Music trend: Video games thrill the radio star
In an effort to grab young ears, music industry uses games to launch bands.
Perfect marriages in the music world usually involve attractive country-and-western singers or MTV-groomed pop stars. But one of the best unions in the business right now isn't likely to attract the paparazzi - unless they have PlayStation.
Video games are proving to be a good partner for a struggling industry eager to find new ways to appeal to young people who would rather pirate music off the Internet than pay for it.
Million-selling games are boosting sales, launching musical careers, and persuading skittish record executives that not all technology is bad for business.
"It's fishing where the fish are," says Dave Kusek, associate vice president at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "The best way to reach [the youth market] today is through video games and the Internet."
Now that video games are mainstream, they've gained the heft to reach coveted markets - often edging out radio as a marketing tool. A survey by New York marketing firm ElectricArtists earlier this year found that among its sample of video game consumers ages 13 to 32, 40 percent had bought a CD after hearing it in a video game.
Electronic Arts, a Redwood City, Calif.-based video-game company, is a pioneer in making deals that blend new music and video games. Where once it had to go looking for music, now labels are making house calls.
Its bestselling football game, "Madden," for example, has become the "American Bandstand" of the video-game world. For the 2004 version, released in August, the company was offered more than 2,000 songs for the 23 slots available on the game.
The interest is understandable. Factoring in things like the millions of copies sold and the number of hours people will play it, "a song in Madden hypothetically will get over 500 million spins, which is close to, if not beats, the No. 1 record in America when it comes to the number of impressions," explains Steve Schnur, worldwide executive of Music for Electronic Arts.
Music has been part of video games for years, becoming more common in the mid-1990s, when CD-based game consoles came on the scene. Companies often have created their own music in-house, or licensed songs from back catalogs. But in the past two or three years the use of popular music - particularly current songs - has taken off.
Makers of video games also are going beyond just licensing music as background for their sports and adventure games. This week, Square Enix launched a radio station on America Online featuring only the music from its series of "Final Fantasy" games. Other innovations include music video games like "FreQuency" and "Amplitude," which allow people to remix their favorite songs, and games like "Def Jam Vendetta," which not only has rappers Method Man, Redman, and DMX on the soundtrack, but features them as characters in the wrestling game.
Bands with high and low profiles alike are experiencing the boost games can give them. Traktor7, a small independent label in Cambridge, Mass., has seen traffic to its website double in the past few weeks after the release of a skateboard title from Activision called "Tony Hawk's Underground," featuring Traktor7 bands Lamont and Crash and Burn.
"We went from an average of 30 hits a day to 60 hits a day and we've gotten as many as 100 hits," says Jonah Jenkins, Traktor7's label manager and co-founder. Of the deal with the video games he says, "normally a band would have to pay to be exposed to this many people."
Mr. Schnur of Electronic Arts points out that video games can expose people to new music, but can't make them go to a store and buy it rather than downloading it illegally. Still, he offers plenty of success stories from bands who have been featured on Electronic Arts games.
Consider Good Charlotte, an alternative rock band. The group went from selling 300,000 albums to 3.5 million, thanks to its inclusion last year on "Madden NFL 2003," says Schnur. Band members have said that people would hear the band's name and say, "Oh, from Madden."
Electronic Arts is now in a position to broker deals that allow it to debut songs from popular artists like blink-182 before they even get sent to radio stations - with radio stations having no choice but to play the songs off the video games when the requests roll in.
"We've only begun to see the impact," says Schnur. "In the next five to 10 years, not only are video games ... going to become the next generation of MTV, but I think the PS3 [PlayStation3] and the X-box 2, are going to be the next generation of Wal-Mart. I think that's where you're going to actually purchase music, bring it into your game."
Already, music labels and gamemakers are experimenting with new combinations. This month, the new album "Payable On Death" from rockers P.O.D. included a custom-made version of the Harmonix game "Amplitude" with music just from the band.
The album is already at No. 9 on the US charts, according to Nielsen's SoundScan, and executives at the band's label are optimistic about the pairing. "This is the way to regain some of the entertainment dollar," says Danny Buch, senior vice president of promotion at Atlantic Records. Rather than wait for video gamemakers to ask for songs, he hopes to make games to go with his label's music. "The bottom line is, it's up to us to find a solution to our business, and this to me, I think, is a monster solution."