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How to license music the indie way
by Catherine Levesque on 03/14/13 02:10:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When I started thinking about Bollywood Wannabe, one of my first concerns was the music. I needed songs that could, when mixed with the appropriate visual and gameplay, recreate the feeling one experience when watching Bollywood movies. While music is often an overlooked component of games, a rhythm game can’t get away with bad music. Most of the songs in Bollywood Wannabe are licensed, a rare thing for an indie game. I received a lot of questions about this fact, so I wrote a small guide about licensing music when you are an indie developer.


Why license music? 

Today, there’s a lot of option available to indie developers. A lot of websites offer royalty free, or even free music, in a variety of styles. There are also a lot of composers ready to create original music for a small fee. But sometimes this is not enough. If you need a very specific kind of songs, or want a soundtrack that will set your game apart, licensing is what you need.  

For Bollywood Wannabe, I had very specific needs for the music. After a lot of searching, I managed to find two royalty free songs for the game. I needed ten. I didn’t know any composer that could create the rest of the songs I needed, and even if I found one, it would have been too expensive. My best bet was to search for already released songs and persuade their creators to license them to me.


Finding the songs

Now the first step in your quest to license music is finding songs you like. The popular songs you can hear on the radio/television/internet are probably out of your reach. Big labels generally require big upfront payments that few indie developers can afford. Your best bet is to find indie artists or small labels company, and thanks to the internet, this is now easier than ever.

Your first stop is online music store, like ITunes or CD Baby. They sell a lot of songs from indie artists in various styles, and they have nice searching functions. Search around, listen to previews and take notes of what you like. Searching YouTube’s videos can also be a great way to find songs you like. A lot of artists release videos and live performance on it. You can also search for more specialized online store. I found a few Indian stores featuring the kind of music I needed for Bollywood Wannabe after a few simple search.

Specialized websites are another good source of information. Look for sites dedicated to the type of music you like: fan sites, online radio, news sites, blogs and forums. One of my best sources of information was a site dedicated to bhangra music who posted about songs and videos released by popular bhangra artists. I found almost half the song in Bollywood Wannabe through this site.


Finding who to contact

When you have found a song you want to license, the next step is to find who you need to contact. Most online store show very little information about the songs creator, but you should at least be able to find the name of the creator and/or the label who owns the rights. Use this information to find an official website for this artist/label. This can be a lot harder than it looks. A Google search for an artist name will often features news articles, interviews and videos before the official website, if any exists. Small label names often contain common words that return a lot of unrelated sites. If you can’t find an official page, try to find a facebook page. The about section generally contain a link to the official site or contact information.


How to contact them

Now that you know who to contact, it’s time to send a licensing request. The message should be short, precise and professional. You don’t want the copyright holder to think its spam, so proofread it. After reading your first message, the copyright holder should know:

  • What you want
  • Who you are
  • What kind of game you’re making
  • What is the next step if interested

The first line of the message should explain why you are contacting them. Tell them that you want to license a song for a game and name the song you want. Include a line telling them that if they are interested, you can send them a formal proposition.  Making the deal look like little work is needed on their side will make your offer more attractive.

If you are an established developer, you might want to talk a little bit about you or your studio. Include links to your website and to your previous games. If you haven’t release any game before, a good looking website and email address (not free) will help you look more professional.

The next step is to describe the game. Don’t go into details, you just need a few sentences to describe the type of game you are making and what the story is about. Explain how the song will be used in the game and if the song will be accessible to the end-user as a stand-alone file or not. You should especially mention it if you intend to modify the song in any way, or allow the user to do it. Think about the aspects of your game that could be appealing to the copyright holder and mention them. For example, if he makes children songs, mention how family friendly the game is. When I contacted artists for Bollywood Wannabe, I always mentioned that the game was about a team of unknown artists trying to make a Bollywood movie. If you have a developer blog or kickstarter project for the game you can also mention them.


Preparing a contract

While some indie artists may want to use their own contracts, most will expect you to provide it. So, it’s a good idea to prepare one before contacting them. The contract should include:

  • Your name and address
  • The copyright holder name and address
  • Is the usage exclusive or not
  • The territory covered
  • The time covered
  • The name of the song concerned
  • A description of all allowed use for the song
  • Who own the right to the song and how credit should be handled
  • The payment and royalties
  • Signature and dates

There are a few things you should keep in mind while writing the contract:

  • Requiring exclusive usage of the song will be much more expensive, so think twice before asking for it.
  • The artist should retain all right to the song and be credited appropriately where needed. I you want to own the song’s copyright, be prepared to pay for it.
  • Describe all allowed use for the song. Do you want to distribute it as part of the game soundtrack? Will you use it to promote the game or in the trailer? Will you use it in a free demo? Will it be modified in any way?

The best thing to do is always to hire a lawyer to write one for you. But if you don’t want to do this, or write a contract from scratch, you can find a free template online and modify it to fit your need. You can also read this great article about game audio contract.



If the copyright holder accepts your terms, you are done. You can both sign the contract and fax/email/post a copy to each other. However, keep in mind that most will want to negotiate. Some artist may try to negotiate a onetime fee instead of a royalty rate. Some will want an upfront payment or a bigger cut of the profits and some will simply want to change the word used or add more protection for them.

Evaluate each suggestion and if you agree, send a new modified contract. If you can’t agree to their demands, write a polite email back explaining your position and make a counter-offer if possible. Stay professional, don’t whine and never play the poor indie card.   


The Bollywood Wannabe story

Because there’s nothing like a real world example, let me tell you about my experience with Bollywood Wannabe. My first idea was to find a composer trying to make it into Bollywood and ready to work cheaply to get some experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any contact in the industry and didn’t know where to look for such a thing. Not living in India, or near any Indian community, also didn’t help. I searched for composer forum or online community, but found nothing useful. The only composers I could find were professionals clearly out of my budget or amateurs who seemed a bit musically challenged. I didn’t have enough money to hire a professional and didn’t have enough contacts/knowledge to find a talented amateur I could afford. It was time to try plan B.

When I realized licensing music from indie artists was the only way I could hope to get appropriate music for the game, I faced a couple of problems:

  • While I had previously worked in the game industry, it was my first game as an indie developer.
  • I was the proverbial poor indie developer and didn’t have much money for advance/payment.
  • While I knew a little about Bollywood and Indian music in general, I had no idea where to find Indian indie artists.
  • I had no contact whatsoever in the music world and had no experience dealing with licensing.
  • I wanted genuine Indian music, preferably with lyrics in Hindi or Punjabi, but didn’t speak any of those languages. This was especially problematic since I needed songs that could fit, at least loosely, the story in the game.

Finding good songs was the first challenge. I soon discovered CD Baby and a site specialized in bhangra music that I could search for new releases. Once I found a few songs I liked, I realized I had a new problem: I had no idea what the lyrics meant. While I knew I probably couldn’t find songs that described the story in the game perfectly, I wanted lyrics that could at least loosely fit the theme of a level. I also wanted to avoid anything too controversial. This was problematic since most of the song I liked where in Punjabi and I didn’t know that language. Sometimes the song had a description, but most didn’t. Google translate couldn’t help me either since Punjabi is not in their language list. I eventually found an online dictionary that I could use to translate enough words to understand a song, at least when I had the lyrics. Sometimes, all I had was the song’s title and the few words I had learned to recognize. Since most songs had videos and a few English words mixed in, I was generally able to understand the general idea.

The next problem was finding who to contact about licensing the song. I previously discussed how to search for them, but it’s hard to realise just how difficult this step can be. It sometimes took me an hour or two before I found the information I needed and I abandoned at least twice because I couldn’t find a way to contact them. Once I finally found someone to contact I wrote them a short message and waited for an answer ... and waited ... Let’s just say it took at least 5 messages to different artists before one of them decided that maybe it was worth their time. Unfortunately, my lack of experience quickly became obvious. I didn’t have a contract ready and I didn’t know what to offer or how to proceed from there. I decided to be honest and it was a mistake: I never heard from them again. After sending about 10 messages, changing my wording to look more professional each time, I finally found a small company that was interested in negotiating with me and signed my first contract. Afterward, I created my own contract template and made sure to mention that I had an official proposition ready in my first message. This small change doubled my response rate.

This was a very long process, it took me almost two years to find the 10 songs I needed for the game. Of course, my needs where pretty specifics and a lot of time was spent searching for the songs in the first place. Still, licensing a song, from the first contact to the signed contract, generally took about a month. In the end though, it was worth it. I would never have been able to find and afford music for Bollywood Wannabe any other way.



The whole process is quite simple, but I still have a few advices for the indie developers who want to try it.

First, be patient. It can take a week or two before an artist answer you. Don’t forget, they are indies too, they don’t have secretaries and assistants to take care of their business. If they are on tour, and it’s often the case, your email might have to wait until they get back home. Once the dialog is engaged, expect a lot of back and forth.

Second, don’t expect everyone to accept your terms. About half of the artists will never write back. So, if you haven’t heard back from an artist after two weeks, it’s safe to assume he’s not interested. Of those who respond, about half of them will not be interested once they realize they can’t get a big enough upfront payment. As for upfront payment, if you can’t afford it, just say so.

Finally, give yourself enough time to find all the songs you want. Licensing songs for an indie game is not difficult, but it can be a long process. If you want an original and unique soundtrack for your game, it’s the way to go.

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Keith Nemitz
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This is great advice and a terrific resource. Everybody, bookmark this page! I had to figure out all of this by myself, ten years ago for my game, 'The Witch's Yarn'.

Thank you, Catherine.

Tyson Prince
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Interesting seeing it from the other side! My band's been licensing out our music for years and we find it helps both parties, we get more listeners and the game gets great music. Heck, we liked helping so much we release a bunch of tracks under Creative Commons just to help indie developers out!

Jonathan Davis
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This is EXACTLY the kind of music I needed in my current projects - thank you so much! Don't worry, definitely will credit you and buy the full versions once I get some money! (Yes I am that broke >.<)

Michael Joseph
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Key Rob's hideous reply prompted me to want to learn more about the game. I thought maybe his real issue was with the game itself. But i don't see how. The game is an instant mood brightener.

These vids are sure to put a smile on your face.

Kris Graft
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Yeah, Key Rob is going on a little vacation from comments.

Anton Emery
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As a musician/composer working on licensing his music it is interesting to read this from the other side's perspective. Good stuff.

Steven Christian
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Any tips or insights from your own perspective would be of great interest to us as well ;)

Ryan Creighton
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The author mentions that popular songs may be "out of your reach". What does that mean? Well, i've had some misadventures with trying to license music for my game trailer, detailed here:

The happy ending is that i recently licensed my first song from a band, with terms that i think are very beneficial to us both. Dreams CAN come true. :)

Catherine Levesque
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It means exactly what your blog post describe: if you are a small indie company, you probably can't afford it. I certainly didn't have 65 000$ to spend on a song either. :)

Greg Ashcroft
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Another Excellent resource for finding music is bandcamp.

Just as a small shameless plug but probably a good reference is our bandcamp page. It contains tons of artists/VGM cover bands and of course composers.

We are a indie game music station and feature many indie game composers and all of our music is purchased from bandcamp (and given consent to stream by the artists).

Kenneth Baird
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This is incredibly helpful, thanks!

Gregory Duplat
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It would be interesting to know how much everyone actually spent on songs/music.

Amir Barak
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Great advice, thank you for sharing! :D

Ariel Gross
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We spent around $450,000 on Saints Row: The Third.

Great article Catherine. It is one of those "where do I even start" subjects.

Edit: To clarify, that does not include the cost to license Power by Kanye West, and we also had a blanket license with APM for music in stores, mission complete screens, etc. The 450k was the radio content.

Ben Droste
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Interesting read, and much appreciated as I'm contemplating weather I will eventually need to license a few specific tracks for an indi game I'm about to start work on.
My biggest concern is the cost. I'm curious, are you able to provide a rough figure of how much a track costs to license? Like yourself I don't expect to license anything "out of reach", so what kind of price range are we talking for lesser known/indi tracks?

Keith Nemitz
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I spent roughly $100 per song to indie musicians. For twelve tracks in The Witch's Yarn the total was $1000. (The wonderful jazz pianist gave me a bulk rate for five tracks. :-) That was 10 years ago, however.

Catherine Levesque
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For Bollywood Wannabe, I pay royalties to the artists instead of a fixed amount, so a percentage of the profits from the sales will go to the artists.

For royalty-free songs, I would have been expected to pay around $500-$1000 per song. Keep in mind that the artists I contacted for the game are popular in their own community.

You can also buy royalty-free songs from sites like (or search for "royalty-free music" on Google) for $100 or less.

Gavin Koh
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Well, as I discovered... the artist you bought from remains hidden behind his pseudonym of Amar.

I feel that it may be good practice to select an artiste who is genuinely interested in making his music and himself known. Why? Because a game reviewer (like me) might decide he likes a certain song by this anonymous artiste, only to find out (bummer) he can't write anything much about him. Don't lose brownie points because of such a situation... that is unless your song selection for your game cannot live without that piece.

I guess being a game developer cum game reviewer puts me in that special spot where I can have a good view of both sides of the fence. Nevertheless, Bollywood Wannabe rocks!

Well, it's back to game development drawing board for me.