How To Get Artwork, Sound Effects and Music For Your Mobile App

By Jim Range / October 4, 2015

Options for Acquiring Image/Audio Assets

If you are making a mobile app, you most likely will need to somehow get access to image and audio content/assets for your app. I define app assets to be any image/sprite/texture, sound effect, or music that is used to create an app.

There are various options for acquiring app assets that we can use in our apps. Which option we choose depends on various factors. From my experience, the following four are the most common ways indie app developers acquire assets to make mobile apps.

1) Make The Image/Audio Assets Yourself
2) Hire Someone To Make The Image/Audio Assets
3) Buy a Non-Exclusive Commercial License To Use Image/Audio Assets
4) Find FreeImage/Audio Assets

Make The Image/Audio Assets Yourself

If you are an experienced graphic designer and audio engineer, or even a hobbyist, you might want to create some or all of the assets for your app yourself. This can be a viable approach if you know what you are doing and are efficient at doing it. It can also be a lot of fun. But it might not be the best business decision if it impacts you spending time on other areas of your business that might add more value to your business.

I am an engineer, not a designer, but over the years I have become proficient in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Audition, Adobe Media Encoder, Texture Packer and some other tools that are very useful for creating app assets.

I sometimes take a hybrid approach of buying a license to use an asset and make the asset myself.

I buy a non-exclusive right to use the asset. This allows me to use the asset and to create derivative works of art based on the asset. Then I use the tools that I know how to use and edit the asset to meet my requirements. The result is a unique asset made quickly and at a much cheaper cost than paying a designer or audio engineer to create the asset from scratch.

If I am successful with creating the level of quality I required, then I move forward to other tasks. If I fail, then I take the image and sound assets that I created and hire someone to edit or recreate the assets to meet my needs.

Hire Someone To Make The Image/Audio Assets

I think the most common way to get exclusive use of an asset (other than making it yourself) is to have the copyright assigned to you via a work-for-hire contract. This means that you hire someone, often via temporary contract, and then that person creates the asset for you. You pay them and in return for the payment they agree to assign ownership of the asset to you.

Getting exclusive use of an asset is the ideal situation. Just like when you create the asset yourself, you own the copyright and you can dictate how the asset can be used.

If your app is a mega success, then you will be very happy that you and you alone have the right to use the image and audio assets in your app. But getting exclusive use of an asset will almost always cost you more money than if you were to buy a non-exclusive right to use an asset.

Can You Effectively Communicate, Hire and Manage People?
If you want to hire someone to create assets for you, you will need to be able to communicate your requirements, decide who to hire, and then manage the project until it is complete.

The hiring process is not too difficult due to websites such as Fiver and Upwork (formerly Elance and oDesk). Talented freelancers and companies are available to provide work-for-hire services on these sites. Be sure to clarify the contract is a work-for-hire and that all rights are assigned to you if you use one of these services.

It is possible to hire people/companies in regions of the world that provide very competitive pricing. But not everyone that offers their services on such websites will be able to meet your requirements. You should approach using such services with caution.

After I decide on the scope of work for a project I do the following.

1) Create a Detailed Project Description – This should include samples of the style of visual/audio assets you require along with a detailed text description. I include a description of the quantity of assets, the sizes, formats, and other attributes each must have, communication expectations as the project progresses, project timeline and how I will judge the project as being complete.

2) Post Requirements To Freelance Website – The next step is to post the requirements on a service such as Fiver or Upwork and have various individuals/companies submit fixed fee bids to complete the work/project.

3) Evaluate Candidates – After I receive several bids, I then review the candidates that submit bids based on cost and capability to complete the work. The capabilities of the candidates will likely range from unqualified to overqualified and everything in between. The same is true for cost. Depending on which geographic regions you decide to accept bids from, you may see bids to create a complete set of graphics for an app that range from $50 to several thousand dollars. I can usually eliminate the cheapest and most expensive candidates quite quickly. Then I review the portfolios of the potential candidates and find a few that have the right style and quality at a price that I am comfortable with.

4) Hire Candidate(s) – If you have budget for it, or have an aggressive timeline, you might what to consider hiring multiple candidates. Then you can get more done in parallel. This also allows you to further assess the capabilities of each candidate. If one is clearly a better value to you, then you can choose to award future work to that candidate.

5) Manage Work – Your project plan should have a timeline that communicates exceptions for when deliverables of the project will be completed. Along the way the artist will usually have questions for you to clarify your exceptions. This often is of the form of, “Hey, check this out. Do you like the style of this?” I have found that if I do a good job with my project description, then the back-and-forth is minimized down to me just approving the various assets or suggesting edits to change assets. This doesn’t take much time, so I have not found a need to hire a project manager / designer to take the 15 minute every few days to approve / suggest edits of assets as a project progresses.

6) Review Assets and Finalize Project – After all of the assets have been created, it is necessary to give a final approval and release money held in escrow to pay for the assets. Because I like to have many milestones and quality checkpoints throughout the execution of the project, this final step is usually just a formality. I go back to my project description and re-read it and make sure that everything was delivered. Then I finalize the project and walk away the owner of some cool new assets for my app.

Other Considerations
Depending on how risk-averse you are, you might want to start with a small portion of your project to test out a few candidates. Maybe have each candidate create a single image of a character concept. This will give you a chance to experience working with the individual/company. You will quickly find out if the person/company is someone you want to work with or not. If you like the person/company, you can expand the work. If you find the person is not someone you want to work with, then you can cut your losses and move on to hiring someone else.

Buy a Non-Exclusive License To Use Image/Audio Assets

If you don’t have enough money budgeted to hire an individual/company to create your assets, don’t worry. There are other options that should be considered that can be significantly cheaper. If you are flexible and willing to not have exclusive use for some or all of your app assets, then you can save a lot of money.

There are many websites that provide image and audio assets that can be used in mobile apps. Some have very reasonable licenses; some have very greedy licenses that try to milk every last penny they can get out of you. So it is important to read the license and to get legal advice from an attorney to clarify any questions you might have. I am not an attorney, so don’t ask me for legal advice.

For example, some sites that I have purchased assets from state the asset can only be used in one app, cannot have more than 100,000 downloads and other ridiculous requirements. If the app ends up having more downloads then I would need to purchase an additional license. If I want to make a sequel to the app, which is common with mobile video games, then I have to buy another license. I suggest you avoid such companies that sell image and audio assets.

One company that has a very reasonable license that I like is Pond5.com. It is my understanding that their standard license provides a royalty free perpetual commercial use of assets in mobile app.

Find Free Image/Audio Assets

It is sometimes possible to find image or audio assets that you can use for commercial purposes that do not require paying money to the owner of the asset to have a right to use the asset. Depending on your needs, it probably will be hard to find what you are looking for and get it for free. Licenses for such free assets usually require that you provide special attribution to the owner of the asset.

As with any asset that you decide to use, you should seek to understand who owns the asset. If you are not the owner of the asset, you should do some investigation into who the owner is and what exactly the terms of the license to use the asset includes. I would only use assets from a reputable source that I can trust has the right/authority to provide the license they claim to provide. There needs to be a real person or business behind the website that you can verify. Otherwise you might find out later that you don’t have the right to use the asset.

About the author

Jim Range

Jim Range has over a decade of experience architecting and implementing software based solutions for numerous fortune 500 companies in industries such as financial services, retail, and insurance, as well as small businesses. Jim has an excellent understanding of the software development lifecycle, agile development, and how to manage the development of an app. Over the past six years Jim has been focused on mobile software development. He has created over 138 apps that have been downloaded more than 9 million times from the Apple App Store, Google Play, Amazon.com and Windows Phone Store. Jim also has experience as an information security consultant where he has provided numerous network and web application security assessments for Fortune 500 companies in the financial services, retail and insurance industries.