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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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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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