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Why More Game Soundtracks Should be Recorded in the UK

Despite the popularity of game soundtracks, few are recorded in the UK. MU Assistant Secretary General Phil Kear looks at the MU's efforts to change that.

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By Phil Kear Published: 03 January 2021 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM

Videogame soundtracks have come a long way since the monophonic synthesiser lines of 'Pac-Man' or 'Tetris'. These days, gamers can usually expect a full orchestral score, similar to a film or high-budget TV series, while they are saving the planet from an alien invasion. 

In fact, game soundtracks are becoming something of a phenomenon in their own right, with 2018 Sony PlayStation release God Of War winning a ‘Best Music’ BAFTA for its score, written by Emmy Award-winning composer Bear McCreary and recorded primarily in London using UK musicians and singers.

While the quality of UK-recorded soundtracks is hard to deny, most of the recording seems to be undertaken elsewhere. In 2019, 420 new videogames were published, including 'FIFA 20' and the 29th instalment of the long-running 'Legend Of Zeld' series, 'Link’s Awakening', contributing to global game industry revenues of £1.18bn. Yet less than 20 orchestral games soundtracks were recorded in the UK that year.

Game soundtracks: the publisher takes all

The videogames industry has always been predicated on publishers acquiring all future rights in all the elements of each game: the code, the graphics, the artwork and the music. This includes a buyout of the performers’ rights in the game soundtrack.

While the US musicians’ union, AFM, has had a videogame soundtrack recording agreement in place since 1993, already offering all the rights required by games publishers, The Musicians’ Union (MU) has historically been reluctant to grant buyouts on behalf of its members. 

An exclusive deal was agreed with Sony PlayStation in 2005, which granted these additional rights for a one-off fee, and this has resulted in a steady stream of work for MU members, with a game soundtrack averaging 600 hours of musician employment. Other games publishers have historically been quoted an additional fee per musician for every 20 minutes of music recorded, leading to a potential 80% increase in recording costs. This has acted as a serious deterrent to publishers coming here to record game soundtracks.

A bright future for game soundtracks in the UK

Microsoft will release its next generation Xbox console this year. It’s set to be the fastest and most powerful console on the market, allowing developers to produce increasingly elaborate and spectacular games. Sony is looking to release its next generation console, PlayStation 5, at the end of 2020 too, promising to create an immersive experience through dramatically increased graphic rendering speeds and improved cloud gaming performance. 

Given the enormous potential for increased employment of our members working in the recording sector represented by these exciting developments in the videogame industry, a proposal was endorsed by the MU’s Executive Committee to offer the terms of the PlayStation deal to all games publishers, offering a one-off buyout fee per musician per game soundtrack for the additional rights.

We will be promoting the availability of these new terms to our MU Approved Contractors, and across the gaming industry in the coming months. With UK musicians producing breathtaking scores allied to the potentially spectacular games made possible by the superior processing power of the industry’s next generation consoles, I’m hopeful we will see a significant increase in the number of game soundtracks being recorded in the UK moving forward.

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Phil Kear

Phil Kear is Assistant General Secretary at the Musicians’ Union. He has over 25 years’ experience in the music industry, with a specific background in royalties, copyright and licensing. Phil’s current role has oversight of the Union's four industrial departments: Education, Live Performance, Orchestras and Recording & Broadcasting. He is also responsible for the Union's Membership Services department.

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