Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Doin' It for Free(ish)

So Minecraft music composer C418 has done some tentative music for Gunpoint (not seriously, he says), and is using this to draw attention to the problem of game composers being horrendously undervalued. I'm filled with a mix of somewhat conflicting emotions here.

I've heard this argument over and over, that creative types (and this goes beyond music, I'm talking about artists of all stripes), must NEVER do work for less than it's worth. And usually, "what it's worth" is valued as a lot more than the source of work in question is willing to pay.

I'm a professional game composer with very real bills to pay and as such I am very sympathetic to this cause. Here I am, looking into indie work, and a flood of other people willing to do it for FREE show up to compete. Now, I try to let my music speak for itself, because I've gotten to the point where I can spend a couple of days, submit something, and feel that it has a very good shot at being the best. But there are two issues which that immediately raises:

1. how can I convince the developer that I'm able to not only make some cool sounding music, but also work with them to refine ideas and provide a highly appropriate custom soundtrack tailored to their needs? Lots of people can pull off a great sounding demo, but will be unwilling or unable to modify anything to fit the team's vision. They don't all bring a decade of experience working on music for major publishers, etc. How do I even convince people that any of that matters? Does it?


2. the fact that I probably should have waited to be paid about $2,000 to do as much work as I've already done.

Some would argue that I'm screwing myself out of dollars in the race to NOT MAKE MONEY.

One issue I have with this line of thinking is that it often comes from the established composers. Now these guys might already be commanding thousands of dollars per minute of music, they're well-connected and doing great work with good returns on that work. For them, it hurts them in negotiations when they're asking for big dollars and the developer/publisher/film studio can say "but we also have a quote to do the whole thing for $200 and a four week supply of skittles."

But what about the guys coming up from the bottom? The talented and hardworking musicians and producers (and graphic artists, modelers, level designers, writers and programmers) without the connections and resume of the superstars and industry veterans?

Maybe creative industries are experiencing something of a shrinking middle class. On one side, the enormous pool of increasingly professional-sounding amateurs, who dream of nothing more than getting their work into a real product; on the other the highly skilled veterans who support themselves with their efforts. But how to make that leap? Well, doing a smaller indie title for next to nothing (or nothing) is always going to look reasonable when you're on the first side of that divide.

I do get the argument that we should all demand to be paid better. But I also don't see a practical way to ever get the newbies to be charging what we all want to be making, short of someday organizing a real union or something like that. The simple math of the situation is that more people want these jobs than there are jobs. Sure, it hurts the overall quality of music going into games (and other media) if nobody can be supported to hone their craft full time, but I think this does happen. Raising awareness on this issue is a good idea, but I'm not sure it's a war that can't be won.

Back to Gunpoint... I can't get angry at Tom Francis. Here's a guy who, until quite recently, according to his blog, wanted to give his game away for free. Of course he's not going to advertise this as a big payout for a game composer. It might not make any money! In fact, I've taken EXACTLY the same stance when recruiting artists and level designers for my game. "Please, join up, work hard, and do it because you love it. If we make money, you'll get some, but don't do it FOR THE MONEY."

If you're a passionate hobbyist or indie developer with no budget, I see absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help. Either people will say no, or your vision will inspire others to join in. And along the way, speaking from personal experience, I've made some very good friends and seen several Marvin team members get industry jobs. It worked exactly the way it should have: we got stuff for our pet game project (ownership of which has really spread to the entire team, rather than just the instigators, I should note), and people getting meaningful experience and having a good time.

To be fair, C418 does acknowledge that a reasonable percentage can be a fair working arrangement, or even a percentage with some amount up front. And that's what I would hope for if I get to do the music for Gunpoint (or any other indie title). But I can also live with the "maybe nothing" that comes from the attitude that people playing the game are more important than dollars coming in.

So is it wrong if I agree to do some music for a game because it looks cool and I like the creator? Right or wrong, the offer still stands.

And I would humbly submit that my music is still among the best fits for the game from what I've heard. Though there have been some other amazing submissions.

By the way, I listened to some other C418 besides Minecraft for the first time today, and some of it is pretty fantastic. One would hope that people are just giving him money for that. But sadly, I'm one of the only people I know who actually buys a lot of the music they listen to. Another issue for another day...