A Q&A with Brandon Young,
Activision Blizzard Inc.’s
Director of Music Affairs
After three decades of creating gaming
products, Activision Blizzard Inc. is a
cornerstone in the video game world.
The company’s Director of Music Affairs,
Brandon Young, has been responsible for
the music aspect of those games for the
past decade. Young is involved with every
facet of the music, from working with
the development studios on the titles to
finding composers for scores, to executive
producing those scores, to licensing songs
and brokering deals, to partnerships with
artists and musicians, and coordinating with
marketing teams and advertising agencies
for promotional trailers. With titles like
Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Guitar Hero,
and DJ Hero, among many others on his
résumé, Young has dealt with a wide range
of musical duties. Here, Young shares some
insights for composers looking to break into
the game world.
|Brandon Young is involved in every facet of the music.
Which do you tend to do more: license
music or hire composers?
It’s definitely game-by-game. We did 13
to 15 game titles for 2013. Seventy percent
used hired composers and 30 percent were
plugged in from different music houses and
licensed music. For some of the smaller titles,
like Cabela’s Hunting Game, the music gets
pulled from different library-type music
houses like Killer Tracks. We had years of
doing titles like Guitar Hero; obviously heavily
licensed music. My preference would be to hire a composer every time, but it depends on
what we’re trying to do.
What is your process for choosing a
It starts internally. I talk with our studio about
what that game’s going to want and need, and
we look at the budget. From that, I pull a
short list of seven people. I share their reels
with our internal producers, as well as the
studio, and we narrow it down to three. Then
we check on their availability, see if they’re interested, see if the budget meets with what
they’re into doing, and go from there.
How do you work with the composer to get
the results you need for the game?
For something like Call of Duty, our massive
juggernaut title, I’m taking the composer to
our studio in San Francisco to do a full two-day
summit with the creative team, really immersing
him with what our goal is. He’s going
to see levels that have already been developed,
but there are still plenty of levels to go. We’ll
show him the script and the creative treatment
for the game. We’ll take him through the vision
decided by the developer.
What does a composer need to understand
about scoring for a game versus other
Video games are nonlinear. We have audio
engineers who do the implementations. They
have to set up the music as stems that can
be layered. For instance, if it’s Call of Duty
and your guy is standing in the corner and
it’s quiet, you need that to be low. When the
action starts happening, you have to program
it so it starts bringing in the different layers
of stems to create that action feel behind it,
which isn’t done in any other medium. The
composer has to understand that early on,
before we get into our projects, that we’re a
nonlinear product; how to write and adapt
How do you find composers? Or track down
I try and keep of list of people I meet, who
friends represent, who are friends of friends of
friends. I used to dig on my own, but that’s not
necessary anymore. I’ve been doing this job
for so long, I stay ahead of it with what people
send me. I’ll discover something whether it’s
through Sirius Radio or someone mentioning
it, and I’ll search my inbox and 90 percent of
the time, it’s in there. I get inundated. There’s
only so much I can—or want to—download.
If it’s a stream or download then at least you
have the option.
Are there particular musical styles that you
tend to gravitate toward for games?
Stuff that has more energy, from harder,
aggressive rock to hip-hop to something
electronic and a little darker with power to
push. Everyone’s into instrumentals these days, so music is being sent out as “full album”
and “instrumental,” which is helpful.
Can someone approach you without a
They can. If they email me a 20Mb file that
jams my inbox, it discredits them and I’m
going to delete the attachment. If they are
unable to construct a normal sentence, they
come across unprofessional and I don’t know
if they’re going to hit my deliveries on time. If
they email me a link and present themselves by
corresponding in a professional manner, I will
check them out.
Do you tend to respond?
I try to get back to people if I feel it’s a
legitimate request. If I have projects going on
that they can submit for, I’ll let them know. If
I don’t have anything at the time, I’ll let them
know. I let them know if I have something
starting around a certain month and to check
back with me then. Sometimes I’ll flag people
who are checking on certain things to get back
to them. I get a couple of hundred emails a day
and can’t go through all of them.
Do you ever use people who don’t have a
track record? What can they bring to you
to show what they can do?
Yes, I do. The best thing to do if they don’t
have any experience at all is to put together
a reel. Pull images off YouTube, do your own
spec score to it. Especially if it’s things I
want to be seeing, like a clip of Call of Duty:
Mute it, do your own score to it, see how that
comes across. If you’re trying to convey a
few different styles, a minute and a half, two
minutes each. If someone feels like they have
the right skill set for certain projects, they
should approach companies that are doing
things [that match] their skill set. Research
different publishers and see what their annual
titles are, to clue you in to what they’re doing
the next year. There are unannounced things,
but you can figure it out. You can find out who
to reach out to by Googling who was involved
in a particular game. It’s a small enough
industry to figure out who the people are.
If a musician or a label has a back catalog
of material, what’s the best way to present
that to you? And is there paperwork you’d
like them to have prepared?
When people send me a whole back catalog, I’m not going to listen to it because I don’t
know where to start—unless you do a focus
tracks list. If you do a top-line sampling of
the favorites, people can take a listen and
decide. Links to SoundCloud work great.
You can skip through the songs easily
and if they want, they can set it up to be
They have to be able to confirm that they
own it. They wrote the song, and if there were
co-writers for the song, that those people are
on board or they can put me in touch with the
right people to make sure all the pieces of the
puzzle are there. I’ve got paperwork I can put
together, no problem.
What are some external entities you work
with that provide you with music that artists
Our advertising agency, as well as digital
agencies that work with our digital department
running things like our social media. We’re
always doing videos that go up on there. These
agencies have their own audio people. It ends
up funneling back through me, but we go
through hundreds of promo trailers a year so
I’m usually cool with it if they have it figured
out before it gets to me and I just end up doing
What’s the range for compensation?
From a composer perspective, if you’re going
to score an entire game, you can think of
that running the spectrum from real small-budget
films to massive blockbuster film
budgets. It depends on the size of our game,
our expectations for it, the level of quality
we’re expecting, whether or not we want a big
composer name value to it. There are a lot of
different levels. There’s a per-minute rate that’s
an industry standard that can run anywhere
from $500 up to several thousand dollars. We
might need 60 to 90 minutes of score to work
itself through the whole game. We usually work
on a chunk of minutes at a time.
For license, if it’s a game that’s a music-based
or a rhythm-based game, like a Guitar Hero,
then you’re going to pay a penny-rate royalty. If
it’s a song license, it’s subjective. It depends on
the size of the artist, what they think it’s worth,
the scene in the game. I’ve paid anywhere from
low four figures to high five figures.
Lily Moayeri is based in Los Angeles. Visit
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