Playing games with the future of music

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsPopular Music Studies professor Jay Hodgson says the gaming industry is changing the market for modern music and audience.

The future of music won’t be contained to the concert stage – it will be on screens in the games being played by millions around the globe. And if the music industry is going to thrive in the future, it needs to embrace this new performance arena, according to a Western professor.

You can hear it in the soaring vocals of Civilization IV’s Baba Yetu or in the hummable drone of Warframe’s We All Lift Together. It’s definitely in the dance music of DJ Marshmello, the ubiquitous white-headed character that’s made gold out of blurring the line between real and digital.

“People are engaging with music through the lens of gaming. People are playing this song or that song because of Fortnite,” said Jay Hodgson, a Popular Music Studies professor in the Don Wright School of Music. “Music isn’t necessarily the experience; it’s part of a broader piece. It’s this tiny mosaic-stone of a much larger offering.”

That “larger offering” is a symbiosis that should make emerging composers, performers and business leaders sit up and take notice.

Next week, Hodgson will lead a JUNO Week conference, Music + Video Game Collision, bringing together musicians, game developers, producers and fans to discuss the relationship between the two industries.

“We call it a convergence. Music wants something from gaming and gaming wants something from music,” he said.

Musicians who expect to thrive in coming years will have to re-think what they do. They need to understand gaming music isn’t just Top-40 tunes superimposed onto a different platform, but is itself a unique place for music to gain an audience, Hodgson stressed.

One look at the relative numbers cements the argument: While annual worldwide sales of music totaled $9 billion last year, the gaming industry collectively boasted sales of $100 billion.

“It’s the future. Every other sector of the entertainment industry in the world is shrinking,” Hodgson said. “We have an entire generation, 18 and younger, who grew up with streaming and with gaming as a primary entertainment. They didn’t grow up with Sesame Street. They grew up with Minecraft tutorials.”

And if that’s where the market is, that’s where the music has to go.

Marshmello is a case in point. In February, the character threw an in-game concert on the wildly popular video game Fortnite Battle Royale. While the event went unnoticed by much of the offline world, the concert in ‘Pleasant Park’ reached a peak of 10 million players/listeners.

Rolling Stone, a magazine that knows music game-changers, called the event “by a made-up DJ (playing) to more than 10 million made-up characters in a made-up world” a master-stroke of music marketing.

The crossover success has been nothing short of astounding as the number of players on Fortnite and the number of people streaming Marshmello music immediately soared.

The JUNOS conference will also include a significant Western/Canadian/Marshmello convergence: Marshmello – whose video Alone has been viewed more than 1.2 billion times – debuted on the Canadian independent record label Monstercat. Monstercat’s head of business affairs is Dan Turcotte, BSc’13 (Biology), MA’15 (Popular Music and Culture), a keynote speaker at the conference.

Hodgson said the convergence also means new models for making, marketing and licencing music.

Some gaming studios have their own in-house composers or commission compositions. Others borrow existing music and give it new life and new audience. For example, a remix of Take me Home, Country Roads from Fallout 76 has topped 21 million YouTube views, and has generated such buzz that the original John Denver track from 1971 bills itself now “As featured on Fallout 76.”)

But while music may be embedded into the gaming experience, it is also just one part of the whole. Most players don’t know whose music they’re listening to while gaming. That adds to the challenge faced by composers, musicians and music-industry officials trying to make sure their music is part of a sustainable business model.

The hundreds of millions of listeners seeking out music on platforms such as Spotify, YouTube or embedded within games are not necessarily the same ones whose numbers are reflected in traditional music-sales charts, Hodgson said.

This region is well-positioned to be leaders in the evolving industry, he noted. London is home to several internationally renowned gaming companies, as well as Western Music and Fanshawe College’s game design and development and music industry arts programs.

“London punches above its weight in music and everyone know that, especially in production and teaching.”

Sponsored by the JUNO Host Committee and the London Economic Development Corporation, the conference features a who’s-who of the gaming industry and music, including Turcotte; Matthew Shelvock of Bitbird/Heroic; Kim Temple of Six Shooter Records; Karen Chalmers of Big Blue Bubble; George Spanos of Digital Extremes; Josh Richardson of Tiny Titan; and Mack Enns, a Western PhD candidate in gaming and music.

Tickets for Music + Video Game Collision are available online for $20 (student) and $35 (general).

The JUNOs are Canada’s showcase of music excellence and include dozens of events taking place in London from March 11-17. They culminate in a televised awards ceremony Sunday, March 17.