Songs for Screens: How a John Denver Classic Resurfaced Thanks to ‘Fallout 76’

Released July 4 as an iTunes exclusive, the cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” featured in the video game's trailer has accumulated nearly 30 million views.

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Video games and their popular trailers have provided an important launchpad for both emerging artists and robust rock catalogs looking to connect with a younger generation. But rarely do they make a dent on the charts the way that a highly viewed commercial, TV show or movie can, too short-lived is their impact.

That’s what makes Copilot Music + Sound’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” all the more an anomaly. Released July 4 as an iTunes exclusive, the song had already accumulated nearly 30 million views after debuting in the trailer for Bethesda Game Studios’ “Fallout 76” in June.

Not only did the John Denver cover shoot straight to No. 1 on the iTunes singles chart shortly after its debut, it sold enough copies within its 48-hour Billboard chart qualification (the week ending July 5) to debut at No. 41 on the Hot Country Songs chart and No. 21 on Country Digital Songs the following week. Did we mention it was an iTunes-exclusive country single released by a synch house?

For those unfamiliar with the “Fallout” franchise, the song’s viral success may come as a surprise. But a quick history of the game and its music should help explain. “Fallout” began as a PC game in 1997, with an opening sequence that featured music from pioneering 1930s/40s doo-wop group The Ink Spots. Over the years, “Fallout” titles have become juggernauts despite capturing less pop-culture conversation than titles like “Call of Duty” or “Fortnite.” Indeed, 2015’s “Fallout 4” quietly outsold “Call Of Duty: Black Ops 3” in its first 24 hours to become the biggest entertainment launch of that year.

To pay homage to both the game’s legacy and “Fallout 76”’s West Virginia setting, Bethesda’s game director Todd Howard commissioned New York-based music content and strategy firm Copilot Music + Sound to craft an Ink Spots-like take on “Take Me Home, Country Roads” that could accompany the new title’s trailer.

“One of the early challenges as an arranger was, ‘How do you keep the song intact, which is very straight ahead harmonically and thematically, and somehow get it to meet in the middle with the jazz harmony and the swing feel of that earlier music?” says Copilot co-founder Ravi Krishnaswami. “We tried to create something that felt not only like two great musical traditions smashed together, but a cohesive piece of music that stands on its own.”

To bring the essence of the Ink Spots to life, Copilot co-founder Jason Menkes tapped New York City vocal group Spank to take a crack at merging the musical worlds of ‘30s doo-wop and ‘70s country.

The band’s cut was so successful, the Bethesda team decided to break from its normal tradition of releasing a soundtrack after a game has been released (“Fallout 76” doesn’t hit retail until November) and instead put a strategy in place for the song to capitalize on the trailer’s viral buzz. That included partnering with Habitat For Humanity as the campaign’s charity partner, with all proceeds from the “Country Roads” iTunes download going to the organization.

That the song found an audience so quickly on the July 4 audience was a surprise not lost on Pete Hines, Bethesda’s senior VP of global marketing and communications. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, that was fast.’ I thought people were out to the beach, but they wasted no time whatsoever,” he says. “We started to get an inkling that might be the case after we premiered the trailer at E3 and people on social media kept sending me short videos of different karaoke bars where somebody sang ‘Country Roads.’ I thought, ‘This is getting to be a thing,’ so to see how quickly the song shot to No. 1 sort of validated our decision to do something right away and not have someone else do the marketing for you.”

With over three months still left until “Fallout 76”’s official release, Hines says early pre-orders for the game are already very promising, which he attributes in part to the trailer’s music. “What makes a great trailer is taking cool gameplay, great music and setting a tone, vibe or mood that makes a huge impact that can make the whole thing bigger than the sum of its parts.”

As for Copilot, who’ve scored their first chart hit after 10 years of custom scoring and synchs for brand and TV/film clients, co-founder Jason Menkes says, “Success has many fathers, so for all the success we’re having, our clients get to share all of that attention. And it’s also cool, as my sister pointed out, that we knocked Justin Timberlake from the No. 1 spot that week. We’re not going on tour with this, just enjoying watching seeing what happens. And smiling as we focus on the next project.”

Music clearance and licensing for the spot was handled by Christopher S. Parker and Ian Anderson for Brandracket & BrandsForBands.com.
Music publishing interest for “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is split between Kobalt Music Publishing America, Inc., BMG Rights Management and Reservoir Media Management.

Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by music experiential agency MAC Presents, based in NYC. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column will highlight noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as new and catalog songs that we deem ripe for synch use.