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Videogame Composer Blasts Musicians Union for Rule-Violation Charges Amid Contract Strife

Videogame composer Austin Wintory has been charged by the American Federation of Musicians with violating musicians-union rules for recording a game score in Texas.

Wintory faces a maximum $50,000 fine and possible expulsion from the union. He was first notified in January, even before the release of the Viking-themed fantasy game “The Banner Saga,” but decided to go public because he believes he’s been unfairly targeted.

The dust-up between Wintory and the union comes at a time when musicians are increasingly angry about the AFM’s failure to keep vidgame score recording in L.A. by focusing on a contract that has been rejected by major game publishers. AFM Local 47 VP John Acosta declined to comment about the case as an “internal union matter.”

Wintory concedes that he recorded “The Banner Saga” with the Dallas Wind Symphony in July 2013, most of which was conducted by Wind Symphony music director Jerry Junkin. Texas is a right-to-work state, meaning even union musicians can’t be stopped from working under non-union auspices.

Wintory conducted a few cues for publicity purposes, and one of those photos accompanied a story about the score in a Jan. 3 New York Times article about the composer, whose “Journey” had just become the first videogame to receive a Grammy nomination for music.

“I was in Texas as a composer and music producer, which I did not believe were in violation of AFM bylaws, since those tasks are not covered or represented by the AFM,” Wintory said.

He points out he has been an active supporter of recording with union musicians in Los Angeles. He insisted on recording his “Captain Abu Raed” film score with AFM musicians in 2007, and he recorded the first iPad game, “Horn,” under union auspices in the summer of 2012 before the union instituted a more restrictive game contract that game publishers refuse to sign.

The composer initially attempted to record “Banner Saga” with L.A. musicians but found that the revised union contract made it twice as expensive as recording in London as well as adding conditions regarding soundtrack albums and extra fees related to future uses of the music.

Composer and frequent AFM critic Michael W. Barry, who founded and moderates the 3,000-member “Hollywood Film, Television and Interactive Scoring Community” Facebook page and who has scored the popular “League of Legends” game, confirms that no publisher has used the most recent game contract since the AFM drafted it in December 2012.

“The terms are nowhere near what the industry wants,” Barry says, noting that game companies insist on owning all of the intellectual property, including music, that goes into their games. The previous AFM game contract, dating from 2007, was “very producer-friendly,” he said, and a handful of games “grandfathered” under that contract continue to be scored in L.A.

Wintory is just one of many composers who record non-union but, according to several game composers contacted by Variety, he is believed to be the first to be charged with violating AFM rules. Game composers frequently go to Seattle (a non-AFM city), London or Nashville (whose AFM musicians are, as in Texas, allowed to record non-union because Tennessee is a right-to-work state).

Although Acosta declined to comment for this story, he wrote in a recent issue of the Local 47 publication Overture that “the lack of market share for the AFM in video games has reached a point of crisis” and admitted that “the limited work we were doing before has all but vanished into non-union productions.

“We need to begin serious conversations with the videogame companies that want to record AFM, and craft deals that protect musicians but will be acceptable to the employers. Unless we act fast, it will be game over for us,” Acosta wrote.

Wintory believes that he has “plainly demonstrated that I am interested in the health of the community, a community that’s not intimidated and threatened by its own union. There are a huge number of composers and musicians who make the majority of their living from the game industry, and I can only assume they’re all next on the chopping block.”

Ironically, Wintory will conduct his music from “The Banner Saga” Wednesday night at L.A’s Nokia Theatre as part of the latest “Video Games Live” concert — an event presumably staged under a union contract.

Local 47 is holding a special meeting Thursday night to discuss musicians’ dissatisfaction with the growing number of game and film scores being recorded away from L.A. as a result of current union contracts.

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