Composers can drive action more than in films

A few weeks ago, an album called “Video Games Live: Volume One” debuted at No. 10 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Chart. Within a week, it had muscled out John Williams’ latest “Indiana Jones” opus. For Tommy Tallarico, who has spent the last 20 years writing game music (including “Advent Rising”) and who produced this collection, it felt like vindication.

“I challenge anyone to pick up the album and tell me that it’s not as artistic and culturally significant as any piece of classical music that’s been around for 300 years,” he boasts. “Videogame music is the soundtrack of our generation. This is only the beginning.”

Clearly, game music has come a long way from the synthetic hiccups of Pac-Man and Pong.

Top film composers including Howard Shore, John Debney and Harry Gregson-Williams have joined the ranks of game-music composers — not so much for the money as for the creative freedom they’re allowed. And formerly unknown game composers are now getting high-profile TV and film gigs.

Michael Giacchino, better known as the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning composer of “Ratatouille” and “Lost,” was the first to cross over to features from the game world. His music for games like “Medal of Honor” got him noticed by producer J.J. Abrams, who signed him for TV’s “Alias” and later, “Lost.”

“I got my opportunity to write big, sweeping, epic-style music for a videogame in 2003,” says game vet Christopher Lennertz, “but I didn’t get my chance to write big, theatrical motion-picture music with a huge orchestra until a year and a half ago. The CD I gave (the producers of “The Comebacks”) was 80% game music.” Lennertz has just finished the score for the upcoming “Quantum of Solace” game to tie in with the forthcoming James Bond film.

Many game producers are looking for dramatic, so-called “cinematic” music, say composers and game execs. “Music is much more critical to the entertainment experience in games than in any other medium,” says Clint Bajakian, senior music manager for Sony Computer Entertainment America. “Music in TV and film plays a supportive role. The music in videogames plays a very upfront role. It helps to drive the players’ actions and even the physical action of playing the game.”

Not only is the music featured prominently in many games, composers are often given as much as a year to create themes and variations, often don’t have to write to specific lengths or images, and are frequently given the chance to work with large orchestras and choirs to realize their musical impressions.

“The most complicated, modernist, sophisticated commercial music I have ever written has been for videogames,” says Emmy winner Laura Karpman (the online game “EverQuest”). “Basically, you’re developing soundscapes rather than plugging in cues behind dialogue. You are a huge part of creating the drama.”

Music budgets have risen from $30,000 (in the early ’90s) to $1 million in some cases today, execs say. Composers tend to be paid by the minute, but with games requiring 90 minutes-120 minutes of music each, the $1,000- to $2,000-per-minute rate quickly adds up to creative fees in excess of $100,000.

For the role-playing, online game “Soul of the Ultimate Nation,” Shore says, “I didn’t have to synchronize to something that had already been shot. I could just write to the ideas, the characters and the locations.” For “Metal Gear Solid,” says Gregson-Williams, “the music powers you through the game.”

Debney committed to writing the music for the knights-and-dragons game “Lair,” but has turned down subsequent projects because there are no provisions for backend payments for successful games (as composers receive, via ASCAP and BMI, for successful films and TV shows). “The game companies are extremely resistant,” he says. “I don’t know if it’ll change. It’s a big problem.”

For lesser-known composers, however, games are providing the kind of venue that TV shows used to be: an entry point for talented musicians who want to get their music heard.

Gerard Marino, whose “God of War” games are among the most popular (and whose music is featured on “Video Games Live”), recently heard a fellow composer complain that “there is no middle class anymore.” His response: “Well, I think there is. It’s games.”

GAME’S JUST BEGUN

The first song to wake up record execs about the bonus sales potential a game could deliver was Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” After selling in double digits most weeks, the song’s sales skyrocketed: Two different versions of “Slow Ride” have sold 209,000 copies since the Oct. 1 release of “Guitar Hero 3.” Prior to the game’s release, “Slow Ride” had sold 131,000 downloads, giving the tune a 159% sales spike.

Foghat is hardly alone, as several songs have seen significant gains since the release of “Guitar Hero 3” and “Rock Band,” which hit stores Nov. 20. David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” and Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia” appear on “Rock Band”; Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover” and Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” are in “GH3.”

– Phil Gallo

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