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3 Oct 2013

Licensing Music for Your Indie Game

The music you use for your game is vital to the type of atmosphere it creates. Music can make any level scary, happy, humorous, sad, etc. – it’s simply the power that music possesses over scenes in media as a whole. And if you’re creating a particular game that needs to display a certain ‘vibe?’ You better choose the right music or your game is going to suffer as a whole. For example, if you are creating an indie title in the cyberpunk genre, you will want to consider using music in the electronica genre, punk genre, etc. (think The Matrix and Blade Runner soundtracks). If you are creating a humorous game, whimsical, fancy-free music is probably the order of the day.

You may not be a composer, and you may not have the funds to hire someone to compose the music you require for you. Alternatively, you may need very specific music that already exists and does not need to be recreated. Of course, you could find royalty free music if you can find the right tracks, but what if you cannot? Are you stuck? Absolutely not! When this occurs, you need to consider licensing music via contacting creators of particular songs and persuading them to license the music to you. Easier said than done, right? It is, but luckily, not impossible.


How to Find the Right Songs

Before we go any further: that song you heard on the radio last week? Don’t even think about trying to license it (unless you have some extremely deep pockets, and even if you do, put that toward other parts of your game!). These songs are out of your reach, as the licensing fees will be a fortune. Instead, you need to find indie artists or even small label companies that you can contact.

Fortunately, this is very easy to do. Searching around on an online music store such as iTunes and even searching videos on YouTube will allow you to find songs from indie musicians that perform a particular genre of music. Preview the music, write down notes on which songs and artists you like, and generally spend a while digging through the trenches of the musical offering provided by these two platforms.

Brainstorm a bit as well. You will probably discover new genres that you didn’t know existed – and new genres that may fit well into your game. Write these genres down, do a bit of extra research on them, and continue searching for the artists and songs that would be ideal for your game.

Search forums, find subreddits dedicated to various types of genres, and post questions and ask for help. I say this on literally every other post I write so it sounds like repeated advice, but believe me: when you have a question about literally anything, there is a specialized forum and/or subreddit where you can have your question answered. Case in point: I wanted to know which Batman comic was worth investing my time into today, so I asked my question on the Batman subreddit, and guess what? Within an hour, multiple people gave me suggestions that helped me to make my choice. There are trolls on the Web to be sure, but there is an abundance of friendly people that are ready to answer any question you may have.


How to Find Whom to Contact

Found the song you want to consider licensing? If you do, attempt to find an official website for the artist on the songs’ description. Google is your friend in this step, because you will be able to find articles, interviews, videos, and so on. Also attempt to find a Facebook page or Twitter handle of the artist. You can contact them directly using these platforms. Moreover, if you can find their account associated with their YouTube videos, you can contact them via YouTube as well.

Once you find a correct way to contact them, you must then contact them in the proper way – i.e., ensure your message does not come across as ‘spam.’ Rather, format your message correctly, and ensure that they know the following pieces of information:

  • What you want
    • Mention the song of interest that you want to license for your game.
  • Your name, title, company, etc.
    • Provide them with contact information along with an explanation regarding who you are. You do not have to give them your address or phone number, but an email address, Skype username, link to your Facebook page, etc. are all suitable.
  • The game you are making
    • Explain the concept, what the game is about, and why you want their music licensed for your game.
  • What they must do if they are interested
    • Keep this simple. Do not allow them to feel as if they have to jump through a ton of hoops in order to continue with the next step. Rather, informing them that they can simply contact you via email or Skype will suffice.

This process takes the longest. Guaranteed, there are going to be artists that never get back to you or tell you, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ When I’m trying to obtain interviews for episodes of Game Academy Radio, the response rate is terrible. For every 20 emails I send, there is usually a 30%-40% response rate, and the majority of these responses are usually, ‘thanks, but I don’t have time right now.’ Then there are those that jump at the opportunity to be interviewed at a moment’s notice. Expect the same results.

Narrow your choices down as you get more positive feedback. You will want to keep a record of everyone you contacted, their responses, links to their music, and so on for quick reference. Once you find enough artists willing to license your music to your game, you need to create the dreaded contract.


The Contract

There is something that seems yucky about contracts isn’t there? Yet, it’s necessary, and you need to create a contract for using the indie artists’ music in your contract. Your contract must include the following:

  • Your Name
  • Address
  • Copyright holder’s name and address
  • Whether the usage is exclusive to your game or can be used in other properties
  • The territory that is covered (i.e. where is the game going to be released? Worldwide? U.S. only? Only in Europe?)
  • The time covered
  • Name and description of song
  • Who owns the right to the song (99% of the time, this will be the indie artist)
  • How credit for use of song should be handled (i.e. for every copy sold, how much does the indie earn)
  • Details regarding how payment is made (monthly, weekly, annually?)
  • Signatures and dates are a must

If you want to obtain exclusive usage of the song and/or own the song’s copyright, you are going to find yourself paying a lot more for it. Chances are, the artist isn’t going to want to simply ‘hand over’ their song to you, and if they do? They’re going to charge a rate that they can live with (which again, will be a lot).

You also need to describe how the song will be distributed. For example, provide details regarding if the song will be used in a soundtrack, will be in the game’s trailer, used in promotional items for the game, will be included in the free demo, and so on. If it is going to be modified in any way, you need to detail this as well.

Don’t feel comfortable writing your own contract? Hire a lawyer – it really is the best route to take if you don’t feel comfortable with doing this yourself.


Negotiating the Contract

You are probably going to have to negotiate your contract with the indie artist (or you are likely going to want to negotiate with the indie artist if they provided their own contract). Be professional at all times. Work with the indie artist, and if they are professional as well, the two of you should be able to come to a conclusion. If you cannot come to an agreement (e.g. the artist wants more royalty payments than you can afford, too much for an upfront payment, etc.), politely walk away and start the process all over again.

Is this process time consuming? Absolutely. Is it worth it in the end? If you want a compelling soundtrack for your game, then absolutely. It’s a headache that will be worth the struggle if your game requires a specific type of music, so don’t give up!

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