Ok, a confession. When I hear someone make a video game reference I still think of Pac-Man, not PlayStation. Though apparently all graduating college students today spend some time gaming, my single freshman attempt to steer my way through a virtual street race ended abruptly—the other players grew frustrated with my novice and therefore erratic operation of the game controller. So much for the fine hand-eye coordination of a concert violinist. I left them to play and went home to practice.
So it came as something of a shock when I heard, more than saw, what constitutes a video game these days. My friends were so engrossed in their Lord of the Rings-type characters that they didn’t notice me until I shouted over the music, “When did the soundtrack get so good?” For indeed, a full orchestra was serenading them as they chased the enemy. The look and the sound were beyond anything I had ever witnessed. I felt like we were all inside a Spielberg/Williams blockbuster.
Not long after that encounter, I heard Steve Schnur, worldwide executive of music for Electronic Arts, speak at a music publisher’s conference and he started dropping numbers. “The video game industry earned $11 billion in 2003 and is growing—steadily and aggressively—at a rate of 20 percent a year…Thirty-two years after the first electronic blips of Pong, video games—and the music we can deliver within them—are becoming one of the most essential cultural forces of our time…Within the next two years, video games will become the new radio, the new MTV, and the new record store all in one.”
Standing at the back of the room, I could see that many of the publishers in the room were clearly taken aback by these figures and the cultural shift they represented, and I was betting that composers not already writing for films and games would be as well. The revenue possibilities presented by these productions mean that significant resources are invested in crafting them—including hiring composers to write and huge orchestras to record the soundtracks. When the LA Phil produced an entire concert of video game music in May that rabidly sold out, I couldn’t help but consider the fact that it was the most audience cheered orchestral music premiere in recent memory. How might that affect concert music, the orchestra, and industry funding?
And who are the composers writing the best of these game scores? All links seemed to lead to Andy Brick, who invited us up to his studio for a look around and an in-depth chat about the pros, the cons, and the process of working as a composer in this kind if media.
Despite the handwringing that goes on in the music industry every time technology changes, music is firmly tied into almost every advancement—whether you’re starting up your new PC, your cell phone is ringing, or you’re stuck on hold. Why settle for Avril Lavigne if you could hear James Tenney instead? For those looking for fresh applications of their compositional chops outside the concert hall, Rebecca Winzenried outlines a few interesting options that will increase the quality of life for all involved and perhaps be a marketable product as well for those needing to pay the rent.
Maybe it’s because I have chosen to be a journalist as opposed to a clerk at a bookshop while I work on my Great American Novel, but I understand the motivations of composers who simply want to find ways to be writing at all times, for art or for profit. If you are inspired to try your hand in the commercial market, five industry professionals offer a few pointers on breaking into the business.
If nothing else, these shifts in the composition marketplace present an opportunity to reconsider what being a composer means in the 21st century. Do they offer creative types more chances to do what they love and earn a living?
As exciting as new technology can be, still I temper my enthusiasm. Ringtones by Reich? I frankly wish cell phones didn’t ring out loud in any way, ever. And though as a neophyte to the game world I’m floored by the artistic sophistication of some of what I’ve experienced both visually and aurally, I’m also a little disturbed by the emotional power they wield over players. In the film Fahrenheit 9/11, as a musician I was most struck by the segment in which soldiers fighting in Iraq programmed their iPods to play their favorite music, effectively making this technological war almost like a video game. Music to kill by in virtual reality seems an alarming thing to me. That it bleeds over so seamlessly into real life quite frankly terrifies me.
All that said, this is the world we live and create in, and like everything else it’s evolving right before our eyes whether we want to see it change or not.