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Work-for-hire hits the wrong notes

Ex-Bungie audio director Marty O'Donnell discusses tension between creation and craft, says creatives should benefit more from their work

On October 7, Marty O'Donnell will keynote the GameSoundCon game music and sound design conference. Speaking with earlier this week, O'Donnell said he wanted his address to serve "somewhat as a warning" to gaming audio professionals, a touching off point for a discussion about the potential problems surrounding work-for-hire, collaboration, copyright, and other issues. That discussion, like so many discussions about audio, begins with The Beatles.

"I got a chance to work with Paul McCartney over the past couple of years, and that was for me personally a super highlight of my career," O'Donnell said. "He's a really nice guy, amazingly talented, fun to work with, easy to work with. At one point when I was talking to him, we were talking about some specific thing and he made this comment: "Well I don't want to do that. That would be a little too 'work-for-hire.'"

The phrase stood out for O'Donnell for a couple reasons.

"[Y]ou always have to fight just pleasing somebody else and also staying true to your own artistic sensibilities."

"I looked at him and said, 'Paul, when have you ever done anything work-for-hire?' And he laughed. But for him, it was a statement that he didn't want what he was doing to sound like work-for-hire," O'Donnell said. "He always wanted what he did to sound like it was coming from him, and it's important to him. It's an artistic expression, not a commercial expression."

Unlike McCartney, O'Donnell's entire career has been work-for-hire. He began in the '80s writing commercial jingles for products like Flintstone's Kids chewable vitamins, then moved on to do film scores before catching on with Bungie, where he served as audio director and in-house composer for a 14-year stint that ended in April. (O'Donnell said he was terminated without cause and filed suit against the company in June. Earlier this month, the two sides settled, with O'Donnell receiving about $95,000 in unpaid wages, damages, interest, and legal fees.)

During his tenure with Bungie, O'Donnell made a name for himself with his work on the Halo series and helped define the sound of the upcoming Destiny. Still, he noted the content tension between being a creator of art and a crafter of product, and acknowledged McCartney's comment about work-for-hire music stung a little.

"I've always been work-for-hire," O'Donnell said. "And there are some things that can happen aesthetically that are maybe not as pleasing to your creative soul because you're work-for-hire, because you're trying to please somebody else. So you always have to fight just pleasing somebody else and also staying true to your own artistic sensibilities."

It would seem to be up to the individual audio professional to work through that tension on their own, but O'Donnell said there are also tensions with the job that the industry needs to do a better job addressing. For example, there's the question of what the creators of such work should be entitled to.

"If you're work-for-hire and you get paid by the hour, who benefits? Does the author benefit when their creation has a life outside of what they were paid for?"

"If you're work-for-hire and you get paid by the hour, who benefits?" O'Donnell asked. "Does the author benefit when their creation has a life outside of what they were paid for? If that hasn't been looked at closely or taken care of the right way, it can be sort of a... disappointment. I think it's an area that the game industry has been a little bit behind on. Other industries like TV and movies, when it comes to writers and artists and composers, I think there are systems there that are maybe a little bit better for the artists. The game industry needs to look more closely at it and think about how to change."

In some cases, O'Donnell said limiting the benefits of work-for-hire to the immediate compensation makes sense. With collaborative works that don't have much creative output, O'Donnell said it may make sense that nobody gets credited for authorship. But with games, movies, and other creative entertainment, he believes there are better ways of handling it.

"When you're really expecting a group of people to work toward a common vision, but you're also depending on the individual artistic visions of the people you're hiring, I think it makes sense to not only allow some of those people to be credited for sure, but also maybe to benefit in the success of what happens in the future," O'Donnell said.

The talk of directing greater benefits to audio professionals in the industry may sound odd to those who saw Gamasutra's latest developer salary survey, which found them to be the best compensated of all full-time developers outside of business and management. However, O'Donnell is skeptical of those figures, and the original survey takers noted they had a small sample set to deal with because the majority of audio work in the industry seems to be contracted out to freelancers. And while he doesn't think the outlook for audio professionals in the industry is especially cheery, he doesn't see it as particularly grim, either.

"I think the industry itself is probably on the verge of going through some relatively major changes," O'Donnell said. "The big development studios are probably going to be fewer and fewer, and there are going to be a lot more smaller developers, mainly because I think the days of the big AAA titles that need 600 people to develop are probably going to go away. And that means the need for teams with multiple audio professionals that are full-time, in-house, will probably start to dissipate.

"I just feel like the business model is probably going to change in the next few years."

"So I think there's a transition period coming up where there are probably a lot more development studios that are smaller, leaner. And maybe an expert field like audio will be more outsourced, contracted, only used when absolutely necessary. And maybe there won't be a full crew of audio professionals that are in-house from the very beginning of pre-production to the ship of a product. I just feel like the business model is probably going to change in the next few years."

That means a harsher job environment for almost every creative worker in the field in the short term, O'Donnell said, with the percentage of freelancers among audio professionals climbing even higher. However, there are still ways for developers to make themselves more attractive to employers regardless of the changes.

"For audio professionals, I think they have to stay light on their feet, have a lot of good tools they're familiar with: third party software, middleware... Besides just being fluent with digital audio workstations and understanding how to do sound design in foley and write music and put things together, I think people are going to be more valuable also if they know how to work with middleware like Wwise and FMOD and things like that. The more tools the audio guys have at their disposal, the more valuable they'll be as freelancers."

The GameSoundCon game music and sound design conference runs October 7-8 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. More details are available at the event's official website.

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Latest comments (8)

Pete Thompson Editor 7 years ago
Absolute genius, his talent helped define Halo and brought real engagement to the game..
I normally turn off in-game music, as it's normally annoying and pretty naff, but I'd never been hooked into a game as much as I was with the Halo series, and it was purely down to the mix of fantastic gameplay with stunning and engaging music..

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pete Thompson on 4th August 2014 5:52pm

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Steve Wetz Reviewer/Assistant Editor, Gamer's Glance7 years ago
Music can radically alter a game or movie. What would Jaws have been without the two-note riff to build tension? What would Star Wars have been like without its symphonic soundtrack, breaking away from the largely contemporary music soundtracks of the time to become the example for films to follow? What would Halo have been without the Gregorian chant?

Great music is a game-changer. Marty, for what it's worth, I think you're the Paul McCartney of video game music. Post-Beatles Paul, but still. :-D
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James Prendergast Process Specialist 7 years ago
I respect Marty a great deal and recognise his talent and recognise that there's probably a problem with compensation with certain fields within the industry. However, I really dislike this mentality that certain people have - as if "creatives" are some sort of different animal to the rest of us plebians,

Most work requires creative input and you speak to any good manager and ask them if the output of their team would be exactly the same with different people comprising it; Be they engineers, writers, composers or whatever. They would answer that it wouldn't. It's the same in other industries and we'd all like to have down-stream revenue coming back to us in some form - especially when your product is making hundreds of millions and billions of your preferred currency.

However, I think that if you want that - you need to be working alone and not as part of a company or team. I also think looking at the TV and music industries is very wrong. If you create something yourself off of your own back then that opens up a completely different type of ownership. If you're creating something as part of a project then I don't think you get those same expectations - nor should you.

It's a false dichotomy that creatives are somehow more special and deserving of a revenue stream from their work and that other people are not.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 5th August 2014 6:00am

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Show all comments (8)
Chris Sweetman Sound Designer/Audio Director 7 years ago
Totally agree, for many years I've listened to "creatives" (composers especially) bitch about not getting any cut of the backend.
If you work for a med-large developer who is either self funded or funded by a publisher it's just not going to happen (and it shouldn't)
As a sound designer I don't get a cut of the back end for the sounds I design, an artist doesn't get a cut for his character designs.
You are paid a wage to complete a job, no different than an artist, programmer, sound designer or member of QA.
If you've stake in a company that's a different situation altogether.
Collaboration of all disciplines is essential for the health and success of any company.
This might sound strange coming from a sound guy ; 0 but there is no data to suggest that music by "x" composer means more units sold no matter who it is (McCartney included)
Until its quantifiable then these "creatives" haven't got a leg to stand on.

McCartney doesn't do "work for hire" unsurprisingly as he's got a net worth of a billion dollars.....
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
@James - HERE HERE.

In this industry we're all creatives. Certainly the coders and artists deserve at least similar fanfare. Try releasing a game with shit music next to one with shit art and another with shit code, see who wins.

I'm not knocking audio at all, it adds a lot and is an important piece of the package. What I'm knocking is prima donnas.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Playing games is the art of filling in the blanks. What Minecraft lacks in visual prowess, you make up with your imagination. Most story in games is like a mere coulisse, similar to a movie set in which anything off-camera does not exist in reality, but still exists in the viewers imagination. You can have bad sound, code with many bugs, it does not matter, the player's brain will compensate. Look at Wii Sport, a game which by review standards has shit graphics and shit sounds. But your body movement will tell your brain to like this and fill in the blanks.

To answer Paul's question, in my opinion, there is no substitute for gameplay and everything else is not a question of how good something is objectively, but how well it manages to trigger the parts of our brains which then willingly fill out the blanks. Good game with shit everything, will still be a good game. But even without a gameplay component, the Halo title screen is perfection.
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Marty O'Donnell Audio Director / Composer / Sound designer 7 years ago
Well hi there folks. Glad to see that some sort of discussion is happening. I don't believe I actually made any concrete suggestions here, but I would like to see a rational conversation. I hope you all don't think I'm a prima donna bitching about not getting a cut of the back-end. Actually, I never said what sort of deals that I've been able to cut over my 17 years in the game industry. However, not all work-for-hire contracts are the same. Some make sense, and some seem quite beneficial to the "owner" only and can leave the employees out in the cold. This isn't a discussion about which discipline contributes the most, or if business folks should be paid more than creatives. I would like to see all of us compare the different work-for-hire situations and perhaps understand that there might be better ways to write those contracts. Ok?
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Roland Austinat roland austinat media productions|consulting, IDG, Computec, Spiegel Online7 years ago
Hi Marty, big props to your work over all these years. Never realized that you worked on Riven, too. The track that plays in the original Halo when the team runs up the mountain at night with sniper rifles is still one of my favorite tunes of all time.

That said: I believe that the games industry is making glacial moves away from what can be compared to Hollywood's studio system where actors where "owned" by specific studios and could make movies only for those studios. Nowadays movies are made more of a group of freelance artists. The gaming industry fears that somewhat as it can't cozily reap in the benefits of their games marketed and sold through many channels while paying their staff monthly wages and maybe royalties if the Metacritic score is high enough. But let's wait another few years, I'm not giving up hope yet that we will see the name of developers, artists and musicians more prominently on the box or download page again - and not so much the label or the publisher.

Best to you!
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