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Is the Song Licensing System Out of Synch?

When 21-year-old singer ericdoa released the song “>one” last March, he had an unusual collaborator: Valorant. That’s not another artist; it’s a popular shooter game that attracted millions of players in February. Riot Games, the company behind Valorant, used “>one” — which references the game in its lyrics — in a trailer that introduced a playable character named Gekko. The track is now ericdoa’s second-most-popular song on Spotify, with over 36 million streams.

“That was a huge spiritual win,” says Maria Egan, global head of music and events for Riot Games. “Can we do that over and over again?” she asks. “How do we unlock our platform and other gaming platforms to be the new place that new artists can find audiences?”

It’s a question often asked in the music business as well. In recent years, the industry has struggled to find reliable ways to ensure that its songs reach a wide listenership. The gaming community is massive, youthful and interested in music — in other words, an ideal target for labels. Yet there have been few notable recent instances of games helping new artists break through or driving music discovery on a mass scale. 

“Like music, gaming is global and has significant cultural relevance, but scalability at this intersection is still a challenge,” says Geoff Sawyer, an agent in gaming and esports at UTA. “Players and revenue are scattered across an endless web of product categories and consumer affinities, and not all in one big bucket. While there are incredibly cool, bespoke integrations happening between games and musicians, the music industry would need to upend its licensing model to truly achieve scale in this category.”

In truth, gaming does not need more labels’ music to thrive — the gaming industry earned around $184 billion in 2023, dwarfing music (around $26 billion, according to the IFPI). As one prominent music tech executive puts it, “the business model for games doesn’t need to support music.” 

And even within the popular games that foreground music, space remains highly competitive. “There are still a limited amount of slots in FC, a limited amount of slots in NBA 2K,” says Steve Schnur, president of music for Electronic Arts (EA).

The music industry would presumably benefit if there were more games with more slots for its songs. But gaming executives say the opaque licensing system makes this unlikely. “Every time I speak to a games publisher, they’ve always got at least one horror story about trying to navigate music rights,” says Ben Sumner, managing director at Feel for Music, which helps games and brands with music supervision. 

One recording may have multiple master owners and writers, each of which could work with a different publishing company, and gaming companies have to get everyone’s approval. Vickie Nauman, who has licensed music for many games in addition to founding the music-tech consultancy CrossBorderWorks, once had to get 143 agreements complete to clear 20 songs.

This may simply take too long for a game’s timeline, explains Gavin Johnson, director of sync and partnerships at the electronic music label Monstercat. “Typically a game developer is creating content that’s quarterly or bi-weekly or even weekly,” he says, especially in the world of “live services games,” which are free to play and dynamic, updated on the fly to rejuvenate player interest and maintain consistent engagement. (Several of the most popular games of 2023 — as measured by monthly active users — were live service games, including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Minecraft.)

In addition, the music industry usually requires large upfront payments to license songs. “Incorporating music is often an experiment for games, and they don’t want to pay millions of dollars for an experiment,” says Alex Tarrand, co-founder and COO of STYNGR, a company that offers games precleared music.

Between multiple rights holders impacting timelines and steep up-front fees, many game developers find it far easier and more fiscally prudent to commission music in-house. “If anything creates more cost in ways that aren’t really driving what a game is going after, they tend to think, ‘We probably shouldn’t be spending time and resources on that,’” gaming consultant Toa Dunn says.

Tarrand’s company STYNGR is working to reduce the friction between gaming and music companies by putting blanket licenses in place with all the major labels and publishers so game developers can come to STYNGR and pull music into their titles. Instead of paying STYNGR upfront, developers cut revenue-sharing deals.

Another company, Game Over, takes a very different approach, targeting gamers who watch live-streams on Twitch or enjoy gameplay montage videos on YouTube or Instagram. This allows them to sidestep the industry “arm-wrestling match” around rights altogether, according to partner Zach Katz. Labels are “still in the mindset that winning in the gaming space is tied to interacting with the [gaming] platforms,” Katz says. In his view, that’s “a mistake.” “The victory is ultimately to get the gaming audiences” and serve them music, which can be done in other places where gamers congregate.

Still, executives in both music and gaming dream of more in-game opportunities. “Licensing needs to be made easier and more scalable for games so that it’s not only huge franchises that can do it,” says BandLab CEO Meng Ru Kuok. 

“What I’m hoping to do is create a dialogue where we can understand that, although synch relationships bear enormous amount of fruit, they still are limiting us,” Schnur adds. “Let’s take a look at what the term ‘synch’ means and what it should mean going forward.” He acknowledges, however, that music rights holders may be content with the current system — and wary that any calls for change could disguise a campaign to undervalue music. 

For now, many creative ideas to bring more music into gaming “are just not coming to market,” Nauman says, “because of rights issues.”

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