Music industry turns to video games

Summary:Video games aren't big money makers but musicians are lining up to get their names and faces seen and music heard.

When Raymond Herrera, a 27-year-old drummer with a band called Fear Factory, wanted his group's techno-industrial music featured on a video game, the response from executives at his label was: "Why do you want to bother with that?"

But Herrera and his band mates saw an opportunity. And lately, record executives are starting to see one, too.

Increasingly, big-name artists, managers and record labels are discovering that video games -- whose annual sales now top U.S. movie box-office receipts -- offer them a new venue. Performers from Sisqo, the platinum-blond rapper behind the popular "Thong Song," to shock-rocker Marilyn Manson and MixMaster Mike of the Beastie Boys are courting game developers to get their music, as well as their names and faces, on video games.

Mike Wilson, chief executive of Dallas-based game-software publisher Gathering of Developers, says he recently received a call from the manager for rapper Snoop Dogg. The pitch: " 'Snoop is looking for retirement money,' " Wilson recalls.

Bands aren't going to fatten their wallets much by licensing songs. Video-game companies pay between $2,000 and $100,000 for music licenses, or half what feature films pay, music-industry sources say. What the bands will get is loads of publicity and a chance to expand their audiences.

Video-game technology has evolved from cartridges to CD-ROMs and digital video disks, enabling games to store more information than they could before. That means game developers can offer bands new marketing opportunities, including placing longer songs, concert schedules and even music videos on games. With the advent of Napster and other free online music services, bands recognize that they need to embrace new means of selling and distributing their music.

Jon Anderson, the 56-year-old lead singer of the art-rock group Yes, says the lead track from the group's latest album now plays over the credits of Homeworld, a space-fighter game produced by Sierra On-Line Inc. of Seattle. The band even named its tune after the game. Yes, which put out its first album in 1968, barely gets any radio play these days and rarely appears on MTV. Homeworld allows it to reach beyond its core baby-boomer following to the Gen X and Gen Y crowds who grew up on video games, Anderson says.

But Yes's first game project didn't go smoothly. Anderson says it took him more than a year to get his managers to sign any deal with a video-game company. It also took twice as long as expected for Sierra to iron out a contract to obtain licensing rights because of complicated licensing rules.

Sierra understood that it needed a master license from Yes's record company to include the group's song on its game. But it didn't realize that it also needed a license from the music publisher to distribute the game containing the song. Because each of the six band members contributed to the song's lyrics and composition, Sierra had to contend with three different music publishers representing various band members. "We didn't realize it was Pandora's box," Jim Veevaert, Sierra's vice president of marketing, recalls.

Sometimes bands -- especially big-name bands -- decide the return is too small and pull out of a project. The punk trio Blink 182 was negotiating with Konami Co. earlier this year to license a recently released song for the company's new snowboarding game. But the band, which has sold six million albums world-wide, wanted too much. "I didn't have the dollars to do what I wanted to do," says Craig Howe, brand manager for sports games at Konami's U.S. unit in Redwood City, Calif. Instead he chose a ditty from an up-and-coming act called Primer 55. The deal is cheaper and helps to promote the band. "I think if you can help grow the band, it makes us more credible," Howe says.

Lil' Bow Wow, the 13-year-old protege of Snoop Dogg, wants all the help he can get. The teen rapper's resume is already impressive. He rapped on Snoop Dogg's album "Doggystyle" when he was six years old and credits hip-hop impresario Jermaine Dupri as the executive producer on his solo debut, which was released in September. He has also appeared on CNN, MTV, "Soul Train" and the Black Entertainment Television cable-TV channel.

Mai Huggins, the vice president at Columbia Records who handles Lil' Bow Wow's marketing, thought video games could boost the teenager's visibility further. "You need even more because each kid sitting at home is so bombarded with artists or actors or new movies to see," she says.

Last month, Huggins put in a call to Electronic Arts Inc., a Redwood City, Calif., game software publisher that had already used some of Dupri's music on a video game. Her aim was to get a Lil' Bow Wow song on the latest version of Electronic Arts' Madden NFL football series or its Knockout Kings boxing franchise. Electronic Arts says it won't announce the musical roster for these new games until next summer. In the meantime, "Lil' Bow Wow is still in the running," a company spokesman says.

To make sure they don't miss out on any opportunities, record labels are expanding their staffs and sending out crates of promotional tapes and CDs to video-game makers. Roadrunner Records Inc., the New York label that represents Herrera and Fear Factory, has hired two additional employees to handle the growing pile of requests for music licenses from video-game firms. "It's definitely a priority," says Cory Brennan, the company's senior director of marketing.

Not all video-game companies welcome attention from the music industry. "Personally, I think that is a terrible route to go," says Terry Donovan, vice president of marketing for New York's Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. Donovan says that on average he receives 50 unsolicited tapes and other audio recordings a week. "We take a slightly different slant and tend to find less famous people that are more suited to making music for the game," he says. "The game comes first."

But the games also drive the artists, many of whom are self-proclaimed video-game freaks. A little over a year ago, MixMaster Mike was driving with his manager on Highway 101, the freeway that connects San Francisco to Silicon Valley, when he spied a sign for Sega Corp. MixMaster Mike, who uses a turntable to scratch different sound effects over a vinyl record, had already recorded a track for a racing game produced by Electronic Arts. Eager to work with Sega, he asked his manager to call the company later that afternoon.

The following day, MixMaster Mike met with the head of Sega's U.S. operations, Peter Moore, who showed him the storyboards for a new roller-blade game under development called Jet Grind Radio. Sega commissioned MixMaster Mike to whip up a 60-second track for the game, paying him about $5,000. MixMaster Mike also prepared a song for the TV commercial, and his name appears as graffiti art in the game, which came out this fall. "I'm just trying to branch out the music anyway I can," says MixMaster Mike, 30 years old.

Moore says he got a great deal in return: He snared an autograph and a specially mixed CD by MixMaster Mike for his teenage son.

Topics: Tech Industry

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