Tune biz gets its game face on

Gonzo vidgames click as powerful placement tool

It’s not a tough choice for record labels: Bust the budget chasing a few spins on radio and MTV, or place your song on a hot new vidgame, where millions of players will listen to it for hours. Throw in a licensing fee to sweeten the deal and it’s a no-brainer.

Despite such propositions, though, record labels are only now embracing vidgames as a hot new way to get their songs heard, and bought. For convincing, however, all they need do is a little math.

A hit like “Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4” may sell 5 million to 6 million copies, and buyers typically share their game with two other players. Each of those 15 million to 18 million players will spend up to 50 hours in the game, repeatedly hearing part or all of each of the songs in the soundtrack. Repeated listens are crucial in fixing a song in a fan’s (read: potential buyer’s) head.

“That’s 900 million hours of advertising impressions,” says Activision topper Robert Kotick, whose company publishes “Tony Hawk.”

Compare that to radio, where each listener hears even the biggest hits only a few dozen times, or MTV, whose flagship barely even plays videos anymore.

But it’s not just repetitions that count. Vidgame songs make an impression.

A survey of 1,000 hardcore gamers by research/marketing consultants Electric Artists and Ziff-Davis found that a whopping 40% of users who hear a song in a game will later buy it on CD.

“The reaction was way beyond what most record people anticipated,” says Electric Artists head Marc Shiller. “They were expecting maybe 6% or 7% would actually buy music when they heard it on the game.”

Part of that may be that an artfully matched song and game appeal to the same precise demographic — skewed heavily young and male — a demo crucial to breaking hard-rock and hip-hop acts. It’s that precise connection that makes labels pay attention.

“Personally, I was dying for this medium,” says Atlantic Records marketing VP Lee Stimmel. “It’s the one industry in media that’s skyrocketing right now, and it’s given us an incredibly effective tool to market artists.”

And artists — many also avid gamers — have been equally enthusiastic, Stimmel adds. The Atlantic acts featured on games range from rappers Nappy Roots to prog-rockers Rush.

One downside, though: A band better be comfortable with the game’s content. A heavy metal group’s roaring sound and dark lyrics may provide perfect atmosphere for a bloody first-person shooter, but the possibilities for political and parental backlash multiply when it comes to the visceral impact of games.

Nonetheless, labels and game companies are getting savvier about putting music in the mix, and technology is helping: DVD-based console games can hold dozens of tracks, in pristine sound.

Many titles — such as Rockstar Games’ top-selling “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” — make music a fundamental part of the experience. Rockstar even released a seven-disc soundtrack on Epic with 70 minor ’80s hits licensed from all five major labels.

There’s also a small but growing niche of games that let users make, or remake, music themselves. With Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 2 release “Amplitude,” for example, players can remix singles from David Bowie, Run-DMC and Papa Roach, then share their remixes online with others at Sony’s Amplitude Web site.

And games can even get an artist paid, unlike most new tech these days.

New acts may offer up a track for free to gain exposure, but big stars can garner tens of thousands of dollars in licensing revenue. The result is a welcome cash stream in a year when the overall music business dropped 10%.

Such direct paydays aren’t a sure thing, however. Vidgame publishers increasingly are bartering prime position on top titles for free music from hot acts.

“We’re moving to a model where we’re not paying very much or anything at all for music,” says Activision’s Kotick.

Chuck Doud, the Sony games music director, says freebie arrangements face resistance from music publishers, if not labels. Publishers care little about promotion; they just want to get paid.

Their reasoning, says EMI Music Publishing VP John Melillo: A blockbuster song can attract players to a game just as easily as a big game can bring fans to a new song.

That debate will continue to see-saw, but expect the two industries to become further entwined.

The next step may be vidgame sponsorship of tours featuring a game’s music acts. Midway has taken a step that way, financing music videos for that incorporate bands Adema and Dry Kill Logic and game footage. The game discs also feature the videos as added content.

Kotick says such promotions are a natural for extreme-sports titles such as “Tony Hawk,” as well as other genres where the music is intimately tied to the game and the game’s players.