Music videos have gone to a whole new plateau

Record industry using games to attract listeners

December 31, 2003|By Eric Gwinn | Eric Gwinn,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Once an afterthought in the production process, video game soundtracks increasingly use original music to reach new listeners who blur traditional entertainment boundaries.

"Record companies are realizing that this is the new radio," says Greg O'Connor-Read, founder of and an agent for video game composers.

In addition to licensing existing tunes, record companies also are commissioning new works for games. Big names have written music for games now on the shelves for the holiday season. Rapper Snoop Dogg created three original songs for True Crime: Streets of L.A. Rock legend Peter Gabriel contributed a track for Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, released Nov. 11, and will write an original composition for the next, as-yet-untitled, Myst puzzle game.

"The acts themselves play video games, so they're a lot more willing to get their songs in the game," says Scott Lee, product manager for Project Gotham Racing 2. That game's soundtrack uses prerecorded music and deejay banter from real radio stations.

"It's no secret that the record industry is in deep trouble," said Randy Winograd of HSI, a Los Angeles production house for TV ads, music videos and game music. "Consumers would rather download than pay $15 for a CD, leaving the record industry scrambling for revenue. How do they monetize music? License to video games."

Typical music budgets for video game makers have tripled over the last three years to $150,000, according to Tommy Tallarico, president of Game Audio Network Guild, or G.A.N.G., which focuses on improving music in interactive media.

G.A.N.G. also has persuaded U.S. musicians' unions to lower rates charged for working on video games, leading to more American musicians performing on such titles as the recently released Medal of Honor: Rising Sun and Call of Duty.

Asia and Europe have recognized the power of video game soundtracks for years. Symphonic versions of video game music fill stores in Japan. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts recently added an awards category for video game music. In the United States, game soundtracks are slowly showing up on the shelves of large department stores and music stores.

As programmers push video chips to new limits - with realistically moving humans and mood-creating, natural-looking shadows - game companies are turning to soundtracks to further separate themselves from their competitors.

For instance, players who pre-ordered the comic book-style spy game XIII, from UbiSoft, received the jazzy soundtrack on a separate CD. Electronic Arts is hyping its NBA Live hip-hop soundtrack with a Web site devoted to playing music taken from the game. EA also is pushing its SSX 3 snowboarding soundtrack with its own CD.

Sales aren't earth-shattering yet: Since its release in February 2002, SSX Tricky has sold 1,800 soundtrack units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But in a sign that buyers may be catching on, the sequel SSX 3 already has sold 1,800 units since its release Sept. 30.

The benchmark for soundtracks is the seven-CD effort from the hot-selling Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, released a year ago. Tempting buyers with secret game codes and '80s tunes ranging from Ozzy Osbourne's "Bark at the Moon" to Grand Master Flash's "The Message," the Vice City soundtrack has found its audience.

Each Vice City CD offers very real tunes from the fictional radio stations in the seminal drive-anywhere-do-anything game that has sold 10.5 million copies. The most popular CD, V-Rock, sold 42,300 copies of music from Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Osbourne. Together, the CDs totaled 142,200 units sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Game audio has always been important, from the ominous boom-boop-boom-boop of Asteroids to the blippy fanfares of the Legend of Zelda franchise that currently inspire a new wave of garage bands.

A few years back, the original next-generation consoles hit the market with improved audio chips that allowed game publishers to stick adrenaline-pumping CD-quality tunes into games. On the PlayStation, Namco quickly took advantage with Ridge Racer and its soundtrack of hard-core dance music that you could replace with your own CDs while you raced. But it was Psygnosis' Wipeout series of PlayStation games - in which players raced sleek hovercraft to thumping dance beats of Fatboy Slim, Future Sound of London and more - that signaled the future, said Greg O'Connor-Read, whose Web site aims to raise the profile of game-music composers, some of whom he represents as an agent.

"The Wipeout series wasn't about the music but the club culture crossover experience," he said. In the United Kingdom, club kids got hooked on the game after hearing that its soundtrack was studded with tracks they had heard on the dance floor.

"That was the game that made the PSOne the console of choice for casual games," said O'Connor-Read.

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