Video Games and Music Makers: 'A Perfect Marriage'


Record companies and artists look to video games as a way to make beautiful music together -- and promote it.

The biggest music party of 2010 wasn’t at Coachella and didn’t have anything to do with the Grammy Awards. It was barely advertised and not open to the public. Still, it packed L.A.’s Staples Center last June with a headlining set by Eminem, who was joined by surprise guest Rihanna, along with Jane’s Addiction, Chris Cornell, N.E.R.D., and Usher, among others. The cause for such a grand celebration? Activision Games’ E3 kick-off.

Even with news that video game sales were down six percent in 2010 (to $18.58 billion), their popularity within the music industry continues to soar. “It’s a new means of expression for us. We get to do what we want in all of our splendor,” says Pharrell Williams, whose music can be heard on the game True Crime. “We have no boundaries, it’s fun across the board. [To Activision], we’re providing the music, in our minds they’re providing the visuals, so it’s like a perfect marriage.”
The importance of video games to the music industry has never been more evident and the proof is in the numbers. Last year, Activision’s Call Of Duty: Black Ops pulled in revenues of $650 million in its first five days on the market. Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption sold five million copies in its first month. Not even a Taylor Swift-Kanye West-Lady Gaga threesome could pull in that kind of business when just last month, Cake’s Showroom Of Compassion topped the Billboard album charts with 44,000 copies sold. 
The relationship works both ways. Eminem’s Recovery, which featured prominently in Call Of Duty: Black Ops with the song “Won’t Back Down,” debuted at number one last year with sales of over 741,000 in its first week, blowing past its predecessor, Relapse, released in December of 2009. Steve Berman, President of Marketing at Interscope Geffen A&M Records, credits Call Of Duty for those impressive Recovery sales. 
“As strong as radio and video exposure was for ‘Won’t Back Down,’ and it was tremendous, I wanted to push this to as many people as we possibly could,” says Berman. “The game footage achieved so much for Eminem and put his music in front of people in a whole different way. And when that album debuted in a market that had continued to retreat 15-plus percent since Relapse came out and sold more than Relapse in the first week, we really felt like we had done our jobs.” 
Berman says that these days, video games are just as important to the industry as the more traditional means of music exposure: film and TV. “We weigh it right there next to a great film, TV or commercial placement,” he says. “The great thing about video games is it’s so repetitive -- people are playing for hours and, so if you get the right placement, you could have multiple exposures of the music.”
Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing, concurs. “This relationship has existed forever between music, movies and advertising in terms of artists lending their music to commercials and certainly for movie soundtracks,” he says. “What we’re seeing is a realization that video games do have this very unique and tremendous reach in scale in terms of what they represent in popular culture today,” he says. “So I think it’s one of the most desirable associations that a musician can have.”
Better Than Ezra frontman Kevin Griffin has seen the effect video games can have on a band first hand. “My 11-year-old loves Foghat and all these classic rock bands because of Guitar Hero,” he says. “A few weeks ago, we approved three of our songs for Rock Band, which I’m excited about.”
For Queensryche drummer Scott Rockenfeld, video games have become the driving force for the latest phase of his career. A successful film scorer, he’s immersed himself in the gaming world, composing the drum parts for Call Of Duty: Black Ops, and as someone who’s observed the evolution of video games from '80s arcade novelties to today’s big budget productions, Rockenfeld contends that the booming industry hasn’t even scratched the surface in terms of its potential for musicians. “As time moves on, it’s only going to be bigger and it will afford opportunities for bands, known or not, for their music to be used, heard, and applied,” he says. “If you’re diligent, persistent and smart, you can market yourself and get out there. It’s not easy because now everybody wants the other avenues, but for musicians, it’s an avenue that’s just going to get bigger and bigger.”