The (Budget-Friendly) Journey to Get Good Music for an Indie Game and Our Experience with iLicenseMusic
Let's say you are making or want to make a game. What you would usually do is introspect a little, take note of your skills and then plan it out to account for your talents and limitations.
You'll need to keep in mind what kind of game you want to make, what skills you have right now, which you can reasonably acquire and which you can find in a partner. The answers to those questions will have a chain effect over all of your development process. And whenever you are faced with an issue and have to pick between acquiring a new skill vs getting someone to solve it for you, you'll find that all options have pros and cons.
In the case of music in particular, assuming you/your team doesn't have a dedicated musician right now then you can try and learn how to compose yourself, but you'll quickly find that learning a new skill midway through development is massively overwhelming and will significantly slow down progress. Meanwhile bringing in a dedicated musician — or any new member at all — is a touchy task that can take a lot of time and effort to do right, and not to mention of the financial cost that can come with it.
Now, for music in particular, there are other options. As many of you know there are websites like FreeMusicArchive that host public domain and Creative Commons-licensed songs. I'll talk in more detail about those later but, for now, what you need to know is that those songs are free but come with a few strings attached and aren't usually the cream of the crop.
Another option is commissioning a musician — which can be great and all, but considering you may need over half an hour of music it may cost you hundreds of dollars. Getting something custom made for your game really has an impact but, well, you'll have to do some budgeting to see how much you can realistically afford.
And there's another option, which is looking for websites that license songs for you — aka you pay a fee and you get an authorisation to use that song in your work.
Now, what's the best option for an indie game dev? The answer, of course, will depend on your specifics, but today we're going to tell you our case and what solution we arrived at.
Where it begins
Like many other developers we started by using Creative Commons songs, which are free and thus extremely accessible. But they come with a catch: at the very least you'll need to add an attribution to the song's author in your game. Fortunately that's not difficult, that's what credit screens are for, and no one will dispute the fairness of that request. If that was it then it'd be great.
But, you see, there are multiple CC licenses. Some require your project to be "NonCommercial," others demand your project be similarly licensed under CC — what they call "ShareAlike". That was easy for us at first — after all we were doing a hobby game and we were ok with putting our game under CC. But over time a few issues arose.
The NonCommercial clause, we gradually learned, is extremely vague and what it means is essentially left under discretion of the song's author. It is so complex that it had a whole statistical study dedicated to it and in a conversation with an experienced copyright attorney I was informed that even an entirely free project can be deemed as commercial if it creates enough potential value.
Not only that, some artists can raise an issue with the fact that, while our project is NonCommercial, one of our team mates has a Patreon — in theory they could interpret that as a form of indirect monetisation.
So... Welp, using NonCommercial-licensed songs is risky for game developers.
As for the ShareAlike clause, in summary it requires you to license your game under something no less restrictive than the CC-licensed work/song you are using. Which is easy to accomplish if your game is under CC Attribution 4.0 International, the most permissive license, except...
Welp, it turns out CC licenses aren't exactly valid when applied to software, so even if you are a good boy and put your game under CC BY 4.0 (which we did) you're still at risk because, arguably, CC licenses don't apply to software so game is not under CC at all. Aka putting your game under CC means nothing, it does not accomplish its legal purpose.
So, fuck, right? It turns out using songs with NonCommercial or ShareAlike clauses is a huge can of worms. To rub salt on the wound, some of the best CC songs have these clauses (as a way to incentivise you to buy a license, mind you.)
So... We had a game full of CC-licensed songs and we learned that wasn't the soundest long term strategy in legal terms. What can we do now?
How about using public domain/CC BY 4.0 tracks?
Perfectly doable! But the quality and range wasn't up to what we needed, sadly. For many game devs, however, CC BY 4.0 would be good enough — at least as a placeholder.
How about commissioning someone?
Commissioning would be a solution, yes, but it's expensive (a big issue for a project that isn't on Patreon) and, in our case, it carried a big hidden issue — we have a big, multicultural cast of characters and we wanted each one to have culture-appropriate songs. That means we'd either have to commission a virtuoso with an incredible range or multiple artists, which would again be another can of worms.
And how about taking in volunteers?
Great idea in theory, but even that carries a few hidden costs — you'll need time to go through volunteers to analyse whether they fit or not, time and effort to instruct them on relevant behind-the-scenes plot points and character arcs, time and dedication to direct them through the composition and recording process... And in our case, since we'd likely need multiple volunteers to cover all the range we want, figure out whether we are using real instruments or not and recording quality... And, on top of all that, we'd also need to do contracts too as a safety measure.
So... Wew, that's a bit complicated, right? It's definitely doable, don't get me wrong, but you need people in your team to really dedicate time to do it right or you run the risk of leaving a lot of dedicated volunteers in a very sad position, without the required direction. We really don't want to create that kind of sour experience. Back then we weren't (and still aren't, sadly) in a situation where we can definitely do it.
Ok, so what now?
Let's recap for a moment. Our requirements so far are as follows:
- Extremely diverse and high-quality soundtrack: we need ancient songs with erudite instruments like the Greek lyre, Japanese compositions, modern American rock, the list goes on. Our selection needs to be diverse and good.
- Legally sound: we're only going for a service if they offer us a proper license, so their legal department needs to have it all figured out.
- Affordable: because of course we want something affordable, who doesn't? We don't want to pay 100 to 200USD per track.
- Lifetime and straightforward licensing: I don't want to deal with renewing the license ten years from now, and neither do I want to pay an extra fee if and when our game crosses a certain number of downloaded units.
So what now?
I won't go into detail about all the options I discarded. Instead I'll focus on what I find the most valuable info for game devs, which is the one service that really filled all the criteria we required: iLicenseMusic.
Ok, what's up with that iLicenseMusic website?
Ok, before I answer that question... Did you play Braid? The indie darling that, among other things, was in Indie Game: The Movie?
Man, Braid was a good game. I liked that one, I enjoy puzzle games and I love how it was inspired by Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and Alan Lightman's Einstein Dreams. And the music was really nice too!
So, as it turns out, this hugely successful game licensed songs from a website called Magnatune. If you played it, you'll agree with me that the soundtrack is really good. Really damn good, listen to it here. I never heard Jonathan Blow complaining about the service in any interview and, in fact, I only ever heard praise directed at the soundtrack!
Now, in the years since that Magnatune launched a spinoff, called iLicenseMusic, that's focused entirely on licensing. The gist of it is simple: you subscribe and pay about 90USD per month. In a month you can pick up to 10 songs, and you need to publish your project with those songs during that period of 30 days — they don't carry over to the next month! But once you do it, you have the license to use it in that project forever, globally. The quality of the songs is good, really good, although to be fair a lot of their catalogue focuses on New Age tracks.
I checked the licensing agreement in detail, it's robust enough. And that price? 90USD for 10 songs is incredibly cheap. Chances are I couldn't commission one original song with that amount of money, let alone 10.
We checked their catalogue, we spent many hours searching and listening, and, yep, it had really good songs that fit what we needed — you can find these on Minotaur Hotel right now, mind you.
(Fun piece of trivia: we thought about licensing the entirety of Braid's soundtrack and putting it in the game as a joke, but we have the good sense not to burn money like that.)
This all sounds great, right? But there must be a catch. There always is a catch.
So we arrive at the main reason why I'm writing this DevLog
We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was the catch with iLicenseMusic. I mean, if this is so good then why haven't I heard of other developers using it, aside from Jonathan Blow. Just why aren't more people using this service?
Well, is it shady? No
So, after a lot of research we figured out the cons. Here they are.
You pay the monthly fee, you get access to 10 songs, and you need to publish the game in that interval... Which isn't terrible really but it's tricky. This means you can only get so many songs in a release, then you need to launch a second version of the game a month later to get another batch of 10 tracks.
Not terrible, but tricky, it requires you to figure shit out and schedule accordingly. It also means you can't, let's say, download the song 6 months ahead of time during early development, put it in the game and not have to worry again. It also means you might not get enough licenses, or you might get too many and waste a few.
Overall not great, but a surmountable challenge.
Youtube's ContentID System
This point is a bit complicated so read carefully: when you buy a subscription to iLicenseMusic you get 10 songs you can use in a specific project. So I bought two months of subscription, which gave us 20 songs for Minotaur Hotel spread over two 30-day periods.
What this doesn't include is a license for Youtubers, Twitch streamers and so on to post those songs on other platforms... Which, sadly, is what they do when they play the game for their viewers. This means that people might get copyright strikes and/or have their videos demonetised because of automated content identification systems.
In other words, using songs from iLicenseMusic means that, you know, you should warn people that posting LPs on Youtube can get them in trouble — which we did, in the game's About page and in the devlogs.
Well, we did the math and bit the bullet. We bought a subscription, put the songs in, told LPers to take care.
OK, SO AFTER THIS ENTIRE DEVLOG WE GET TO THE ONE THING I WANT TO TELL PEOPLE:
After we released Minotaur Hotel 0.4 we had multiple people posting their LPs on Youtube and, as far as we know, no one had any issue at all. So far it would seem like the issue with Youtube never materialised.
And, yes, the songs are good.
So, in summary, we figured out iLicenseMusic had two "problems" — one requires a bit of scheduling finesse, the other as far as we could see never became an issue. Which means that, yes, our experience with iLicenseMusic was great, so good in fact we picked a second month of subscription and we'll pick a third down the road.
Overall we are extremely satisfied with our experience with iLicenseMusic. It probably won't fit just right with a lot of game dev teams but, you know, it was great for our situation. It'll probably do well with other VN developers — but do keep in mind other musicians on the platform might bring copyright strikes to Youtubers.
With all of that said, I want to add a final point about the quality of their catalogue and how game developers can find pearls in it.
If you think of using iLicenseMusic what I recommend is go to their website or Magnatune's and check how many options they have in the musical genres you require. The iLicense site allows you to see lists by genre and instruments in the "All genres" and "Collections" tab.
You'll find that their catalogue definitely isn't equally spread over the board. It has a lot of World, Classical and New Age options — and a frankly staggering selection of Baroque albums. Their main genres are Alt Rock, Electro Rock, Hard Rock, Ambient, Classical, Electronica, Hip Hop, Jazz and New Wave. If you check the collections you'll also find more than enough albums with harp, contemporary piano, cello...
But there isn't anything with lyre on it — fortunately the African kora is close enough. Neither are there a lot of options with polyrhythm, but still we managed to find enough of them! Our experience is that, quite often, even if iLicense doesn't have exactly what you want you can still find diamonds in the rough if you are willing to put in the time to check multiple albums.
Another thing to keep in mind is that... FreeMusicArchive, the main option we used for CC-licensed songs, is not particularly curated so you'll often find really bad stuff there, unfortunately mixed in and making the good very hard to find. Going through their archives can be a very monotonous task of checking dozens of artists for a single track that vaguely fits what you're going for.
iLicenseMusic, meanwhile, is strongly curated so only very rarely will you find an outright bad album — most of the stuff is at good-ish and better. If you put in the effort you'll find outright excellent options.
So... That was our journey in terms of music. We went from free CC songs to a high-end licensing platform. I hope this has been useful for you — or, at the very least, an entertaining read. Have a good day!
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Hey, thanks for sharing your experience with finding music as an indie dev. I'm sure this information will be huge for people struggling in this area as well.
Never thought that it would make a lot of troubles to find the right music for the game.
I enjoys almost every tracks in the game~, they are nice and some of it could be use as a lullaby for me to sleep 😂.