Question From (Beginning) Developer: Is $X a Fair Amount for Music?

Oct 24, 2014

For context, this title question was received by someone I’ve recently started training. He’s programming his first game project. Since I’m formatting this as an Open Response for readers who may have related questions, I’ve extended my original reply with added considerations that are separate from his specific situation.

Answer: Just what is a fair amount to pay for music? It depends.

Pricing Varies – A Lot

A world famous composer could easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are as new to making game music as you are to the development side. The latter is sometimes just eager to practice in context and get some beginner errors behind them, and so might be open to collaborating for free – so long as you’re not aiming to make money from the project either.

Some professionals charge thousands of dollars for a few original compositions. I’ve also met a younger musician who was excited just to be making money when someone licensed his music for $10. (He’d been practicing for years just as something fun to do.)

Consider Creative Commons

When weighing music sources, another popular option is to browse for Creative Commons Attribution licensed music, which is kind of free in that your “payment” for it usually just consists of properly crediting the song creator. The music in this case isn’t one-of-a-kind, and you’re likely to hear it at some point in someone else’s game or YouTube video too. If you don’t happen to know a beginning musician friend who’d like to simply jam together though, this route’s pretty appealing.

(Kevin MacLeod’s site with his collected Creative Commons tracks is an amazing resource: His music is so well made and comes in such a variety of styles that it’s common to hear these even in some commercial projects.)

There are innumerable great Creative Commons Attribution and Public Domain tracks out there. Scouring through them to pick ones that fit your project’s tone and pacing can itself be a creative act of curatorial selection.

An Expense or an Investment

There’s a critical distinction to keep in mind when sizing up a price on something like music or paid art assets. The difference between turning to free/cheap music or turning to high cost original professional compositions isn’t like weighing the difference between buying an ok used car or a new luxury BMW, it’s more like the difference between buying a consumer model car versus investing in a $470 million Formula One model. F1 vehicles, though seemingly outrageously expensive in a direct comparison, exist for a very different reason: every F1 car is made to try to earn back more than its costs.

When Steven Spielberg pays composer John Williams, Tim Burton pays composer Danny Elfman, or Electronic Arts pays composer Mark Mothersbaugh, they’re no doubt paying a ton of money, but it’s a justifiable investment. They clearly have the marketing muscle, established reputation, and most importantly, practical industry experience and expertise to realistically gamble on their chances of earning back more than what they spend. Compared to if they made the soundtrack using their beginning friend’s music or some found creative commons tracks, which could spell a huge loss in the industrial art’s cultural impact, spread across over time those seemingly very expensive music tracks may have an expected value of negative cost. I.e. in the long run they pay back their costs, and then some.

If, on the other hand, someone’s in a situation of being unlikely to earn much – if any – money from a given game, which is most often the case for someone’s first few practice projects, then any money spent on it isn’t an investment decision but is like any other consumer-side choice: simply paying to get something we desire. When there’s no expectation of earning the money back, it’s purely a personal choice and a matter of someone’s financial situation.

First Project(s) – Not an Investment

What I think is incredibly important is to be careful about not tricking ourselves into thinking prematurely with an investment mindset.

With the rise of things like the Unity Asset store, buyable game templates, TurboSquid models, and grossly misrepresented tales of runaway indie success stories, a lot of people are losing a lot of money by buying and combining paid parts then putting it behind a paywall and seeing it yield next to no money in the marketplace. It’s critical to recognize that in order for an original John Williams score to be an investment, rather than an unrecoverable expense, it matters a great deal that it’s Steven Spielberg paying and putting it to use, not a beginning college filmmaker who just so happens to be sitting on $2 million of disposable income.

It can be unproductive and hopelessly frustrating to agonize over “am I doing the business side right” if the deeper issue is that the game is a rough learning project, unpolished not only around its edges but literally beginner work at its very core, such that no money spent on professional-quality assets or advertising could likely yield a positive return. A commercially viable project isn’t just a pile of expensive assets.

For that matter, out of the dozens and dozens of commercially profitable independent game developers that I’ve had the pleasure to meet over the years, I know of only one game made by any of them ever that involved purchased pre-made art assets, for example. That particular game got cancelled before release. By the time someone’s design and programming abilities are up to a level that it can be done in a commercially viable way, the kind of assets that are pre-made rather than contracted (commissioned as work-for-hire) specifically for their project’s needs could actually hold the game back.

If Priority is Learning Development

For people’s first games I encourage keeping costs low. I think this helps push us to improve upon (or find ways to work cleverly around) our weaknesses.

Keeping costs low consists of making our own art and sounds (even if not professional quality), writing our own code (which helps prepare us to later develop more original and sophisticated games), and if not versed in or comfortable enough in music composition to make our own soundtrack, browsing for Creative Commons Attribution or public domain tunes that fit.

Spending money on outside art and music assets can also be addictive, or at least habit forming. If you spend $X on music for your first game project, will that set you up to spend another $X or more for music in your next projects? If each project you work on begins to cost you at least $X, then you’ve just introduced another limitation on your opportunities to practice and improve, and one more potential reason to quit making games (when doing so no longer seems worth $X per game), even though once you’ve mastered a core skill set it can be enjoyed at no outside cost.

Paying for assets of any kind early on can also quickly paint you into a corner, reducing your flexibility to change direction or allow the tone to develop organically as you explore the project and your abilities.

A simple rule of thumb: unless/until you’re experienced enough to be charging for the work that you’re doing as a game’s main developer (and if you’re new to game making, that doesn’t happen overnight), I’d be cautious about paying professionals for high-quality work to use as a part of a project. It’s not that I’m opposed to skilled people charging a fair amount for what they do, but it makes sense to work with other people who are nearer to your own experience level. If you’re just starting to learn the ropes of game design and programming, connect and collaborate with others who are also just starting to learn the ropes of whatever they’re doing too, whether that’s digital art, sound, music, or otherwise. If it’s mainly a learning project for you, making it into a commercial project for one or more contributors cannot raise the whole project to commercial viability. A first-time playwright paying an expensive professional actor to perform their script would essentially just be for fun, an expense for the memory, it won’t somehow make up for the script being the work of someone who’s still working through common beginner errors.

All that said, if you’re in a position where you’d simply prefer to pay to get custom music and sound made for the project, there’s of course nothing wrong with paying for something because you want it and it’s worth its cost to you. It just has to be recognized and properly accepted in this context as an expense, unlikely to realistically recoup its costs.

If Priority is Learning Business

My recommendations and rationale are connected to my role as someone focused on training skills for gameplay programmers and technical game designers. It’s rooted in my sense that what you’re most interested in learning are the practical craftsmanship skills needed to create your own games.

However there is another type of learning that can come from opting to pay for original, professional composition, even while still beginning: it will introduce practice in dealing with contracting, directing paid work, work-for-hire/consulting legal agreements and related transfer of rights, as well as other business aspects like negotiation and proper bookkeeping.

If you see your long-term interest in game development being more on the studio executive or entrepreneurial end, those are a whole separate set of skills to learn than programming and design. In that sort of business-centric direction, rather than concerning yourself with mastering programming techniques or honing your design process, at some point you’d instead be looking to hire solid programmers and experienced designers to trust their expertise and connect their abilities, somewhat similar to but much more involved than paying and directing a composer.

Even if going that direction, getting at least some practice with actual design, development, and the overall process first will help you speak the language of specialists later.

(Also, to be clear: legal and tax-related aspects are outside my credentials and training focus. If taking the commercial project path you’ll need a lawyer and proper accountant involved.)

Why Not Earn Back… Just a Little?

When the potential earnings of a completed game are likely to be in the low double (even single) digits anyhow, due to being an early learning-as-you-go project, there are even a few advantages to not attaching it to any payment, ad, or store mechanisms at all.


1. As mentioned earlier on, there are other beginners, who make music and otherwise, who may be open to collaborating for free as practice for everyone involved… but that works if and only if the game is going to be released for free. If you’re in a position to profit from it, the conversation changes from cooperative, mutually beneficial practice and early portfolio work (which some people are open to) instead to trying to get them to do free work for your benefit (which virtually no one will or should do).

2. License details vary per Creative Commons work depending upon the specific version attached, but some creative commons songs, sounds, fonts, and so on are only permitted for use in non-commercial work. This rules out a ton of decent content options that are otherwise within your reach when making a freeware game.

3. As briefly alluded to earlier, if you’re going to be treating game creation as a business by connecting it somehow to income, there are a lot of added time consuming and potentially expensive complications that have to be dealt with. If dealt with incorrectly those obligations can turn out to be even more time consuming and even more expensive – so to avoid that minefield involves paying legal and financial professionals upfront, which doesn’t scale down if a game doesn’t earn much. Those costs quickly add up, and if someone’s doing it in a way that they don’t, it’s likely risk that’s adding up instead.

There’s a time and place when it can make sense to take all that on, but it’s generally after at least a few years or more of learning and practice.

Investing Time Before Investing Budget

Time spent practicing is the best long-term investment early on.

Mastering the fundamentals before diving into the fray of spending big money on a project in an effort to boost the odds of earning big money back will have you better prepared and equipped than others you’re competing against.

Unlike a lot of other websites, shows, and news sites that get traffic by presenting a pumped up, glamorized, and distorted view of the game making business, I speak and write frankly about the challenges and realities that I believe aren’t discussed openly enough. People need to know what they’re up against.

If you’d like me in your corner, too, I have a limited number of spots open.

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