Talking MONEY: Advice from Music vs Games corners

I’ve come across something of a conundrum recently. It’s a confounding discrepancy  between advice given by professionals in the music and games industries on what’s essentially the same issue.

That advice is about talking and deciding upon money at the early stages of a project; forming your team.

I’m in games now but I was actively into music as a guitar player/songwriter before. In 2010 I did Hot Press magazine’s Music Industry Explained course of lectures. A number of industry experts, including Jackie Hayden, discussed areas of the music industry and a number of them said that when forming a band, you want to be clear about where the money (if and when there is any) is going to go. Especially if you’re forming with your friends, as is usually the case.
So many bands have broken up as soon as they start to make money because they never agreed how much they’d all get if money ever came up. The singer might assume he should get more because he writes the songs, even though he’s always late for practice, while the guitarist has effectively booked all gigs and handled the press (managing the band) and assumes he deserves a manager’s cut, while the loyal and punctual drummer (no pun intended) just assumed there were 5 of them taking a 5 way split.

It happens so much and the advice is to nip this in the bud. There’s no right way to do it. An even split is probably the safest thing to assume but the writer should get more as he’s producing the material, perhaps, and the guy managing is doing a double job, so what’s fair? You just have to agree first, and the advice is, agree in writing! Preferably with a solicitor/lawyer involved.

 U2 with manager Paul Mc Guinness. Click for Paul's Wikipedia page to learn more.
U2 with manager Paul Mc Guinness. Click for Paul’s Wikipedia page to learn more.

As a case study, it might interest people to know that Larry Mullen Jr. formed U2. Bono still acknowledges that it’s Larry’s band and doesn’t just make the decisions as front-man. But they all agreed early on to split any money evenly, and a very smart decision they made was to give manager Paul Mc Guinness an equal split too. So all of U2’s profits go evenly to 5 people, not 4, and look how successful they are. I should say “went” because Mc Guinness stepped down in 2013, but he managed U2 from the very beginning.

My good friend Sally Ó Dúnlaing, a fantastic singer who’s still neck-deep in the music scene was telling me about the “change a word, take a third” rule of thumb in the industry. This amounts to if you contribute anything to a song, you take a share of the song in the form of a co-producer credit. This is how big pop songs can wind up having 15 writers and 16 producers under a single artist’s name (Beyoncé, say). The point is that the music industry seems to have this figured out and they know how they’re going to get paid.

Conversely, the game industry, and especially the indie game industry is in its infancy relative to the music world and maybe haven’t seen as many legal battles over this stuff. Although forming a small indie team and working for a year or two on a game is directly comparable with (and even comes under a lot of the same entertainment-law areas as) forming a band and working on an EP for the same amount of time, I’ve been given advice by both amateurs and professionals in the game scene to “not talk about money until there’s money to talk about”. Why is this? I actually don’t have an answer. It’s more of an open question and maybe you’d be kind enough to post in the comments if you have an insight.

As a wider poll, I asked a Facebook group of indie developers for their advice on the topic. I got mixed advice. One or two did say it’s very important to agree early on. Others said to “form with your friends” (not that this is guaranteed to prevent disputes) and others to start working assuming an equal share and then see how much work people are putting in. Another said to talk when the game is 30-50% done.

Even researching other blogs and guides specifically on forming indie games teams didn’t net me a single answer. Advice ranged from “just pay them, you own the rest”, to “equal share” to “divide by hours worked”. There doesn’t seem to be a “right” answer, as with music, but the advice in music is at least consistent. “Sort it out early”.

Personally I come from a background where I studied a commerce degree (a couple of legal classes included), was involved in the music and burlesque scenes in Ireland as a musician, songwriter and producer, studied Irish tax (more law) and am now getting into the games industry. My education tells me to be super clear about this stuff early on. I acknowledge that you maybe are forming with friends and don’t want to alienate them so how you go about the discussion may need to be considered carefully. 

But when everyone knows where they stand, and if where they stand is acceptable to them, then you have a focussed and motivated team. Without that clarity, or at least an element of trust and respect keeping the team together and happy, you’re likely doomed. Even with a motivated and talented team, the odds of making a successful game or album are slim enough that you may never come to worrying about sharing profits, but at least you’ve got a fighting chance.

 This is supposed to be a picture of a happy and successful team. Don't read too much into it :)

That’s my opinion anyway, but I’d love to hear what you think, particularly if you’ve opinions on why the industries seem to differ so much in their opinions on this stuff, or if you don’t think that they do and my experience has been a statistical anomaly.