The field of game audio is in the process of levelling up...
Trying to figure out what audio engineers are getting paid is usually an exercise in futility. You can ask around, but the results are at best anecdotal and at worst wildly inflated because, hey, who tells the truth about money or sex? There are some statistical sources; for instance, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes audio engineers under its ‘Sound Engineering Technicians’ rubric. However, while not anecdotal it’s also not truly representative: it covers only those who are considered wage-earning employees, which is almost certainly not the case for the vast majority of audio engineers. And of the 15,000 or so respondents included in the entire category, barely 3000 of them fall into a purely sound-engineering category. That’s like a year’s worth of graduates from Full Sail.
If it was an accurate representation of reality for recording engineers, they might take some solace in learning that at $53,120 a year overall, they’re right around the average for all American wage workers. Then again, who wants to think of themselves as average?
All Your Base Salaries
So it was edifying to find more granular data, at least about one sector in the audio engineering universe. In October, the GameSoundCon Game Audio Industry Survey 2017 results were published. GameSoundCon, which bills itself as “the premier conference for video game music and sound design,” runs an annual conference around game audio, one that recently expanded to offer a full day dedicated to audio for virtual reality, and another full day on academic and research topics, which kind of makes it like AES on skateboards.
GameSoundCon’s survey was conducted from 15th June to 30th July, and was promoted heavily via social media and other game or music industry web sites. It received 464 usable responses from all around the world, and monetary values were converted to USD. Granted, it seems like a small sample size, but it includes both salaried and freelance respondents, so it’s more representative than the BLS surveys in some key ways.
Among the findings: the average (mean) yearly salary was $74,732 (total reported compensation divided by the number of responses), while the median yearly salary — the midpoint between the highest and lowest numbers — was $64,000. The average compensation was up over the previous year’s survey, up from $71,838 in 2016. (The mean number actually fell a bit, from $64,434 in 2016, which suggests that the troubling dynamic of the wealthy getting wealthier and the rest falling away pervades in this business, too.) However, the survey also included average ‘side’ income of $15,604, which it says approximately 16.5 percent of salaried respondents collect. Thus, the more ambitious amongst wage workers in game audio were pulling in well over $80,000. That’s enough to comfortably make house and car payments on.
The survey found that freelancers have lower incomes — average earnings were $69,848, after starting with a first-year income of $33,276 — but they also can have the highest individual incomes, with a few spiking into low six figures. In other words, taking your chances on your own offers both the best rewards and the highest level of risk. But we already knew that, didn’t we? Still, nice to have that statistically confirmed. Freelancers reported having an average 7.5 years on the job versus closer to a decade for wage earners, so you’ll likely get where you’re going, for better or for worse, faster than the salaried bloke.
Mind The Gap
Beyond dollars and cents, the survey had other interesting revelations about our cousins in the game-sound sector. For instance, game audio professionals are predominantly male; only 12.7 percent of all respondents were female, though that was up from 10.4 percent in 2016 and seven percent in 2015, so the trend is positive. What’s less positive, though sadly unsurprising, is that women continue to earn just a percentage of what their male counterparts make. An average salaried woman will earn $63,319, compared to a man making $74,911, the survey discovered, and the female will have worked very slightly longer in the business to get there, as well. The better news is that the wage disparity has decreased year over year, so the trend is also positive.
In terms of education, almost three quarters of all respondents reported having a bachelor’s degree or higher, just under a quarter of them reported having had some college or an associate’s degree; 19 percent reported one or more graduate degrees. Among salaried employees working in game audio, 54 percent have a degree in music or an audio-related field, 14 percent have a computer or technical degree, while 13 percent received a degree in an area other than music or computer/technical. Another way to look at this is that this cohort is making enough money that their student-loan debt is not overly burdensome. It certainly underscores the fact that formal education is pretty much no longer optional.
Video gaming is a big business, generating an estimated $11.7 billion in the US in 2016, and it relies heavily on audio, including music, dialogue and sound effects. It’s worth looking at as a career track in and of itself. But thanks to the survey, it also provides a bit of a window into the economics of being an audio professional these days, especially the numbers it found for freelancers, which comprise most of the record production corps. And the numbers suggest well more than subsistence farming here. The value of audio professionals to the projects, and thus to the industry, are reflected in the wages they can earn. Those in game audio tend to be part of larger projects, with scores, if not hundreds, of people working on titles with budgets into the millions of dollars. But there are still plenty of lone workers doing offline aspects of projects, just as offline editing and processing has become a growing job category in music production. We may not have a perfect picture of what music engineers are earning, but from what we can see in this glimpse into one sector of sound, there’s reason to be optimistic.