(Editor’s note: In lieu of this week’s Liner Notes, Patrick brings you an opinion piece regarding the sale of digital game soundtracks.)
If you ask me, one of the most important aspects of a game (aside from being fun and playable) is whether or not it has good music.
A game’s soundtrack can make or break a game. Without a good soundtrack that instills some sort of joyful, thrilling or even fearful emotion in me I can’t have fond memories of that experience.
Some of us don’t think it’s enough to just hear a great tune while we’re busy blasting through a random encounter, stomping on a Goomba or tossing sonic booms. Damn it, some of us like to walk or drive down the road to the hair-raising ’80s rock euphoria that is the Grandia II battle theme, or the infectiously catchy melodies of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. That’s why we like to purchase videogame soundtracks.
It’s hardly a new concept. Since the ’80s, game publishers have worked in tandem with publishing companies to bring its glorious soundtracks to its fans’ ears. Videogame music soundtracks have been sold in the form of ultra-rare physical CD releases and more recently, digital downloads on Amazon, iTunes and Sumthing Digital.
And while some publishers like Sega, Square-Enix and Konami have done a decent job in making some of their more popular game music available for purchase digitally, there could be so much more. And it’s weird that other publishers haven’t fully embraced the concept.
Take Capcom, for instance. Its game music, which includes the likes of Street Fighter and Mega Man, is some of the most well-known in the world. Japan has had an abundance of CD releases for those games and even for more underrated ones like Breath of Fire.
A Capcom online store representative and I spoke about the potential sale of digital game soundtracks, and though some physical discs have been sold on the site in the past, he stated that he was “unable to set up single-song downloads” but was looking into downloadable soundtracks. In a livestream fan chat with game composer Tommy Tallarico at last year’s E3, Capcom’s Community Manager Brett Elston mentioned that he has “argued for” the sale of Capcom’s digital game music in the past.
I honestly don’t think Capcom has anything to lose from selling their music digitally via their Capcom Store or even Amazon and iTunes. Bionic Commando Rearmed composer and current freelancer Simon Viklund agrees.
I know that Capcom works with a company that handles the paperwork of a soundtrack release [there is quite a lot of paperwork] in exchange for a cut of the sales of the soundtrack,” Viklund said in an email. “So if you consider this, no game company really has to do anything other than signing a contract and sending this music aggregator the soundtrack, in order to get the music out there on iTunes, etc.”
Viklund delved further, explaining that other aggregator companies take less of a cut of the soundtrack’s sales, or none at all, in exchange for a monthly fee for as long as the publisher wants the soundtrack to be available for purchase. Furthermore, the music in a potential game soundtrack release needs to go through a long editing process to make it listenable on an MP3 player, so some costs are also derived from that. How much, Viklund told Pixelitis, was not necessarily a whole lot.
Judging from this, it seems like a publisher can only benefit from releasing the soundtrack to a popular game.
For game music enthusiasts looking to purchase the music to support your favorite composers, they may be surprised to learn that not everyone gets a cut of the sales of a game soundtrack. Like a great many movie composers, game composers will make money from their work but they won’t hold ownership or control over it.
Viklund, for instance, does not make any money from the sales of the Bionic Commando Rearmed soundtrack, saying that “Grin [the developer] or me as an individual [the composer] hasn’t received any royalties whatsoever from sales of the BCR soundtrack. I think it has sold at least 10,000 copies but there are no official numbers. That’s just how it works in the game biz.”
In the case of Rearmed, three entities share the profit of the sales: the aggregator, distributor (i.e. iTunes and Sumthing Digital) and publisher (Capcom). A composer is paid a one-off fee or a salary depending on whether he or she is a freelance composer or employed by the game developer.
One composer who wished to remain anonymous, mentioned that certain publishers like EA, Square Enix and Sony “are more open to giving composers royalties on soundtrack sales, etc., and it is not yet considered the norm, though it’s happening more frequently than it used to.”
The business behind selling game soundtracks is still a bit murky. It all depends on what kind of deal was negotiated between the developer and the composer.
“If the composer’s agent doesn’t push for it, it may not happen. If the agency has some clout and requests it, the composer is more likely to get soundtrack royalties.”
Royalty-talk aside, the bottom line is that there can be money made in selling digital game soundtracks. More publishers just need to realize that fans would gladly chip in.
Capcom isn’t the only publisher that ought to step up to the plate with its game music — Nintendo could do more as well. Don’t get me wrong, the company has done a fine job with physical CD releases in the past. The last two big Zelda releases, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword however, haven’t seen official soundtracks at all, not even in Japan. Given the gargantuan amount of music found in both of these titles, a digital release would make a lot of sense.
There are, of course, potential licensing hurdles to overcome for putting up some soundtracks digitally. During a Q&A panel at MAGfest XI, I asked game composer Yuzo Koshiro about the possibility of a digital release of his Actraiser Symphonic Suite, which is nigh impossible to find in CD form. He mentioned how obtaining licensing rights may prove complicated, and that it would be more likely for him to redo the suite with a new orchestra.
Game soundtracks aren’t entirely a niche market either. The remarkable performance of Austin Wintory’s Journey soundtrack on iTunes and Amazon MP3, as well as its Grammy nod, proves that. A videogame soundtrack being featured as a top-selling soundtrack, outselling even film scores isn’t a rare occurrence anymore.
If we start seeing digital releases of full-on Final Fantasy, Mega Man and Castlevania soundtracks, there’s a chance those could serve as a gateway to other more obscure ones, like Terranigma Creative Soundtracks, Breath of Fire Original Soundtrack Special Box and Vandal Hearts II ~Tenjou no Mon~ Original Soundtrack. Heck, imagine owning legitimate MP3s of game music that have never seen the light of day… like the DuckTales NES soundtrack.
One can dream.