If you are writing music for games, when, if ever, is it ok to work for free?
This is an age old question amongst composers… and here is my take on the subject.
There is one camp that says ‘yes, you should, and with the amount of competition out there it’s the only way to compete and get a foot in the door. Start working for free now, and pretty soon you’ll be able to work your way up the ladder’ is the way the theory goes…
The other view is ‘NEVER WORK FOR FREE – it cheapens you as the composer and all other composers too’.
You also have where I would say the majority of composers lie, which is struggling with the decision somewhere in the middle.
As you have probably seen if you’ve ever followed any conversations online on the subject, people have very strong opinions one way or the other.
Well, I actually have very strong opinions on why neither answer is correct.
You Work For Yourself! (Never Forget That)
For a start, I dislike the idea that I as a composer somehow represent all composers. Whilst I appreciate the community of composers that I’ve got to know, at the end of the day we are all individual freelancers.
I’m not part of the musician’s union, but even if I was, I would like to think I would be in charge of my own career decisions. I see myself as my own boss and in charge of my own composing future. Who I decide to work with and on what terms is totally up to me and won’t be dictated to by an outside body.
I realise this stance is subject to the various country or state laws where you are and I know there have been some recent issues in the US regarding the AFoM and Austin Wintory for example, so again this is very much an individual perspective.
The point I’m making is that I refuse to take on the burden of bringing the supposed value of music composition down if I decide to work for free.
Working For Free Is Not A Right Of Passage
I also equally disagree with the thinking that I HAVE to work for free to compete with every other composer out there.
In fact what I believe you are doing in these cases is just competing with every other free composer out there.Working for free won't guarantee you'll get the game audio gig Click To Tweet
If price is taken out of the equation (because say 5 composers are offering to work for free), you’ll end up having to negotiate on other terms such as availability, commitment, copyright etc. All you’ve done is lower the bar so then it will come down to the quickest, most available or geographically nearest. In other words, these days, even free won’t clinch the deal for you.
What Is My Approach To Working For Free?
I have worked for free in the past, but under very specific conditions.
For the first game I worked on, I did agree to work for free up front, but with the understanding I would receive a royalty once the game was selling. Is this working for free? Well, technically I guess not, although if the game hadn’t sold (it did), then it would have all been for free.
I have also worked for free occasionally when I want to build up pieces for my portfolio. I have never just worked for free because I felt I had to.
Make sure you are getting something you want in exchange for the free work if you decide to do it. And if you are getting something of value in exchange, then it’s not really free anyway is it?
BUT, and here is the important point (the whole article is important obviously, but especially this next part), if you do decide to work for free, make sure your client knows exactly what you are doing and that whatever you asked for in return, they actually deliver.
Never just do the work without your client knowing that you are making a special exception and without you spelling out what the reasons are etc. That way you won’t just be another desperate composer willing to lay down all standards and work for nothing.
Another example of when I might work for free or when you might want to consider it, is when you absolutely love the the game and think it would be a fantastic portfolio piece or would give you great experience in a particular genre or technical ability. This last reason is often overlooked and is perfectly valid.
For example a game might lend itself to an interactive score and will give you a real chance to cut your teeth with fmod or wwise. This could be a great reason to offer to work for free if you really wanted that experience.
Play The Long Game
Finally, it’s worth noting that if you are in game composing/audio for the long term, make sure you play the long game.
This particular project you have on the table where you are working for free might be the first of many games this developer makes. Go with your common sense and instinct and decide if you think it’s a developer worth getting involved with at the ground floor so to speak.When it comes to your VGM career, play the long game Click To Tweet
For example you could say, ‘I’ll work on this current game for free, in return for a testimonial, but also on the understanding that providing you love what I do for your game, I will be your composer for your next game, where I will be paid at x rate’. That’s just an example, and the details may well not fit your situation, but you get the idea.
It’s a gamble as they might never make a second game, but nothing game development is certain.
What Does This Means For You?
So you can see that in certain circumstances, working for free is not either a ‘never do it’ or an ‘always do it’ kind of thing. It depends on you, the developer and both your specific circumstances.
What I would warn you about though is working for free just because the developer says that’s all that’s possible or because you feel like you have no choice.Negotiate the terms of your ‘freeness’ just as strongly as you would if money was on the table Click To Tweet
Full credit goes to Ramit Sethi who I have learned a great deal from in terms of working for free and freelancing in general.