Hire A Composer- A How-To Guide

Hey everyone! If you’re reading this post, you’re likely looking to hire a composer for your project, or you just want to learn what the process is like! So, in order to make things a bit easier for you, I’ll lay down a few tips to help you with the process.

Know What You Want

What do you value in a contractor? Do you prefer working with someone who is local, or does distance not matter? Do you need someone who can also implement audio? Are you looking to pay more for someone more experienced, or are you okay working with a newer composer? Do you need someone who specializes in creating a certain genre of music?

While you may feel overwhelmed by all the choices out there as far as composers go, you can narrow down the pool if you take the time to figure out what you value in a contractor, and what you’re looking for in a composer.

Review Portfolios

When figuring out who to hire to write music for your project, you’re likely going to review their portfolio of previous work first. Now, when reviewing a portfolio, bear in mind that you aren’t looking for an already-existing track that would suit your project. The composer you plan to hire should be able to write the perfect track for you and your game. You’re merely checking out their previous work to get a sense of their compositional capabilities, so don’t expect to find that a composer has already written a perfect track for your game.

If you have already made up your mind about what you want as far as your game’s music goes, you should be able to assess if a certain composer can write music in the style you’re looking for. So if you need pulsating, dark electronic music, and a certain composer’s portfolio only contains orchestral work, then that composer may not be the best fit. But if you needed lush, orchestral scores, then that composer has proven that they can get the job done.

Once you find a composer whose work you like, then you can move forward with them!

Talk To The Composer

It’s important to have a conversation with your composer to assess if you’re a good fit for each other. You want someone who not just makes really good music, but someone who is professional, someone you can work well with. After figuring out what you want in a composer, having a conversation in order to assess if a composer possesses the qualities you need in a contractor is easy. You’ll know what you’re looking for at that point!

If you’re local to your composer, perhaps try meeting face-to-face for lunch or coffee. If you enjoy spending time with that person over a friendly lunch, then you’re more likely to be able to work with that person in a professional capacity. Of course, you’ll also want to determine if they are organized and professional. Are they on time to your lunch meeting or call? Are they clear and effective in their emails? Look for these signs to be able to determine if the composer is professional, punctual, and organized. Those are all great traits to look for if you plan to do work with someone (if you value those traits yourself, that is).

Be Willing To Pay

Music composition is a highly specialized skill. Lots of people can claim to write music, but not many people can truly craft a piece that perfectly fits a game. It takes a deep understanding of game design/mechanics, as well as music theory, to understand how to create that piece that helps perfectly shape the player’s experience. That said, a composer needs to be fairly compensated for their work.

I can’t tell you exactly how much you should pay a composer for their work. Each composer is going to have a different rate based on tons of different factors, many of which are unique to each composer. That said, you shouldn’t dismiss one composer for perhaps charging far more than another composer. Just because one composer does work for a certain amount of money does not mean that every composer will work at that rate. And you shouldn’t expect them to.

It’s understandable if you perhaps are a fledgling game developer yourself, getting started on your first game, and you don’t really have the budget to hire contractors. Sometimes, indies have small or no budgets. If you are a student or a brand new developer with no funding, and you absolutely have no way to compensate someone monetarily for their work, then please take the time to work out some other kind of agreement. For example, if you have a composer create some music for you, then perhaps offer to design their website. A work trade is also perfectly valid in lieu of not being able to pay for work, as long as both parties agree to it and are okay with it.

Another agreement you can make is a revenue share. If you intend to sell your game, and not pay for music, then you should at the very least offer a revenue share.

In my experience, I have worked out deals with developers where I ask for a small portion of money, but also supplement that with a revenue share. For another project I worked on, I took on a smaller payment, but now I am working to release the music I made on Bandcamp in order to supplement the income I made from that project. Just saying, there are many, many ways you can work around having a small budget.

Sign A Contract

Now, a lot of people don’t stop to consider the importance of a contract, but let me tell you that you absolutely should not make any agreements without signing one. One misconception is that contracts are complicated and full of legal mumbo-jumbo, but they can be a simple agreement written in simple terms.

How do you draw up a contract? Well, make sure you set aside time to have a thorough discussion with your composer. Figure out certain terms, whatever is important to you. What is the composer delivering? What is the deadline? What are the payment terms? Who keeps the rights to the music? Can the composer put the work in their portfolio, or sell the music after the fact on Bandcamp or iTunes? Is the license for the music exclusive or non-exclusive, or does it have timed exclusivity? What happens if the parties decide to end the work agreement? These are just a few things you can outline in a contract.

You can definitely find sample contracts online if you run a quick Google search, but make sure you go through them carefully and adjust the terms so it’s relevant to the situation between you and your composer.

Trust me, I’ve learned first-hand why not having a contract sucks. It may feel like a lot of work getting a contract together, but that extra bit of preparation will save you a TON of heartache later on in case things go wrong. Work hard now in order to save precious time and money later.

Show Off Your Game

This is a simple one. Your composer needs to be able to see, and play, your game in order to be able to understand it. You want to ensure your composer develops a strong understanding of your game so they can make the best possible music for it. Take the time to show off your game to the composer, and to answer as many questions about it as possible that they may have.

Understand the Composition Process

So, once the composer is chosen, the terms are laid out, the contract is signed, and you took time to show your game to your composer, it’s time to get to work!

Music is difficult to understand. You don’t have to speak musician in order to understand it. But you should keep in mind that reviewing a draft of a track is far different than reviewing a draft that your artist may send you.

Why do I say this? Well, when checking out a draft your artist sends you, it’s easy to see where the image they’re creating is going, even based off a simple sketch. But for music, that’s completely different. You may not be able to see where a track is going based on a piano draft. The composer may insist that “well, soon you’ll hear some loud, boisterous trumpets” but it’s almost impossible to imagine it unless you have a deep familiarity with music yourself.

And it’s okay if you don’t have a deep familiarity with music. You don’t need it. That’s why you hired a specialist to make music for you. But it is important to be able to not dismiss a track just because all the instruments aren’t there yet. Learn to listen for other aspects of music tracks while they are still rough sketches, such as the melody, the pace of the track, and the feeling the track conveys.

Let me put it another way. You wouldn’t look at a package of ground beef, some spices, and a can of beans and say “well, this doesn’t look much like chili, so this is no good”. Music is a lot like that. It’s extremely difficult to properly pass judgement on a track until it’s done or close to being done. You may not be a musical expert, and that’s okay, but approach drafts with an open mind and the composition process will be so much smoother.

Music tracks often start with a sketch, usually just a piano playing. Then as the composer shapes the melody, pacing, and overall emotional feel of the track, they can begin adding more instruments. A beautiful cello line is woven out of the low piano part. The gentle melody dancing on the high keys becomes a whimsical flute part. Warm, beautiful harmonies begin forming. Touches of percussion even begin to come through. But you wouldn’t know all that just from a piano sketch! Music making is a process, much like your own game’s development. Always understand that when working with your composer, so the two of you can learn to work harmoniously.


So hopefully, that post helped you develop a better understanding of how to hire and work with a composer for your game!

As always, feel free to discuss this post with me over on Twitter. I would love to hear your thoughts!

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