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A Wide-Open Market for Songs

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.

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

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

“With the advent of PlayStation and console games actuallyappearing on a CD [-ROM], you finally had enough storage capacity tohave real music on the game created by real composers,” commentsChuck 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 muchset the standard for including licensed music in video games. It wasprimarily electronica, which perfectly matched the feel of thegame.”

Formerly based in Boston but now working in Sony’s Foster City,Calif., game production facility, Doud used to write music for gameshimself — including a number of PlayStation titles — beforemoving into his current executive capacity. “Now I spend half mytime working with the record industry to secure artists for our games,and the other half of my job is finding composers or producers tocreate 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 ofmusic, there was this great fear among the composers that we were goingto be taking work away from them,” Doud continues, “but infact, the way things have fleshed out now, there’s actually morework. There are more games, more music, and it’s all being used morecreatively within the game. Also, we’re more likely now to havemultiple people working on the music — we might have someoneworking on the score and other people taking the multitracks andadapting 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 thegaming 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 ofour titles that incorporate licensed tracks, our focus is really onidentifying emerging artists that have a good chance of blowing up inthe near future. When done right, video games are a good place toshowcase emerging artists and mid-tier bands, or established artistswho want to reach a different demographic. It’s almost like it’sbecoming the next MTV. People are hearing about bands and being exposedto them for the first time through video games.

“A lot of times, we end up hearing songs before the recordlabels do,” Doud adds with a laugh. “Typically, we startworking on a soundtrack from eight months to a year before a game isreleased, so we’re out there talking to [artist] management and lookingto coordinate games with their own album releases to maximizepromotional opportunities. In addition, as long as the productionquality is on par with something we would get from the major labels, wealso always save a few slots for artists who don’t have the support ofa record label but whose music we feel fits the game play and deliverssomething new to the player that, chances are, they would not haveotherwise been exposed to.”

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

Custom mixes and exclusive content — that’s the directionlicensed music is headed in the world of video games.