Musicians are always looking for new ways to get the word out about their music and find a following. The Web provides a lot of great opportunities including Internet radio, blogging, social networking and online distribution (free and paid) to name just a few.
But licensing music online is rapidly becoming another popular tool for independent artists. Such artists, who are able to make quick decisions about what they want to do and license their works for less (or nothing at all in some cases) make them an appealing target for people making sites, videos and video games.
This was a power I understood first hand when, last month, I found myself in my iTunes account purchasing some music from a Newcastle, UK-based band I had never heard of before based solely on their presence in a game I was playing.
This prompted me to reach out to both the game’s developer and the band themselves to see how the licensing arrangement worked and how it had worked out for the both of them.
Swallow Your Soul
Super Crazy Guitar Maniac Deluxe (SCGMD) is a series of Flash-based games that are free to play online. The series has been put together by Rob Sienkiewicz, now of Second Impact Games. The series is a rhythm based game in the vein of Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but using the keyboard instead of external instruments to simulate playing the music.
According to Sienkiewicz, the games feature music exclusively from unsigned artists, all chosen by him. Though he prefers working with bands he knows or bands that he has worked with previously because it’s simpler, he often scours the Web to find tracks he likes and chooses the songs based solely on what he thinks is the best to listen to and the most fun to play.
Sienkiewicz does pay the bands for the songs but licenses then non-exclusively for the game. Saying that, “I believe the norm for TV shows etc. is to license the composition and usually under exclusive terms so the song can’t be used in other places for a certain period. We weren’t really interested in that kind of deal, our main concern was that people give us permission and that they declare that they own the song.”
Sienkiewicz’s latest installment of the SCGMD series, SCGMD4, featured a 2009 song entitled “Swallow Your Soul” by the band Sorry for Nothing as the first track. The song caught on with at least some listeners, myself included and the band behind the tracks seems to agree that it has been a boost to the song’s popularity.
“YouTube views of the video for Swallow Your Soul have gone from a few hundred to over 15,000 since we appeared on the game (Editor’s Note: It’s now over 20,000). Facebook ‘likes’ have also seen a dramatic increase,” said John, Stu and Rob from the band. “A local newspaper ran an article on us appearing on the game which saw some positive comments being posted on our Facebook page.”
Thought the band is still waiting on sales figures for the single, they do know that there was a sudden increase in sales from the US from the first week after the game was released.
It seems clear that the game helped raise the band’s profile, especially in the U.S. But is it an approach that other musical acts should follow and, if so, what opportunities are out there?
Licensing, Risk-Taking and Music
One advantage that unsigned artists have is that they can quickly and easily give or deny permission to use their work and they can make licensing their music more affordable. The online gaming scene is rife with games that use music legitimately from third parties. Whether it’s freely-licensed music from various stock sites or, as with SCGMD, deals struck directly with artists.
Many of these games can reach a very wide audience. For example, SCGMD4 has been played over 675,000 on Kongregate alone and that’s just one of the sites it has been licensed to. However, that doesn’t mean that licensing music to games or videos online is an instant and easy way to get your music heard.
Not only is SCGMD one of the most popular online games and likely the most popular music-oriented series online, but, according to Sienkiewicz, Sorry for Nothing’s success with the game is not entirely typical either. “Being that first song, that every single player will play, is a massive boost and sadly we can’t give that boost to every track. The same happened with Verax in SCGMD3, being the first song they get the lion’s share of the exposure,” Sienkiewicz said.
Also, such licensing without the backing of a label is a risky proposition as many musicians aren’t qualified to read and sign contracts related to such issues. However, even if you are savvy, you still need to be prepared to negotiate and set your boundaries, even when everyone is being honest. “(Our) Advice would be to check the contract thoroughly though. We weren’t happy with some of the wording on the original contract but Second Impact Games were happy to amend the contract to our liking. With a venture like this, you’re taking a chance,” said the band.
Despite the risks, the band still recommends that other bands consider this approach and feel that they got “lucky” with this game.
Suggestions for Others
For bands eager to delve their hands into this kind of licensing. The best advice is to first become familiar with how to read contracts or have an attorney that can help. Whether you’re signing on to open licenses or working with individual creators, you need to know what you’re agreeing to.
From there, it’s important to make yourself available and searchable. One way you can do this is by using a Creative Commons License for your music or placing yourself in open libraries such as the one at the Internet Archive.
However, the most important thing is to let people know where they can contact you about licensing and respond to queries quickly. According to Sienkiewicz, his biggest frustration in licensing music for the game was artists who either didn’t get in touch with him or would take too long to respond.
Unfortunately, that frustration may be changing the way that Sienkiewicz finds music for SCGMD5, if there is one:
Towards the end of the music search for SCGMD4 a few songs fell through and we ended up licensing royalty free music from sites such as GettyImages and AudioJungle. Both of these sites allow musicians to put up their music for licensing, so we can still get great music made by fairly unknown artists but without the weeks of waiting for emails and license agreements. If we make another game we’ll definitely be heading there for a bunch of the tracks. If you want to get your music out there, not just in SCGMD, you may want to go down that road.
In short the complexities of licensing directly with bands may be driving more and more potential licensors to seek out open licensing situations, making them even more important moving forward.
Is this approach right for every musician? Of course not. A lot of it depends on the type of music you create, where you are in your career and what your business model is for your work. But for artists that it is a good fit, especially unsigned ones that control their work exclusively, it can be a very powerful tool for getting your work out there.
While there are risks that come with it, both legal and artistic, with the Web increasing competition for your audience’s time and attention, it’s a great way to get in front of new people and, maybe, get them to spend some money on a download or a concert ticket.
The main thing is to do what’s right for you and make the decisions that fit your needs. If you can do that, you’ll have the best chance of success possible.