[In his latest Save The Robot column, originally printed on sister website GameSetWatch, journalist Chris Dahlen imagines a brighter future for both the music and games industries if the two worlds can come together, giving a run down of his synergistic suggestions including more licensing, more fantasy, and above all, more innovation.]
Music games are on the rise. The Guitar Hero
series and its younger cousin, Rock Band
, have paved the way for the Harmonix iPod game Phase
, indie title Audiosurf
- a top-seller for Valve’s Steam service in February - and the new rhythm-action game Patapon
But broaden the net, and you can check out the playable instruments and jam session possibilities of Lord of the Rings Online
, the strummable guitar tossed into BioShock
, or Portal
- which didn’t end with a plot-packed cutscene, but with a musical finale.
And yet, as someone who covers both music and gaming, I’m well aware of the gulf between the two communities. The games industry makes more money and sees a brighter future for itself; the music biz is tanking, and has to console itself with drugs, sex, and two living Beatles. At the same time, the music industry sees opportunities to regain some vim – and make some scratch – through games.
Personally, I love ‘em both – and I’m incredibly excited to watch these worlds come together. In fact, nothing pumps me more than the thought of games and music living up to their joint potential.
Here are a few ways they can do it.
This is the most obvious and the most boring, and I almost didn’t include it. Artists get checks when games license original music – whether it’s the hits loaded onto EA’s sports games, or the sprawling soundtracks of sandbox gangster games like GTA
or Saint’s Row
. And the Guitar Hero/Rock Band
series have been a goldmine for hard rockers, who see an uptick in iTunes downloads for songs that faded off the charts years before the average player was even born.
But everything I just said about licensing applies to car commercials and Grey’s Anatomy
. Let’s go deeper.
This is strange to say, but being a rock star ain’t such a good gig anymore. Sure, a few elder statesmen enjoy the riches, knighthoods and universal devotion that their work from the ‘70s has earned them.
But for most of the working musicians in the world, the chance of achieving true rock stardom has dwindled to nil. Steve Albini warned us back in the ‘90s that signing a major label deal would likely ruin you
. And as record sales keep dropping and the malaise persists, more and more talents give up the dream that they could someday quit their day jobs.
Real musicians have become so cynical about fame that the storyline to Rock Band
is almost miraculous. You mean my band could win fans just by rocking
? And we could play arenas? And get a jet? Musicians still get
Banging the buttons on a plastic guitar is fun, but hearing the mohawked crowd roar again is what makes the game. And the music world gets it. In his must-read, may-scoff insider newsletter, music industry expert Bob Lefsetz wrote about trying Rock Band
on his new PS3. He came away converted
. “People want to rock out. They want to believe. … This shit is expensive. But people pay for it. Because it delivers the visceral thrills we USED to get with music. When bands made a ton of bread because they were unsullied, spoke from their hearts and never sold out.”
Innovation – in Games AND in Music:
As we discovered last winter
, the legendary Brian Eno has signed on to create music for Spore
. Eno’s presence on the game is almost as exciting as Will Wright’s. And it proves a point that we’ve been seeing for a while: game soundtracks aren’t just a new channel for music – they open up a whole new bag of techniques.
In a world of recording studios and sampling laptops, music doesn't have to come from musicians on a stage. Eno discovered generative music thanks to Life
, a “game” – some would just call it an algorithm - by John Conway. In the ‘70s, he worked on “ambient” music – music that could soundtrack a space and provide a subliminal accompaniment to your daily experiences; 1982’s On Land
featured music for “imaginary landscapes.”
David Toop’s fascinating book on experimental music, Haunted Weather
describes artists who turn the sound of a dog barking across a desert into music, or construct dance tracks from samples of liposuction surgery. Others evoke memories for a place through the use of “soundmarks” (landmarks made of, you guessed it, sound). Charles Ives envisioned two different marching bands colliding in the street; in a game, they could fight to the death.
A lot of what these talents are trying would be easier inside the imaginary landscapes and limitless rhythms of a game. And by the same token, games stand to benefit by inviting composers into the development process and laying their wildest ideas to code - just as Wright may have done with Eno.
This may be the most important thing of all: games attract a whole ton of amateurs.
Over time, we've given the job of making music to the experts. It’s true that teenagers still buy pawn shop guitars and start garage bands, and anyone can publish their shambolic first demos on a MySpace page. But a giant divider separates them from "real" musicians. All of the newcomers who are spreading their music on the ‘Net are widely dismissed as stealing the oxygen from the professionals – as if their music is an unavoidable, undifferentiated mudslide that smothers all the talent left in the biz.
This wasn’t always the case. In the old days, music – like sports, or cooking, or a million other social acts – was supposed to involve everyone. As musician and neuroscientist Dan Levitin put it recently, “The ancient Greeks said that one measure of the quality of a society or civilization is the number of its members who participate in the making of the arts. And in the last three or four hundred years, we've witnessed a kind of transformation in this society, which is that we don't all make music anymore.”
One of the greatest achievements of music games – especially multiplayer, social ones – is to help turn that around. They make a safe, fun space where anyone can take part in music and not feel ridiculous. Sure, some Rock Band
vets will move on to a real drum kit; a handful could even become stars. But that’s beside the point. The player’s engagement matters more than their skill. They don't mind being amateurs. And their participation could make them love music more than ever.
[Photo credit: Adam Penney
, photographing The Comuppins. "Transcendental Air Guitar" title thanks to Sandy Pearlman.]
[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]