An Interview with Garry Schyman

Garry Schyman

Award-winning game composer Garry Schyman began his scoring career with hit TV series such as “Magnum, P.I.” and “The A-Team.” He went on to score more TV, feature films, and, of course, video games, most recently garnering critical acclaim for his score for “BioShock Infinite,” including best soundtrack for a video game for 2013 by Game Trailers.

MI spoke with Garry Schyman, who is on the Board of the Society of Composers & Lyricists (SCL), about the art and business of game composing, foreign royalties, consent decrees, and more.

In reading the interview, if you prefer to skip to Garry Schyman’s take on a particular subject, please click the desired link, below. Game on.

 

Schyman’s Scoring Career

You’ve composed for TV, film, and video games. Can you start off by telling me a bit about how your career evolved?

Oh, well, serendipity, and good and bad luck, I suppose.

When I got started in the 80’s, video games weren’t an option, really, for a composer. I went to USC; I studied music composition.  And I graduated from there and I immediately got an opportunity to work on, of all things, a television show for Lutheran Television, called This Is The Life, and scored like sixty episodes of that show, which was just terrific for a young composer really just getting started. There were no synths or samples, so it all had to be contracted to small groups of musicians, sometimes as few as six, sometimes as many as twelve or fifteen. And almost within a year of getting that gig, I also started working for Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, who are really sort of famous, in that era in particular, for just all these great, old 80’s television shows like the A-Team, Greatest American Hero, Rousters, etc.  And what else?

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Magnum PI…

Yeah, all those sorts of shows. So I worked on those for years, and the cool thing was just the opportunity to write a lot of music, crank it out, get an orchestra. We used to record with an orchestra…It was just great. You had to orchestrate. You basically turned in everything, and laid it out, and then got it recorded within a few days. So it was really just a great learning experience for a composer starting out.

So I did that, and then, I got an agent.  And I started getting opportunities to score various television shows, and, in particular, I worked for David Rose, for instance, on a bunch of shows. But I started to score TV movies, especially in the 90’s, and I scored a bunch of those.  And some medium- and low-budget films… I just wanted to make a living as a composer. Really, I had sort of a simple goal: not to sell shoes was what I told myself. In a way, and it’s both good and it’s bad, I sort of burned my bridges. It was sort of the only skill I had. I mean I thought of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, but really… I wanted to be a composer…that’s what I loved doing. But then in the 90’s, I did get an opportunity to score some video games, in like 1993 and 1994. A friend of mine worked with Phillips Interactive and actually scored what was probably… I probably was the first, or one of the very first, composers to use an orchestra in a video game score.

And that was only possible because Phillips Interactive had this unique style of gaming. They went out of business with their unique style of gaming; it was called CD-i. Basically all this information went onto a CD which had this vast amount of data possible – 700 megabytes – which was huge at that time.

So you could compress music and put an orchestral score on it, or recorded music, whereas other games really required you to just essentially trigger a midi synth, a very simple midi synth engine, which is what most of those early game scores consisted of. Just really simple, sometimes monochromic, and then [they] got more fancy, but, just really simple musical elements, which wasn’t for me to do. That was for other people, and there are some iconic scores. So I got to do that [CD-i], but then when that went away, I just kept doing film and TV. And then in 2004 I got an opportunity to score a game called Destroy All Humans, which was pure serendipity. That opportunity was just, like, literally, the agent I had at that time sent my resume over to THQ, which is out of business. It was on a fax machine, and one of the executives there was a woman who was my girlfriend’s roommate in college. So, she said, “I know Garry. He’s amazing.” So it led to, over a period of a couple of months, me scoring this game called Destroy All Humans, which was sort of this tongue-in-cheek game where you play an alien coming to earth in the 1950’s, like The Day the Earth Stood Still kind of genre.

But what they wanted, which I thought was very cool, was a Bernard Herrmann type of score. An orchestral score with Theremin and such that was serious, but was tongue-in-cheek, because they wanted something that sort of sounded dated but serious. I got that project, and it was really a great opportunity to score a video game in the new style; and that went very well…I got nominated for some awards for that score, and the person I worked with, a woman named Emily Ridgway. That connection ended up to be really fortuitous as well. Although I scored other games, she went on to become the audio director for a company called Irrational Games, and they made a really cool game called BioShock. And BioShock was a huge hit, and my score won a lot of awards.

She hired me for that, and I just this last year finished the third video game from the BioShock series, called BioShock Infinite, which was a very successful game; and I’ve gotten some award nominations for that. So that’s all very cool. So I’ve just been doing a lot of video games. I’ve actually scored a movie earlier this year, as well. But I would say the bulk of my work over the last seven to eight years has been video games.

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Do you now mainly consider yourself a game composer?

No, I consider myself a composer. I would not limit myself. My goal is still to not sell shoes…

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And you’re doing very well at that. (Laughter)

Yeah, I’m still not selling shoes. So I really don’t see any reason to limit myself. Of course, as careers work, when you get successful in some genre, that’s where people tend to hire you. But I’m totally open to scoring any opportunity. In fact, I’m up for a television series right now, that I’ll find out about in January or February. So, no, I don’t see any difference. I mean yeah, there are different techniques involved in scoring these different varieties of projects, but there’s really no reason to limit myself creatively, because they’re all really interesting. And in fact, a lot of the video game work I do is scoring in-game movies. For instance, I’m working on a major project right now that I’m recording in London in March, and I would say fifty minutes of the music I’m doing — and I’m doing a lot of minutes — is scoring CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) movies. So it is identical to scoring a film, and they are absolutely stunningly beautiful.

And they look like any feature film in terms of the quality of the CGI movies. So really, it’s a cool opportunity. In essence I’m scoring a movie within a game.

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That’s very cool. What would you say are the differences or the distinct challenges that you found working in the different mediums of TV and film and video games?

Well, they’re like two big circles that overlap, but there are definitely aspects of a video game that are unique. In essence, you’re mostly doing the same thing, which is to deepen the audience’s immersion in what’s going on, the visuals. You know there’s this mystical connection between music and visuals that no one really understands, if you think about it. And we all take it for granted. That when beautiful music and some beautiful image…it’s very magical. For most people it’s amazing, but why that is, no one can really explain it.

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“I’m working on a major project right now that I’m recording in London in March, and I would say fifty minutes of the music I’m doing — and I’m doing a lot of minutes — is scoring CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) movies. So it is identical to scoring a film, and they are absolutely stunningly beautiful.”

Interactive Scoring

I was wondering about that interactive quality. How does that play in when you’re composing?

That’s the difference, because in a video game, yes, with the in-game movies, it is identical, what you’re doing, because basically the player, when an in-game movie comes on, they lose their ability… it’s basically the game is giving them information.

And you’re seeing some visual, and it’s like a scene or something, and it needs to be scored. And so in that aspect, it’s identical to scoring a film or television show. But the in-game movie…the difference is that the music needs to be interactive to some extent. Meaning, the player has free agency and can do all sorts of things and can go left, right, up, down, sometimes whatever. So ideally what the game developer wants is for the player to have a cinematic experience, so it feels like you’re scoring what they’re doing but you don’t know what they’re gonna do. But the way that’s achieved is through interactive techniques, and, in fact, the game knows if you go through a certain doorway; and if you go through a certain doorway, a whole world is opened to you that could trigger a fresh piece of music in the cue…And that in itself is like having kind of a film.

For instance, let’s give you an example. Let’s say you’re in a combat oriented game, and let’s say you’re in the jungles…You know the enemy is out there, but you don’t know where they are; so maybe there are three layers of music. The first layer is just tension music, just light music creating a sense of tension and maybe a little bit of fear in the player that anything’s around the corner. And then maybe you spot the enemy and they haven’t spotted you. And then another layer of intensity, maybe some rhythm and something more intense, can enter. And so think of the music as these three layers are playing simultaneously but two of them are muted. Well now, once you see the player — and the game’s AI, or intelligence, knows when you can see them — it can now cross-fade, say, at the next bar in the next layer.

And of course you’ve written the music so the layers work together. And then let’s say they spot you and they start shooting at you, and then now maybe the third layer cross-fades in.

Maybe the initial layer cross-fades out, and now you have very active, intense combat music which is often a loop. It’s like maybe a minute or two minutes that will loop. And maybe there are stingers; let’s say if you achieve a goal or get some of the enemy, there are stingers. And so there are all these techniques that you use to achieve interactivity.

And that’s just an example, but there are other techniques.

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It sounds kind of like Alice through the Looking Glass, where whole new worlds come in.

Yes, and that happens all the time in games. So there are just all sorts of things that, once the player achieves them, the game knows it; and it has all this software that’s able to then trigger pieces of music at those moments.

And therefore, it feels like you’re scoring the player’s experience, even though you don’t know necessarily when those events are going to occur. But you know at some point, for them to achieve — I mean they could stay, they could hide in the corner, but they’re going to be very bored players — players are going to get to these places, because even though it seems like the player has free agency, basically you’re being led through a sequence of events at your own pace.

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It seems like you have to bring an intuitive aspect to it. And to the player, it feels intuitive even though a lot of it is just designed, really.

Right, it is designed. It’s carefully designed, so that’s where the music differs. And also there’s another purpose that music plays in a video game that it would not play in a film or television show, and that is: it often can help the player. Like for instance, if some danger is nearby but maybe unseen, some subtle tension music can enter and thus signal the player that something is happening and actually help the players play the game.

So music can also work for the player; for the developer to help the player understand something. So it can actually be a functional part of the game. It’s not just for adding emotion or intensity or whatever. It can actually function as a part of the game where it triggers; it tells the player that something is occurring.

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“So ideally what the game developer wants is for the player to have a cinematic experience; so it feels like you’re scoring what they’re doing, but you don’t know what they’re gonna do. But the way that’s achieved is through interactive techniques, and, in fact, the game knows if you go through a certain doorway; and if you go through a certain doorway, a whole world is opened to you that could trigger a fresh piece of music in the cue…And that in itself is like having kind of a film.”

Scoring Styles

There are a great many musical styles that can be applied in video games. Do you personally have certain styles that you use more in video games, as opposed to TV and film?

No, it really depends on the game itself and the demands of that particular game. So there’s no game musical style. I think games, maybe at one time, if you go back a few years, there would have been more typical video game styles. But it really has gone the complete gamut, and in fact, I think I would pat myself on the back a little bit. The score for BioShock sort of opened up into — a lot of developers told me this — it sort of said, wow, we can use all kinds of music. It doesn’t have to be typical video game music. So really, at this point, video music can be anything that works with the visuals and the style of the game and the story.

Because they do have stories. Now I’m talking about, there are a lot of different types of games. There are games where you’re racing cars. In Grand Theft Auto, you’re stealing cars and creating mayhem. So those types of games do not have the traditional sort of background or score, you know what I mean? They often have songs or driving rock music or something like that. And I don’t get hired for those sorts of projects.

So I’m talking about a certain type of game that is more cinematic in nature and requires a composer who writes music and is able to be sensitive to that sort of thing.

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Would you say, then, that you use a more classical approach?

Well, I mean, I’ve certainly incorporated pop elements in my scores, but generally, I get hired for sort of a more traditional, orchestral style of score. That would be where I’m maybe most comfortable and enjoy the most.

So, yes. But that doesn’t mean that’s the style of every score, by any means. There are tons of scores that have rock beats and synths. Just like film scores.

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Perhaps you’ve already answered this, but do you think that perhaps your particular scores have influenced trends in game composing?

I think especially the original BioShock score was very eye-opening to a lot of developers, who kind of thought: Ok, game music does have a certain kind of vibe or sound, and all of a sudden here was a game that came along and was very successful and the score was just different, you know? And even, I will say that it’s a unique score. It’s a unique sound, even for a film maybe. It just has its own kind of unique vibe to it.

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Yes, it’s very atmospheric and haunting, what I listened to.

Yes, there are some really beautiful, sad aspects to it, because it’s sort of a dystopian world gone mad, and it sort of seemed like an interesting part of humanity. Certainly in the twentieth century, there have been these attempts by humans to create these utopias, whether it was Communism or whatever.

And it ended with a lot of people dying, a lot of horror. So it seemed to me that that’s been an interesting and sad aspect of humanity. This hope that they could perfect this world and, in doing so, they created horror. And that’s a big part of what BioShock is about. This industrialist who decides to leave the world, in the late 40’s or early 40’s, I guess, or late 30’s, whenever he started to build. And he builds, like, New York City at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s magnificent. And he brings all the artists and these great scientists, and then it just goes tragically wrong.

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And so you feel that the way you wrote for that score emanated from the stories themselves, or do you think that it also came from your personal voice that you brought to the story, or both?

I think both. I have my own unique musical styles and history and things that I love doing, and I brought all that to the table with a very unusual project, this game BioShock.  And it was just sort of a good mix. It took a while to find it, but I used some musical styles, one of which is called aleatory, which is very dissonant music…It’s a mid-twentieth technique, but it hadn’t been used much. Certainly it hadn’t been used in video games. I used that and early twentieth century music, because it seemed like there was both this sad element that I described but also this intellectual world that is present. And so it just kind of all made sense to me. Plus it’s all under water.

And that was a really interesting game. And because it was an interesting game, and because I was working with this lady, Emily, again, and she has such a really interesting musical taste, too — she had studied music and played instruments and such – I was able to do some really cool stuff. And it got recognized, which was wonderful.

And that did definitely give me a lot of other opportunities, and I continue to have opportunities because of that.

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“The score for BioShock sort of opened up into — a lot of developers told me this — it sort of said, wow, we can use all kinds of music. It doesn’t have to be typical video game music. So really, at this point, video music can be anything that works with the visuals and the style of the game and the story.”

The Video Game Industry

Moving a little more toward the business end of things, the gaming industry is growing quite a bit. I think the global video market is supposed to total 93 billion dollars in 2013. And the music industry is in a downturn. I ‘m wondering if you align yourself more closely with video games now for any strategic reason, as well?

No, I mean really it’s just where opportunities are presenting themselves to me, and they are great opportunities.

And I really enjoy the work, I would have to say, and I get orchestras. They pay for orchestras, and it’s just, I mean, you don’t get that in TV, and only on the big films, usually with the features. So, no, I mean it isn’t like strategically, I can just point to whatever I want and people hire me. (Laughter) I’m like most people. You get opportunities presented to you and you may cull a few out because they’re not worth your effort; but most of the time, if you’re available, you accept them. And I get to do…like this big game I’m doing, it’s just really cool stuff. I’m gonna go to London and record at Abbey Road with the Philharmonia Orchestra for a week. That’s just awesome to me.

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Would you say that the gaming industry has become more lucrative and prestigious now, as opposed to, say, maybe ten years ago?

Oh, yes. Oh, yes, for sure. The gaming industry has been in a little bit of a funk, too, along with the rest of the economy. I think it’s starting to improve again now, but they’re making less games than they were five or six years ago. But they were making too many games with poor quality, and now they’re sort of focusing on bigger games with higher quality.

Which I think is probably smart. And so, yeah, the gaming industry, I think, has got a huge future. I mean, films haven’t changed much since the 1930’s, really, when sound was added. Yes, there’s 3-D and there’s all this…But in essence they really haven’t changed much.

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And it’s the computer-generated stuff that’s the difference in films, too.

Yes, so video games are constantly mutating and getting more interesting as the technology evolves, and there’s this race to do new creative things. My wife and I just saw the movie, her, yesterday. And it takes place about twenty years in the future, and they’re playing video games, and it’s interesting to watch. It’s an interesting movie, well-acted, etc. So in any event, I do think that video games are here to stay, not only just for entertainment but for all sorts of things, for learning…I don’t know. There are just all sorts of possibilities that I think we’re just starting to see as possible. I think even like therapy for people who maybe are experiencing Alzheimer’s or…I mean it could go on and on and on what’s possible with video games. Teaching is the obvious one and, of course, just pure entertainment, because it has the potential to, sort of, become a movie in essence.

It could be the movie of the future. And it’s interesting because my son is 12. He’s almost 13, and he has some friends, and they almost never watch television. They play video games.

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I thought of that the other day. Are video games the TV experience now? And maybe, yes.

I think for some. I mean, I play video games, not a lot. When I first started, I was playing a lot of them, but they’re very time-consuming. Once you get into a video game, they are really fascinating. It’s like you don’t want to stop playing. I mean, the way video games are structured is the same way that you structure gambling. It’s addicting. You get little rewards, and then of course you have attractive, interesting music and great visuals; so really, it’s a fascinating way to spend entertainment time. I had a thing called sciatica, a problem in my leg like a year ago. And the weird thing was, when I played video games, the pain stopped.

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Really?

Because I was totally focused on the game. And it was almost like the only thing other than drugs that stopped the pain.

So I mean that’s just my own anecdotal experience, but I’m kind of thinking that it’s possible. All kinds of things are possible. I mean there are negative things possible, too, obviously.

And there are movies that are negative and violent and disgusting.

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I know, it’s a big issue with parents, about the violence, and this and that. But on the other hand, you talk about possibilities for teaching and all kinds of therapy. So do you feel that has evolved?

Yeah, I think they can keep changing and make it really fun to learn, more fun to learn.

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And do you think that’s changing parental views about video games?

I’m just not an expert on that. I don’t know. I don’t think video games are going away. Let’s put it that way.

I know there are a lot of companies now that are incorporating video games into education and, yes, I mean I do think that video games get a bad rap. Because yes, some of them are horribly violent. But when they’re attacked for their horrible violence — and I’ll agree with that — somehow they leave movies out of that. And somehow movies — because they’ve been around longer and we’re sort of used to horrible violence in movies — they don’t affect kids, but video games do? I don’t know that I believe that.

So maybe I’m defensive because I’m in the industry and I’ll accept that that’s a possibility as well — that I’m defending an industry where I’m making a living and I’m probably a part of it. I’m trying to be honest with my views; but on the other hand, I do think that if you want to ban violent games, then ok, ban violent television and violent movies. Are they willing to do that, if that’s where we’re headed, you know what I’m saying? And so, I don’t know. That’s my view on it. I don’t think they’re really much worse, or any worse, than some of the movies that I’ve seen that kids go to that are just filled with violence and gore.

I mean, my son and I like to watch The Walking Dead together on Sunday nights, and that’s just as violent as you can get. But it doesn’t seem…he knows they’re killing zombies. (Laughter) So it’s like, if he were younger…He’s almost 13. So I don’t know. I mean that’s my view, but I’m no expert on how it’s affecting other people. I just wouldn’t want to comment.

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And even then, the studies and analyses that are done are all over the map…

Yes, I’m sure you can probably find the study you want.

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“Once you get into a video game, they are really fascinating. It’s like you don’t want to stop playing. I mean, the way video games are structured is the same way that you structure gambling. It’s addicting. You get little rewards, and then of course you have attractive, interesting music and great visuals; so really it’s a fascinating way to spend entertainment time.”

Work for Hire / Performance Royalties

Let me jump to the financial side of being a video game composer. Are most of the contracts works for hire?

Yes, they are. They are very similar to film contracts. When I first started in 2004, they didn’t even know what performing rights were, and they didn’t want to let you keep your writer’s share. And it was like an argument with them. I go, “Wait, it’s a win, win. You guys get the publisher’s share and I get the writer’s share.” “Oh, we don’t publish music. We don’t know anything about that. We don’t want to open a publishing thing.” I go, “There’s no responsibility other than to open an envelope with a check in it. That’s your only responsibility.” So that has changed, and they do permit you, generally, to almost always keep your writer’s share.

So you do get to keep that, but the down side is they don’t generate much performing rights, and mostly the performing rights I get from them are from when my music is used in the advertising, often in Europe. Then I will get performing rights from those performances. But most of the music is not generating a performance, and therefore, ASCAP can’t collect anything.

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Do you feel that certain copyright or royalty definitions need to change in order for that to occur?

I don’t know that I have any solution for that. I mean the only thing you could do is negotiate for a percentage of sales or something like that.

But generally they won’t give that away, because they will say, “Well then all the other people working on the game would like that, too, and we’re not willing to give that away.” So generally the way you make your money is up front, and it pays fairly well. And it also pays in the fairest way that I’ve ever been paid for writing music; they pay per minute.

So they’ll pay maybe $1,500 or $2,000 a minute for music. And then if they want more, they pay more. At that rate. That’s usually in the contract. It’s always in the contract. So in a film, the first time you spot it, there are fifty minutes of music, and then they go, “You know, we think the music’s helping so much we’re going to add another twenty minutes of music.” You don’t get any more money for that extra twenty minutes of music, you just write more music.

But in a video game they have to pay you a substantial bump for the additional minutes. On the other hand, in a film there’s the possibility for back end for performance royalties; so the more music you have in, the more money you can make. So there’s that benefit.

They’re different. It’s a different business model for a composer.

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But you are satisfied with the business model as it is?

Well, I’m sort of accepting of the business model as it is. I’m not attempting to change it. I’m not actively seeking to change anything other than [that] my agent tries to negotiate the highest per-minute fee that’s possible. But I’m not trying on any global business scale to change anything.

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What would you advise to an up-and-coming game composer in terms of what to look for in a contract and what to avoid?

Well, certainly the per-minute basis is critical. If you’re a new composer in the industry and you don’t have many credits, you may have to do what composers for low-budget movies do, which is, ok I’ll write this music for next to nothing, but then I retain ownership. Or maybe that’s where you’re in a position to negotiate. If you’re doing an iPhone game or a game for iOS or Android, maybe you get a percentage of sales. So there you can be quite entrepreneurial and actually do quite well with it. I know a couple of composers who’ve done deals like that, where they got almost no upfront money, but the games were surprise hits; and they made a significant amount of money.

Of course you could just as easily have your cart attached to a game that does no business, and therefore you don’t make any money.

You’d also want to be aware of certain aspects of game scoring, because sometimes with the interactivity elements, they’re asking you to write multiple minutes of music and calling it one minute of music.

So for instance, if you’re writing layers of music, but the layers are completely fresh, new, and unique music, in essence, that’s not — even though they’re calling it the same cue — the same music cue; it’s higher in intensity. So that can get complicated, and you have to be cautious. If you’re being asked to write new music, then you need to consider that part of your minutes — You’re being hired for “x” number of minutes. But on the other hand, if it’s just a matter of writing a very intense cue and then sort of deconstructing it to create the less intense levels, which I do all the time, I don’t charge for multiple minutes for that. But that is a technical aspect that you need to be aware of, because that has become an issue on a couple of my scores, where all of a sudden they’re asking for me to do additional music — minutes of music — in my estimation, because the music is completely new. Going back to my earlier analogy, the low-tension cue is not related to the combat cue. So, there are those kinds of details that a composer would want to make sure are properly structured in. I mean if you are doing a big game, you should have an agent to negotiate.

I teach at USC. I teach scoring for video games, and they have a program there called SMPT (Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television). I tell the students that if you are doing a really low-budget game, and you’re starting out and you don’t have an agent, there’s not much you can do. You are going to have to negotiate it yourself. But ideally you don’t want to negotiate the money with the people you’re working for. That’s what an agent is for. They can be cut-throat and difficult and make the best deal they can; but if you’re doing that, you are coloring your relationship, your working relationship, with them. You want to stay pristine and creative, as opposed to negotiating intensely.

So that’s where, if you’re doing a major game, you want an agent. I’ve seen a lot of contracts. They often are very long and complex, and unless you really know how to read a contract…I know I can read one and see the deal points, and there can be stuff hidden in there that’s very unattractive for you.

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And you’re saying that writer’s share is now pretty standard?

Pretty much. That’s been my experience with any of the big game companies.

They’re cool with it because they realize. They’ve gotten sophisticated about it, and they’ve hired people who very often have been in the film and television industry with music heads who say, “Wait, there’s no down side to this. You have to have a writer share on the cue sheet, and we get the publisher’s share, and we’re not paying anything. It’s not coming out of our pockets anyway.” So they’ve learned that, and they don’t have an issue with that now.

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So if you are dealing with your writer’s share, you’re going to get that through a PRO (Performance Rights Organization). And basically what you are saying is there aren’t that many situations where there are actual performances.

Exactly. Advertising can be one of them. Sometimes performances on YouTube could be, because everything goes up on YouTube, but that’s modest. And sometimes there are sales; there aren’t many physical CD soundtracks made, but there are soundtrack sales you could get some royalties from.

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Online, how does it work? I mean you can do online gaming…

Yeah, but a lot of those online games, like World of Warcraft is a famous one from a company called Blizzard. It’s a private network you’re on, so they don’t pay. You don’t get any royalties from that.

Even though it could be considered a performance in that sense, because it’s on a private network, they don’t have anything negotiated with ASCAP, or BMI, or SESAC, for that matter.

So it’s not generating any royalties. It is possible in the future that just online gaming will generate performance royalties, but that has to be licensed by ASCAP, and no doubt there will be resistance to that. So let’s hope that ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC are able to negotiate something like that.

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Because of the differences between video game and film and TV composers, as opposed to pop songwriters, do you feel that there’s any kind of a disconnect there regarding understanding of the issues, because some of them are different?

Well yeah, I think some video game composers, who’ve never done anything else, who’ve never scored a film or written songs — and I have written songs and I’ve had a couple of successes with that — Um, but yes, they don’t understand royalties. ASCAP and BMI have been reaching out to the video game industry, as has SESAC, and they’ve been educating composers and getting them to sign up and learn about it. I certainly talk about it in my class, but that’s just a small slice of the universe of composers. So I do think if you’ve never done film/TV, you’re not aware of all the advantages that performing rights can bring to the composer.

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But you say there’s really no way to like create a situation where there are really more performances.

It’s limited. At this point it’s just limited. And I think advertising for me, that’s where most of the royalties have come, when music is used in advertising for the game. And it’s advertised on television, particularly, like I say, in Europe, because they don’t discount advertising music as much as much as the US PROs do. So yeah, at the moment. I don’t know that it won’t change in the future for online gaming, and it’s possible that it will in fact generate performing rights in the future. It’s just miniscule now. It’s not an important source of income.

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Did you see the recent news about YouTube and their content ID system? There was a big outcry because they created new definitions within their content ID system, and the fans and the gamers were all upset; and YouTube finally ended up, well, part of what they said was you should, in order to avoid copyright infringement, just turn the music off. Did you see that?

No, that’s what YouTube said?

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Yes, I mean I’m simplifying, but yes, basically they said until you figure out everything you can just turn off the music.

Yeah, Google, the Google that’s motto is do no evil? Is that the same Google who owns YouTube? (Laughter)

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Oh yeah, it is. Yes. (Laughter)

It’s gambling. I’m shocked to find gambling in this casino! Well, yeah, I mean Google, which owns YouTube, is sort of famous for wanting to pay as little as possible. Even though they are one of the most profitable companies in the world and pretend to love artists.

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When I first started in 2004, they didn’t even know what performing rights were, and they didn’t want to let you keep your writer’s share. And it was like an argument with them. I go, “Wait, it’s a win, win. You guys get the publisher’s share and I get the writer’s share.” “Oh, we don’t publish music. We don’t know anything about that. We don’t want to open a publishing thing.” I go, “There’s no responsibility other than to open an envelope with a check in it. That’s your only responsibility.”

European Black Box?

There’s so much irony. All these European PROs that talk about the artist. To me, a lot of it is BS.

Why?

Because they’ve been screwing American composers in Europe for decades. So it’s not about the composers; it’s about their own composers and feathering their own nests at the PROs in Europe.

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Can you elaborate on that for me in terms of how American composers are getting screwed?

How are they getting screwed? Well, let me count the ways. Two of the biggest societies in Europe, SACEM (France) and GEMA (Germany),divvy out a major portion of their rights, the rights monies paid by broadcasters. They call it a mechanical, a broadcast mechanical… And there is no way for composers to collect that money, so it goes to the publishers or stays in the society and gets put into black box or whatever.

I think SACEM also takes 25 to 30 percent of the money and puts it aside for social needs, meaning the retirement benefits of SACEM members, but a large portion of that money came from earnings of US-based composers, U.S.TV and films. But we don’t get any retirement benefits from SACEM. So our money is being used to pay for the retirement benefits of French composers in SACEM, or SACEM members. And lots of other ways where they use misidentified titles to put the money in, make no mention of it — or they don’t make a great effort to find out who the composer is — put the money into the black box, and in a few years that money gets distributed to their members.

So there are three examples, and it’s enormous over the decades. If it was less than a billion dollars, I’d be shocked, over the last thirty or forty years of U.S. composers’ money, because we’ve generated so much of the world’s film and television music and gotten the shaft.

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And so you are saying that there is no way to get the money to the American composers.

Well, in the broadcast mechanical sense, there isn’t, because they don’t call it a performing right, they call it a mechanical right; and therefore, your performing rights society is not in a position to collect it for you.

And it’s not paid to us. We just never receive the money…But that money is collected from the broadcasters for the purpose of all the performances, including a lot of it from U.S.-based television and films. So the money is collected for that use, because so much of film and television broadcast there is for our product, but then they keep a third of it and don’t pay it to us.

It’s an enormous rip off, in my opinion. It’s outrageous, but no one is doing anything about it.

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Do you know of any attempts that are made to audit the black box?

That’s the job of ASCAP and BMI, but it’s so opaque, and it’s so difficult. I mean basically ASCAP and BMI and SESAC take whatever money the foreign societies give them and distribute it based upon the information provided. They don’t really have the ability to go and find out what’s being played on television, and whether it’s U.S.-based material, and look at it against what’s coming to them. Unless a composer actually has a way to find out, “Hey, what about this performance,” and actually tell our society; and if you tell your society, then they’ll go and contact GEMA or SACEM or whatever and go, “Where’s this money?” and then it’s, “Oh, oh yes. You are correct, it is your money. We are so sorry.” And then the money comes. But what are you missing? I think it’s enormous.

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“Google, which owns YouTube, is sort of famous for wanting to pay as little as possible. Even though they are one of the most profitable companies in the world and pretend to love artists. There’s so much irony. All these European PROs that talk about the artist. To me, a lot of it is BS… Because they’ve been screwing American composers in Europe for decades. So it’s not about the composers; it’s about their own composers and feathering their own nests at the PROs in Europe.”

American PROs / Direct Licensing

What about direct licensing? Do you have issues with that, as a game composer?

I think it’s a disaster for composers, because you’re not in a position of power. You don’t own the music; you just have the writer’s share. So if a production company chooses to direct license your music, now they’re collecting the money. Now you have to collect from your publisher or the company that you work for, and they’re not set up to pay composers. And they’re selling a whole bundle of rights, or licensing a whole bundle of rights, to broadcasters — maybe online broadcasters — and they get to keep all of it except this one little slice called performing rights, the writer’s share, and that’s a pain in the ass to distribute. And it’s like, well maybe it would have been 5 percent of the total of all the licensing rights, but maybe if we call it 2.5 percent, we pay half as much to them. Who’s to say what part of that negotiation, what percentage, is performing right? You’re just selling a whole bundle of rights that includes performing rights. So if you don’t have a big entity like ASCAP or BMI in your corner, making sure that the music is properly compensated, you’re in a very weak position to negotiate.

I think direct licensing theoretically could produce more income for the composer, but I think, in toto, it will be the end of performing rights for composers, or greatly diminished.

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Because you’re at the mercy of publishers…

Yeah, you are; and I just think the publishers are not in the business of distributing money; and they are businesses trying to wring as much income as they possibly can out of their product. And they’re under stress and pressure to make money, and they’re gonna see ways in the future, in my opinion, to pay us less and less. So I think composers are greatly benefited by having a performing rights society. We don’t have a union; we are just individuals; and as an individual, you’re not in a very powerful position to negotiate.

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Would you say that’s more important for TV and film composers, as opposed to game composers, because of the lack of performing rights for game composers?

Yes, exactly.

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How do you feel about the consent decrees on ASCAP and BMI?

I think the consent decree is anachronistic, shall we say. It’s seventy years old, and there’s lots of competition for ASCAP now. I don’t know why ASCAP is saddled, and BMI for that matter, with a consent decree. I mean, it’s unique and it’s never been revisited and rethought, and I think it’s very unfair. I really do. And it puts music in a very weak bargaining position. If you can’t withhold your services, if they’re not paying you properly, what position do you have? What power do you have?

Almost none. Now I did hear that BMI won a suit against Pandora. Just in the last day or two. Someone sent me that.

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Well, the question is, the ruling is in some ways parallel and in some ways very different from the ruling with ASCAP. I think the big question is whether publishers have the right to withdraw only certain rights from ASCAP or BMI, as opposed to having to withdraw them all, which could just devastate the PROs. They’re the two largest PROs in America, but now they have different rulings, at least in terms of timing, on their consent decrees and their ability to negotiate. I don’t think the answer is there yet.

No, that’s pretty crazy, I’m sure that Pandora will appeal. I’m not close enough. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t pretend to have the detail… It seems like a mess, and I told you what I thought about consent decree. It’s really super unfair to our industry, and we should be able to withdraw our music if they won’t pay us properly. I think there’s going to be a change in copyright law, potentially in the next few years, and so I think that’s something that composers should fight for.

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In terms of copyright reform — which everybody is talking about, whether it happens or not — everybody’s a little concerned about how it can go, either way. What would you like to see, personally? What do you think are the big issues?

Well, I just talked about two of the big issues, and that’s the consent decree, which I think ought to be, if not removed, the burden of it should be lessened, I think. And then some protection for composers, who are really in a weak position if direct licensing becomes common for the internet.

And I think everything’s going internet… I think all the content in the near and long term will be the internet. It just seems to be where everything is going, and so this business model that’s lasted for forty or fifty years is just being upended. And, I think also what’s gonna happen is that more and more companies are going to try to entice composers with new business models that compete with ASCAP and BMI. But, to be honest with you, I think ASCAP and BMI and SESAC have to compete. They are gonna have to compete…I’m not for ASCAP or for BMI or for SESAC, I’m for composers.

I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about the creators. But I have been of the opinion, as far as I can see, that our best bet is with the performing rights societies. But if they cease to be the best deal for composers, and someone comes along with a better business model and says, “Hey, I’m gonna collect the internet for you, Mr. Composer, or Mrs. Composer, or Ms. Composer, or whatever, and we’re gonna pay you 20 percent more,” I would be like, yeah. Let’s look at that. There may be some downsides to that. Maybe you would be in a business model that would put you at a disadvantage in getting gigs, because it makes [it harder for] the producer to distribute their work. Well, that’s not a good deal. Yeah, you’d get more, but no one is gonna hire you anymore. You know what I’m saying?

…I mean, the advantage of a PRO has been the advantage that it’s always had from the beginning. It’s like there are so many possible uses of your music, that it makes sense to have one repository where everyone goes to pay for the performance right.

But then maybe — because the internet makes possible inexpensive micropayments, etc. — maybe there’s a service that some company provides: this new service, that, ok, if you want to use this, instead of keeping 10 or 15 percent of the money like ASCAP does now, maybe it’s only 1½ percent or something. I don’t know.

That’s my opinion. I mean, I may be overly pessimistic, and in direct licensing everyone will be fair and honest and keep the composer in mind.

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I don’t think anybody thinks that.

Right, Lily Tomlin once said, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” It’s like, I agree with her.

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Have you ever had live performances of your work?

Yes, I’ve had performances by symphony orchestras, and they continue. It’s great. I mean, and there is some income from that.

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How does that work?

Well, of course, they don’t pay me any license, because I don’t own the music, but I do get performing rights. It’s never been a lot of money; it’s not big money or anything, but it’s some money.

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I’m interested in that only because, to me, the more digital everything becomes, where there’s not that much physical product anymore, the only thing you have on the other side is live performances: theater, concerts, rock concerts, etc. I think that live becomes even more precious.

Yeah, I think that’s important, and also licensing. If you have some kind of music that you own, that has a hit. I wrote a song for this guy named Matt Harding…I’ve licensed those tracks a lot. It’s produced a lot of really great income.

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You’re talking about sync licensing.

Yeah, sync licenses can also be really, really lucrative, but you have to have something that breaks through the cacophony.

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What did you think of the document that was leaked by Edward Snowden about the NSA spying on the gaming world? Did you have any thoughts on that, speaking of digital prevalence?

You know, I think I saw the headline but didn’t read the details…I think what the NSA thinks is that people are communicating through online gaming… because you can do messaging, I guess. I played World of Warcraft. You can like go online and you can talk to another player, so that might be a way that some spy agency is, like, communicating or something. Is that what that was about with the NSA?

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Yes, I think that they were mainly spying on World of Warcraft and Second Life, and they thought that it was such a very rich and complex environment, within those worlds, that they could be infiltrated; people could take on characters and communicate and conspire through the games…

I do think the government has a responsibility to look out for bad guys, but somebody has to be looking over their shoulder to make sure that they’re not abusing that power. So I’m not completely against the government doing its job and looking for potential terrorist plots. I think that that’s something I want the government to do; but then somebody responsible needs to be looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re not abusing it and looking for things that U.S. citizens should have every right to have privacy in. I’m not an expert. I’m not like of one mind that thinks that the government is fascist and out to get me. On the other hand, I don’t want the government spying on me, trying to find out if I paid every penny of income tax or something.

So I think that balance needs to be found. What they’re doing, their due diligence to make sure somebody doesn’t blow me up at the airport, and at the same time not spying on people; I think that balance needs to be found.

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ADDENDUM: Schyman clarified his position regarding copyright reform and writer’s share issues in an email after the interview:

“If congress does revamp copyright law in the coming years I think that work for hire composers ought to request that we be permitted, by law, the right to decide who collects our share (the writer’s share) of performing rights. I think this is an eminently fair thing to ask for and it has the benefit of not asking for anything new or anything we have not traditionally been permitted to receive. We’re not asking that work for hire be overturned – because, being a realist, I don’t think that is likely to happen, and we don’t want a share of any other parties income stream – we just want the right to decide who collects and distributes our share of performing rights.”

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“I think the consent decree is anachronistic, shall we say. It’s seventy years old, and there’s lots of competition for ASCAP now. I don’t know why ASCAP is saddled, and BMI for that matter, with a consent decree. I mean, it’s unique and it’s never been revisited and rethought, and I think it’s very unfair. I really do. And it puts music in a very weak bargaining position.

I think also what’s gonna happen is that more and more companies are going to try to entice composers with new business models that compete with ASCAP and BMI. But, to be honest with you, I think ASCAP and BMI and SESAC have to compete. They are gonna have to compete… I’m not for ASCAP or for BMI or for SESAC, I’m for composers.”

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