’t change the fact that the production company/studio/game company owns the music. That is a separate discussion about the owner of the copyright, master, et cetera.

Fascinating. There are a lot of other terms involved in a deal memo. Can you recommend any resources for learning more?

There are several books that explain these terms. One I can recommend is All You Need to Know About the Music Business, by Donald Passman [available through].

If there are residuals for actors who perform “x” number of times in a theatrical playback setting, what about games?

I’m not sure if you can track music in an interactive setting, although sometimes we get points on the game/film project, et cetera, back-end bonuses based on sales, distribution deals, et cetera.

Ah, but you could.


Sure. Just have a programmer provide a log that spits out how many times a piece has been played. With online reporting in particular becoming a regular part of PC, as well as console game tracking, it would be easy. The problem with this is that it would be difficult to assign a value to it. Suppose that a piece of music was tracked but an animation wasn’t, and the animator wants a residual, as well?

[Laughs] This is something that will probably be talked about for a while.

Alexander Brandon is audio director at Obsidian Entertainment.