May 16, 2013:EA audio director Charles Deenen talks games at Buma Music in Motion

deenenAs an entertainment industry, games has been rivalling movies for some time now, making it an enticing area for musicians, whether they’re hoping to get their work licensed for use in games, or to compose original music for soundtracks.

At today’s Buma Music in Motion conference in Amsterdam, Charles Deenen gave a keynote speech outlining the opportunities, and talking about his own work as senior audio director at games publisher Electronic Arts, with more than 200 game scores to his credit, as well as film trailers and commercials.

Deenen, who has just gone freelance himself, was talking to an audience of composers, with a view to giving them advice on how to break into the games market, as well as trailers and commercials.

“Let’s be clear about one thing first: where you live has no bearing on whether your business will do well or not,” he said, while warning composers have to adapt to the timezone of the US if that’s where they want to get work. That includes working hours flexible for that timezone, getting local representation, and using cloud storage and online collaboration software.

“Find ways to collaborate with folks over there as if you were local,” he said, before giving some stats. In 2011, $25bn was spent on video games, more than the movie industry that year. “The Need for Speed [game] franchise has made $5bn+, Star Wars has made $4.5bn,” he said as one example.

He also talked budgets: a large-budget game might spend $100k-$700k on composed music and $60-$600k on licensed music, while a small-budget game may spend $1k-$40k on composed music and $2k-$20k on licensed music.

“The higher the budgets get for these games, the higher the stakes get,” he said. “We expect quality, we expect on-time, we expect on-budget… The composer’s brand and integrity become key.”

On average, a composer will earn $1.5k per minute for a game score, but it can go as high as $3k for the best ones. There are virtually no ‘per-unit’ royalties – composers don’t get additional money from each sale of the game they’ve worked on, although some small developers may consider these kinds of deals.

“There are other fun tricks around this,” he said. “You can negotiate money per SKU.” – SKU being each different version of a game for a different console or device. He also noted that there can be additional licensing fees, if a soundtrack is being released from a game, or its music is being relicensed out for TV usage.

Composers don’t get performance rights at the moment, but the emergence of cloud-based games that stream over the internet may change that. “You’re streaming that game to the local console in real-time – it’s not being downloaded – so you are performing the music in real-time. This is a very grey area,” said Deenen, who suggested that collecting societies may be turning their attention to the matter soon.

How can composers best pitch games companies? Deenen advised them to focus on the developers of games, not the publishers. “It’s the developer of the game which will really care which composer will be doing the music,” he said.

More advice: adopt an approach befitting the budget of the company you’re pitching: if it’s a triple-A developer, get an agent to make the pitch. Keep demos short and to-the-point. “You get 30 seconds to make an impact. If you don’t make the impact in 30 seconds, you get moved on,” he said. “If you’re a ‘no-name’, you get 30 seconds to prove yourself, which is short but fair.”

Deenen compared this to trailers and commercials: a booming market, but very competitive, and where relationships are the “number one priority – quality of music almost becomes secondary, although it still has to be there”.

How to get music placed? “Business knowledge, your representation that you get, how persistent are you?” he asked, before stressing that passion and uniqueness. “Every two months there’s a new trend. Follow it closely, what that trend is – get into it really fast, because you have about a five-month timespan before the whole industry turns around.”

Deenen also warned composers to be aware of their competition’s work, and understand the creative requirements and restrictions. “If your music doesn’t adhere to a certain form that is very usable, it gets tossed out really fast,” he said.

He also warned against prima-donnas. “If there’s one thing in the trailer and ad industry, it’s that your piece will get changed heavily. Mangled, twisted, adapted, turned around, pitched up, and at the end you’ll barely recognise it. But you’ll get paid. Your piece is not an art-piece, it’s a tool.”

Deenen noted that 50% of payments (at least) go to agents, but for game trailers the composer will take around $1k, and $8k for feature film trailers. But if a piece gets licensed multiple times, these fees multiply. “You can really set out in advance really strict terms,” he said. “You can lower the price up front, but make it higher later on.” And performance royalties are paid, of course.

Deenen also talked about the opportunities for composers to grow their businesses. “The ones that we go back to are the ones that give us service, that go the extra mile, that are very flexible,” he said, citing holidays as one example where composers are under pressure to prove themselves willing to work at any time.

“We work during Christmas at times, why wouldn’t you? Do you want the money? Yes or no? It’s about how much further you are willing to go as a composer than others. Over here in Europe, holidays are sacred. Over there [in the US] holidays are non-existent. If you have a holiday, you’re lucky!.. You are a whore to them, and if you don’t service them, they will go somewhere else.”

He also said composers should ensure they get feedback from their clients. “All the ones that have done really well, the day after they have delivered they have asked ‘what do you think I did or didn’t do well?.. Acquire feedback from everybody: find out from them if they had any hurdles.”

Deenen also said that composers should spend more time on their mix than on their music, citing examples of great music being “tossed aside like dirt” because it was badly mixed, while lower-quality music was licensed because the mix was good. “If you’re not a pro mixer, find someone to do it,” he said.


Stuart Dredge
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