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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News
By Dan Daley

Despite a recent downturn, the video–game industry still has much to offer to audio pros.

Like the music industry, which it tends to emulate, the video–game business has hit a wall. At mid–year in 2014, software sales for the previous generation of consoles declined 57 percent from the same time last year, resulting in a $47 million overall decrease year over year, according to the most recent report from market researcher NPD Group.

Nonetheless, it’s still a potentially valuable space for those who produce its audio. That bit of good news comes from a survey conducted this Autumn by GameSoundCon, which produces an annual conference for video–game music and sound design. Brian Schmidt, GameSoundCon’s executive director, wanted a more accurate picture of what the audio domain really looked like. He noted a survey released earlier in the year by Gamasutra, the UK–based trade site for the industry, which seemed to indicate that audio professionals in that business earned an average salary of over $95,000 — more than any other personnel category apart from company executives. Was it too good to be true?

Actually, it was, but not by that much. Gamasutra’s audio survey sample size was quite small, with only 33 respondents who listed ‘audio professional’ as their field. Secondly, it was limited to information from full–time employees, not the freelancers that make up the majority of the industry. The sample was also limited to Gamasutra’s own conference attendees list. GameSoundCon then undertook a more comprehensive study, with input from over 500 audio professionals in the game industry, drawn from the rolls of the Game Audio Network Guild (GANG). The questions were more comprehensive, too, focusing not only on compensation but also on work and environment, royalties (or the lack thereof), the use of live musicians and middleware, and contract terms within the categories of large–budget games, casual games (smaller budget but professionally produced), and independent games (self–financed, including Kickstarter projects). The outcome reveals a business well suited to the ambitious composer who is capable of doing his (or her — more on that later) own production, including sound effects and dialogue.

Show Me The Money

A salaried audio employee in the games industry makes $70,532 per year on average, whereas for freelancers, a single project in the large–budget category averages $76,822; that’s 20 percent less than Gamasutra’s finding, but still eminently respectable. The project fee for indie/casual games averages $9830 (only 12 percent reported that they were paid by the hour; most compensation comes as a flat fee). The survey also found that the mean number of games that freelancers worked on per year was 4.6. That’s over $45,000 PA.

It’s worth noting that salaries and fees are the sole compensation for the vast majority — less than two percent of respondents that worked on big–budget projects reported per–unit royalties. For casual or indie games, this number is a still–slim 17 percent. In some cases, composers were able to retain soundtrack rights, but that was also rare.

The survey also concluded that game music and sound is predominantly a freelance gig (60 percent); that most composers, particularly for smaller games, also deliver sound effects and/or do integration or other technical work; that even in large–budget games, most (54 percent) of the music is produced virtually as opposed to predominantly by live musicians; and that women are underrepresented in the industry, at less than five percent. Sound Familiar?

Both the video-game business and the music industry have been declining in sales and revenue, and increasingly rely on blockbusters for profits. Call Of Duty: Black Ops, which took in over $650 million in the first five days, was that industry’s version of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Both industries are also going through their own distribution transitions: as music wrestles with extracting money from streaming, games are migrating from consoles to handheld devices, with free and ‘freemium’ models proliferating. That will continue to challenge revenues in the future, but it still offers substantial opportunities for employment for audio producers. And overall the industry remains huge: international video–game revenue is estimated to be $81.5 billion in 2014 (more than double that of the international film industry in 2013), with $22.2 billion of that coming from North America.

One big finding of the survey is the fact that, “among all respondents who delivered music, the overwhelming majority of the music was created by the composer alone.” Game audio is primarily a one–man–band business, perhaps the ultimate application of the project–studio environment, with 91 percent of indie/casual game audio producers working solo. It’s also a one–gig–at–a–time landscape, where dozens may bid on the same game and success comes from a combination of talent, tenacity, perspicacity and, as with everything else to do with music, lots of dumb luck. As the survey’s synopsis sums it up, making an income means “working on many smaller projects until your reputation, skills and experience generate demand from large–budget companies. The good news is: a composer or sound designer can make a decent or even a considerable income working in games, large or small.”

Then there’s the issue of how few women are involved in the gaming business. Not just on the audio side, where the survey found that they represent only about four percent of that category, but in the industry as a whole, where they account for only 11 percent of game designers and three percent of programmers. In addition, as of 2013, females in the industry receive an average of 27 percent less income than their male counterparts. It’s worth noting here because organisations like the Women’s Audio Mission in the US, and Sound Women in the UK, have raised the number and visibility of women in pro audio, and may be able to do the same in the games universe.

It may not be all fun and games out there, but in an era of niches, the audio side of gaming has a lot of potential for those with the right combination of skills.

Published January 2015