Writing and orchestrating music for games has evolved and branched into an accessible, entirely viable way for today's composers to make a living with music. Big-budget AAA games have co-opted the studio orchestras and recording spaces of Hollywood films, and smaller indie games provide independent composers a means with which to broadcast their music to a massive and enthusiastic audience. Any way you slice it, video games are the newest, broadest, and most exciting way to make a living writing music today.
"I tried to do music for films for seven years," composer Danny Baranowsky told me. "I did around twenty projects. And over seven years of indie film music I've made probably $2,000. Total. I'm not saying you can't do it. But I did not find a way to do it."
Baranowsky put aside film scoring to move into the world of video games, and today he's a well-known name in the world of video game music—his soundtracks for Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, as well as his work on several successful iOS games, have earned him critical accolades and financial success. He's a regular speaker at conventions like Minecon, PAX and the Music and Gaming Festival (MAGfest), and he's providing music for Minecraft creator Marcus "Notch" Persson's next game. In other words, Danny Baranowsky is making it happen.
"I was glad when I finally got my break in games," he told me. "I was so sick of feeling like I was spinning my wheels. I was getting better, I was improving, but the idea of making a living at it was something that I couldn't get any traction in at all."
Baranowsky laughingly told me that the first game he got paid for was a puzzle game for the Nokia Sidekick, which he actually had to do in MIDI. He did another game for the same company, this time for the iPhone, composing five minutes of original music for, as he recalls it, $70 a minute (this is very, very low for a composer). The game was never released.
Soon after that, Baranowsky provided the music for Adam Atomic's iPhone games Canabalt and Gravity Hook, both of which were App store hits. His subsequent work on Team Meat's Xbox Live Arcade hit Super Meat Boy locked him in as a composer to watch, and finally started putting some real money in his pocket.
That's in large party because Baranowsky owns the rights to the music from the game, which he sells through his Bandcamp page. Baranowsky told me that independent music sales have accounted for about double what was paid for working on the game.
In fact, had the soundtrack been bundled through Steam as it was with The Binding of Isaac, he would have made much, much more. " Isaac was a fairly successful game, but I made ten times as much money on the Steam bundle option as I did on Bandcamp. It just goes to show that although Steam isn't where you would go to get music, the reach of Steam is… it's fucking amazing."
In other words, Baranowsky made ten times more money selling music through an online video game store than he did through online musical outlets. Many artists think of making a living by selling tunes through iTunes or Bandcamp or CD Baby, but the idea of tying original music to a platform like Steam is smart, focused, and at least in the case of The Binding of Isaac, really works. (Surely it helps that the Isaac soundtrack is very, very good.) Other artists have found similar success by doing work for indie games—both Bastion's Darren Korb and Sword & Sworcery's Jim Guthrie are songwriters whose work has received huge amounts of new attention thanks to their involvement with successful video games.
Not every musician working in video games makes a living by going indie. Jeremy Levy, a friend of mine and fellow University of Miami jazz graduate, has been doing just fine following a more traditional route. He's a session trombonist, orchestrator and arranger in Los Angeles, and has provided orchestration work on video games from Batman: Arkham City to inFAMOUS 2 to God of War III, as well as TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Pushing Daisies and The Event.
Levy told me that shortly after leaving Miami to spend ten months in a touring horn section, he decided to head out to California to give Hollywood film-scoring a shot.
"I had pretty lucky go of it," he said. "I made a good amount of connections either from UMiami or from touring, and Gary Lindsay (Miami's arranging professor) gave me a few composers out here to get in touch with." From there, Levy wound up working with Tim Davies, the Australian Orchestrator who conducted and headed up orchestration for many of the same games that Levy has worked on, as well as a bunch more.
(While looking Davies up, I found that he worked on both Prototype and inFAMOUS. Ha!)
While Levy started out doing grunt work—taping parts, printing out music, and other things like that, he quickly graduated to the kind of jack-of-all trades work that is necessary to make a living as a professional musician. "It's whatever and wherever work comes in," he said of his day-to-day gigs. "Writing, orchestration, arranging, music prep, anything I can get my hands on."
Unlike Baranowsky, Levy works very much in the Hollywood model, which means he has to live in Hollywood. By way of contrast, Baranowsky remarked upon the locational flexibility of the indie games scene. The internet, he said, has leveled the playing field in a lot of ways, from distribution to promotion, but one of the biggest ways is geography.
"I live in Phoenix, dude," Baranowsky said. "The asshole of suburbia. And I work with people in Britain, and Sweden, and New Zealand, and South Africa, and Santa Cruz and North Carolina, and it doesn't matter at all. It's cool to see people, and meet people in real life, but still, anybody can do it, as long as they have an internet connection."
For a long time, Baranowsky composed with a low-key setup, mostly using Propellerhead's Reason, though he's switched up these days and uses more elaborate sample libraries. His process sounds idiosyncratic in that way that only solo composers can be—he described banging out the music for Canabalt in a single session and sending it off to Adam Atomic immediately afterwards.
Baranowsky is no longer living from project to project, something that's in large part attributable to the fact that he can independently sell his own work. "I'm not living check to check," he said, "which is a new thing for me." He says that while he's always interested in talking about bigger projects, the idea of taking on a big-budget AAA game soundtrack doesn't really interest him. "I think it would be less money, and less fun, and I wouldn't have the rights to my music."
Levy, on the other hand, is much more of a hired gun. Much of his work is through the local California musician's union, and it's much less likely for a composer to retain full ownership of his or her compositions; if they're lucky, they'll retain some of the publishing rights.
AAA games are currently very focused on making everything sound big and exciting, just like Hollywood soundtracks. Levy said his ability to find work making video game soundtracks depends somewhat on the whims of the market—will the public always want game soundtracks that sound like movies? Will there always be as much work for arrangers, conductors and orchestrators in the gaming scene? When I asked him how sustainable the kind of work he was doing is, he wasn't sure.
"I don't know if I have an answer for that," he said. "Music will always exist, and if anything there will only be more need for it in the future. What I do is very dependent on live performers, and it's dependent on the type of project that would need that. Now it's popular with games, because they're trying to make everything as epic as possible. Who knows if that will stay. Like how in the 80's [in film], all of that stuff went away."
Levy makes a good point—there really is more cross-media demand for music than there ever has been. And, of course, he doesn't only make a living from games—much of the work he does comes from TV shows, films, and other musical projects.
Between them, Levy and Baranowsky perfectly demonstrate the disparate ways that professional musicians can make a living making music. Both make a living writing a lot (Levy) or exclusively (Baranowsky) for games, but they're almost opposites in terms of their daily work and their approach. No one way is "better" than the other; both have their strengths, and both are fueled by demand for very specific kinds of work.
"I'm much more of a traditional writer," said Levy, "I write scored charts, so I fell into this because it was what I'm good at. But if things need to change, they need to change. You start using a sequencer, you start using a sample library—everything can become about tech. I certainly have plenty of that dabbling in my life, but I prefer to have my music performed by real people. It's really hard to tell right now where it'll go."
Baranowsky says he knows plenty of composers who have headed up the soundtracks on AAA games, and says that the things he hears about the trials and tribulations of AAA game-composition turn him off.
"All I can think is man, I don't want to be AAA. If some AAA studio gave me an offer I'd have to really think about it." (He was quick to say that he has a Star Wars Exception: If anyone ever asked him to do the soundtrack to a Star Wars game, he would be required to say yes.)
Levy told me that he'd certainly like to do more independent scoring, working on smaller, more self-contained projects, but wasn't sure if his current trajectory would end up there. "I definitely think it's something I'd be interested in doing, it's something that I never really had the opportunity to do. When I got [to L.A.], I fell into what I'm doing pretty quickly, so I never really went [the indie] route, you know, scoring films for film students. I sort of missed out on that. That may be something I need to address in the future. But I never really presented myself as doing that; you go down one path, and it leads to other things along that path."
Near the end of our conversation, Baranowsky shared an anecdote: "I'm friends with a band here in Arizona, they're fairly big; they've sold hundreds and hundreds of thousands of albums. Now, they have to split that five ways, which that's something to keep in mind. But: I've made more money by myself than they did with with their album sold in best buy, doing a national tour."
Whether composing music in an Arizona apartment or running parts with an L.A. studio orchestra, there are more ways to make a living making music than ever. It requires hard work and talent, but there are scores of creative outlets for composers that didn't exist even five years ago.
Video games provide a fantastic new venue for talented young composers, and I for one can't wait to find out who we hear from next.