Why are musicians often underpaid by the video game industry?
The video game industry is larger than the film and TV industries combined. Despite this, most composers creating original video game music are not paid the same as they would be doing the same work for films and TV shows. Here’s why.
from the TRICHORDIST
Composers who create the music for your favorite films and tv shows are paid a fee which generally covers the actual hard costs of writing, producing and recording the music for that show. Most of the time that fee doesn’t leave a lot for the composer to live on after the hard costs listed above. However, film and tv composers also typically receive a royalty in the form of an additional payment when the film or show is broadcast or streamed.
This is called a public performance royalty. In most countries the composers are also paid in the same manner for theatrical exhibition (the United States is one of the few countries that does not pay this).
In addition to the public performance royalty most countries also pay a mechanical reproduction royalty. Both of these royalties may vary slightly from territory to territory but both are long established norms for the composer as the songwriter, and hence the creator of the copyright of the original music.
It is these royalties that have long been established as an essential form of compensation that allows composers to actually make a living. Videogame Composers however do not receive these long established payments that their film and tv composer counterparts receive.
To be fair to the videogame industry the early distribution methods of games and gameplay operated in a very different manner than that of film & tv. Even in the 90s for example, games were still distributed on cartridges and music was written for the hardware chipset of each console (or standard pc soundcard).
Since that time the videogame industry has evolved significantly with emerging technologies bringing the gameplay closer to traditional media in user experience and workflow. In fact the videogame industry has grown so large, that its annual revenues now exceed those of the film & tv industries combined. Unfortunately for videogame composers, they are still being compensated under a business model that is half a century old, where music was played by a chipset, not a live orchestra (and the commercial internet was in its infancy).
Game composers are now working under many of the same requirements and expectations as film and tv composers, delivering massively epic scores recorded at major studios with large classical orchestras. In fact, the process of writing music for videogames is a larger and more complex process and requires writing much, much more music due to the scale of the games.
The distribution methods of games has changed as well with many now streamisng in real-time multiplayer modes across a range of consoles, computers, phones and tablets. Some streaming games are free to play, but generate billions of dollars from in-game purchases. Videogame Composers do not participate in any of these revenues created by the new distribution technologies (both downloads or streaming).
The current labor strikes in Hollywood by Writers and Actors highlight and underscore the changing economic realities for creatives presented by these new distribution technologies such as streaming media. A similar situation affects the videogame industry who are transitioning from physical transactional sales to various types of streaming models. Streaming equals broadcast. Broadcast requires both public performance and mechanical reproduction royalties (although these may differ slightly from territory to territory). Streaming is not a transactional model. Streaming is a real-time broadcast and delivery of the media. This is not controversial. Even audio only interactive music streaming services are also bound by these same long established standards and norms.
There is talk of SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) extending the reach of their strike from traditional linear media to video game production. It should be noted that film & tv composers are barred from unionizing and have no collective bargaining power. It is against this backdrop that Videogame Composers recognize their need to advocate for the same royalties that have been long established by traditional media which are currently being reevaluated and updated for the streaming era.
In conclusion, now is the time for this fundamental and long overdue misaligned inequity to be addressed and resolved. A healthy industry is one the invests in itself, its talent and its next generation of creatives who will continue to ensure the growth of the business.