A Wide-Open Market for Songs

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson


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One fairly recent development in game audio is the steady increase in the licensing of songs by both established and up-and-coming rock and hip hop artists, usually not at the exclusion of a conventional music score, but in addition to. NBA Live has wall-to-wall hip hop: Snoop Dogg contributed three new songs to True Crime: Streets of L.A.; Peter Gabriel has a song on the soundtrack of Uru: Ages of Myst; Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is loaded with “classic” and more modern rock tunes; gamers can mix their own version of a P.O.D. song on Amplitude; and the list goes on and gets longer every day.

It's a good marriage: The games get some hip cache, and the artists and their record companies potentially reach millions of listeners and pocket some serious change. In some cases, DVD soundtracks from the games have been sold separately and done very well; in other games, there might be a separate music CD included in the package. It's definitely been pushing up the expense to make games, but it's been good for a record industry that's still very much on the ropes.

“With the advent of PlayStation and console games actually appearing on a CD [-ROM], you finally had enough storage capacity to have real music on the game created by real composers,” comments Chuck Doud, music director of Sony Computer Entertainment America. “The turning point in the industry was probably Wipeout, which came from our London studios. That was the game that pretty much set the standard for including licensed music in video games. It was primarily electronica, which perfectly matched the feel of the game.”

Formerly based in Boston but now working in Sony's Foster City, Calif., game production facility, Doud used to write music for games himself — including a number of PlayStation titles — before moving into his current executive capacity. “Now I spend half my time working with the record industry to secure artists for our games, and the other half of my job is finding composers or producers to create original content for our games, essentially like a movie score. Increasingly, the line between those two roles is starting to blur.

“Three years ago, when we first started licensing a lot of music, there was this great fear among the composers that we were going to be taking work away from them,” Doud continues, “but in fact, the way things have fleshed out now, there's actually more work. There are more games, more music, and it's all being used more creatively within the game. Also, we're more likely now to have multiple people working on the music — we might have someone working on the score and other people taking the multitracks and adapting them to the game. All that, in addition to licensed content. Right now is a good time to be doing music for video games.”

When it comes to licensing, Doud and his counterparts throughout the gaming community have found the record labels — and most artists — to be extremely receptive to fitting tracks into video games. “While we like to put a few ‘name’ bands on each of our titles that incorporate licensed tracks, our focus is really on identifying emerging artists that have a good chance of blowing up in the near future. When done right, video games are a good place to showcase emerging artists and mid-tier bands, or established artists who want to reach a different demographic. It's almost like it's becoming the next MTV. People are hearing about bands and being exposed to them for the first time through video games.

“A lot of times, we end up hearing songs before the record labels do,” Doud adds with a laugh. “Typically, we start working on a soundtrack from eight months to a year before a game is released, so we're out there talking to [artist] management and looking to coordinate games with their own album releases to maximize promotional opportunities. In addition, as long as the production quality is on par with something we would get from the major labels, we also always save a few slots for artists who don't have the support of a record label but whose music we feel fits the game play and delivers something new to the player that, chances are, they would not have otherwise been exposed to.”

The fees for licensing tracks vary wildly, just as they do in feature films. A David Bowie track is probably going to cost a lot more than a Papa Roach track, to name two artists whose songs Doud has licensed. Newly commissioned tracks will usually cost more than licensed ones. Increasingly, too, game producers are asking for, and receiving, multitrack tapes of both licensed and original music that they can massage or even remix to better fit songs into the games. As Doud notes, “If we have a song that's actually going into a racing game instead of just appearing over the credits, we might need to make some adjustments to the mix because it has to compete with the sound of the engines. We want to make sure the mix comes through, so it might not be the same mix you hear on the radio.”

Custom mixes and exclusive content — that's the direction licensed music is headed in the world of video games.

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