Vidgame makers, maestros seek harmony

Federation tries to clean up past mistakes

If you’re a videogame composer hoping to use an orchestra, the key question hasn’t changed: Can I record with union musicians? Or will the game publisher force me to go overseas?

It’s a sore subject for game execs, none of those contacted by Variety agreed to be interviewed fearing they’ll look like the bad guy, outsourcing jobs that could be done by American musicians.

The American Federation of Musicians, now under a new president, is trying to clean up the mess that resulted from confusion and inconsistency during the previous regime that ended last year. There is one game contract instead of the series of one-off deals that offended musicians and publishers alike.

AFM prexy Ray Hair says improved communication with publishers and composers is helping gain ground for U.S. musicians, especially in L.A. and San Francisco, the two locals that do the most vidgame work.

“We have a different crew in the West Coast office that’s working to explain these kinds of things, and we’ve got more publishers signing now than in the year before,” says Hair.

For game companies, the issue is twofold: Can they get an orchestral score more cheaply by recording non-union? And can they do so without committing to potential future payments if they choose to use that music again, either in a soundtrack or in another game?

“The two best places to score are L.A. and London, although I prefer working in L.A.” says Garry Schyman, a top game composer who scored “Bioshock 2” in L.A. and “Dante’s Inferno” in London. Other venues available include Seattle (the main non-union recording spot in the U.S.) and Eastern European cities including Prague, Bratislava, Budapest and Sofia, where wages are much lower.

Composer Bear McCreary, whose Sony PlayStation game “SOCOM 4” debuts April 19, notes the military-strategy game takes place in Asia.

The top ethnic-music soloists he needed — who handle koto, bansuri, shakuhachi, taiko drums — are all here on the West Coast, so he recorded in San Francisco with union musicians.

“The musicians here are the best in the world,” he says. “These people really are stars, in the same way that you want to fill your cast with stars that sell your movies.”

More problematic for publishers is the AFM’s contractual language, which demands that the publisher be liable for any future payments — most would prefer to conclude their business with the recording sessions, allowing them to own the music and do whatever they like with it in the future without restrictions or obligations.

“If they don’t want to sign the agreement, or aren’t willing to pay for AFM musicians, then you can’t work union,” says another composer who preferred anonymity. A publisher asked him to work up proposed budgets for scoring in Seattle, London and a city in Eastern Europe, but refused to consider scoring in L.A., he says.

His past experience with Eastern European musicians was “acceptably good,” he adds, but performances by L.A. and London musicians were “noticeably, audibly better.”

Return to Music for Screens: Spring 2011

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