As of today there are enough articles praising Fifa 22 soundtrack, days before the actual game release, that you cannot help but wonder if anyone actually cares about kicking the ball. Certainly, there are enough hype around the celebrated, A-list playlist featuring the largest collection of music to date – gobsmacking 122 songs – some could easily mistake it for the reveal of Open’er festival’s line-up. Around the same time, Raw Fury finally released one of the most anticipated indie games Sable, featuring an exclusive, tailor-made 32-track soundtrack by Japanese Breakfast. If either of these names mean anything to you, you are probably looking for your wallet right now (we don’t blame you).
If there’s one person that can help to better understand the effect licensed music have on game sales.
Point is, music in video games has come a long way. Of course, the celebration of another great EA soundtrack is no proof of that. But seeing how one of the most influential hip-hop artists in modern history, Travis Scott, performed a first-of-its-kind in-game performance as a 60-feet tall giant in front of 12 million Fortnite players is. Just in the first 24 hours after the first virtual concert premiered a new track called “The Scotts”, the song was listened almost 8 million times on Spotify alone. And while it’s hard to say how much credit goes to Epic’s golden goose, we’re confident that thousands of players who just tuned-in for the show also stayed one quick game, and another after that, eventually becoming part of Fortnite’s growing player-base.
According to Randy Eckhardt, founder of Eckhardt Consulting, who’s been licensing music for video games for more than 25 years — that’s the plan. Or, at least part of it. “The amount of work to license songs and the expense of including them in the game would not be something EA or Epic would pursue unless it meant something of merit for sales and consumer expectations,” Randy explained, not hiding his excitement about the possibilities games like Fortnite bring. While Epic Games did not comment on the $20 million figure that the featured artist reportedly earned from his virtual tour, we assume the price tag was as big as the musician’s Brobdingnagian avatar.
If there’s one person that can help to better understand the effect licensed music have on game sales, it’s Randy. Learning how game-changing his very first deal with Atlantic Records was for EA’s 1994 Road Rash for 3DO, featuring Soundgarden, rock band popular at the time, thanks to Randy’s initiative, his track-record is not surprising: Snoop Dogg, Madonna, Coldplay and David Bowie, among other larger-than-life names. “I’ve licensed pretty much every artist in the music industry for games except for Led Zeppelin and Katy Perry,” Randy said. “Sadly, her game, Katy’s Quest, did not have Katy’s licensed music in it because we just couldn’t make a deal happen there. That possibly had some effect on game’s sales.”
While that is not particularly surprising – a collection of mini-games based around the pop-star’s life, featuring no actual songs of Katy Perry? – music licensing for games can often be a particularly complex business full of grey areas. In 2017, one of them forced Remedy to remove Alan Wake from digital distribution store Steam after the rights to use licensed music in the game suddenly ‘expired.’ Only after a year that Microsoft was able to bring it back up, resulting in thousands upon thousands of copies of the game that could otherwise be sold. “That’s where people like myself come in,” Justin Andree, audio director of Laced and music supervisor of Alan Wake Remastered, tells.
Having been in the music licensing industry for more than six years, Justin does not particularly believe that licensed music is a critical factor that can increase sale of the game. “Me and my team did a lot of licensing for Fall Guys trailers. Since Devolver Digital has a pretty meticulous taste in music, songs like “Hot Diggity” that you can hear in the trailer — that is probably something that helped to sell this brand new IP.” We wonder, then, if it’s new, unheard IPs like Fall Guys or Bethesda’s recently announced Redfall that gets the most from licensed tracks. “When I first started putting music for Madden in the mid 90’s, we would have an intro song and maybe a couple of other tracks from major label artists. And I’d say it was definitely more for promotion rather than required feature,” Randy says. Surely, people would still buy the next installment of Fifa or Grand Theft Auto without them having some of the hottest artists at the time, right?
While there’s no actual way to find that out, unless Rockstar decides to release Grand Theft Auto 6 with no licensed music, Justin thinks music serves a different function for games like Fifa and GTA. “They sort of become a medium for music discovery. Just think of all Fifa games that you’ve played — how many times did you come across a track which led you to a discovery of some great, unrecognized artist? In these terms, it becomes a wonderful, almost essential element of the game,” he explains.
Best part — it’s a win-win situation for everyone. Imagine you’re an undiscovered musician trying to break through and one day you become part of the soundtrack that’s going to be heard around 1 billion times (if Steve Schnur’s, worldwide executive and president of music for EA, Fifa estimates don’t lie). For artists like Willow Kayne and V.I.C, whose songs will be featured in the upcoming football sim, that’s life-changing. But for publishers that means more exposure coming from their fan bases. And that, of course, means “a strong opportunity to drive sales.” Both Randy and Justin, then, mention the impact establishing the right relationship with the artist can have for the game. “When you think what Kero Kero Bonito did for Bugsnax — that was really cool, different and mutually beneficial,” Justin tells. “A huge wave of fans came just from that theme song that they wrote.”
Perhaps there’s no better way of finding out how licensed music can shape game’s overall.
For Kero Kero Bonito, who currently have almost 1.3 million monthly listeners on Spotify, that meant being part of Sony’s PlayStation 5 reveal event with some 7 million viewers. “It opened us up to a bunch of people,” Kero Kero Bonito’s member shared in an interview. Likewise, for the previously mentioned, just-released Sable whose soundtrack was composed by Japanese Breakfast, being exposed to one of the hottest indie bands with 1+ million monthly listeners — that’s a lot of potential buyers for an indie game.
“When you think of songs made specifically for games, like what Run the Jewels did for Cyberpunk 2077 or Paul McCartney for Destiny,” which, in latter case, was done purely out of love for creativity and games, “that adds something to the overall experience,” Justin says. Or makes for some of the most memorable moments in recent gaming — everyone who played the original Red Dead Redemption will remember the sun-drenched ride to Mexico, accompanied by Jose Gonzales’ perfectly fitting “Far Away“. One of the best video game moments in history that could have otherwise been just another ride through Mojave desert. And while it’s impossible to tell if these musically powerful moments increased the number of copies sold in the long-run, they sure must have secured potential buyers for their sequels.
Perhaps there’s no better way of finding out how licensed music can shape game’s overall appeal and success than going directly to the source — music games. If there is one franchise that can demonstrate the long-term impact licensed music can make, it must be Guitar Hero. As of today, the celebrated series have sold over 25 million copies worldwide. If not for the initiative of Randy, RedOctane’s Guitar Hero possibly would not have been the household name that it is today. “Taking initial drawings of Johnny Napalm and an outline of the plastic guitar to the music industry; trying to come up with a revenue share model that was enticing enough for Ozzy, Keith and Mick, Stevie Wonder, Queen, Hendrix, along with putting the deal together with Gibson Guitars for the controller-likeness rights — I’d say that was pretty groundbreaking at the time,” Randy, who worked on the first two Guitar Hero titles, says.
Reading how well both games and their soundtracks were received back then (“even more impressive than the actual music selection is the way that these songs have been implemented,” to give you a taste), it’s no surprise that Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock became on of the best-selling video game of all time in a single calendar year. Just in ten weeks after game’s launch, players have already downloaded more than 5 million ‘pay-to-play’ songs. And that’s just a single Guitar Hero game. Of course, what relationship rhythm-based games like Guitar Hero have with licensed music is a bit like Slash and Guns N’ Roses — one cannot exist without the other. But if there’s any indication that licensed music does actually help sell games, evidence lies somewhere in Fortnite’s all-consuming metaverse. Now, we just have to watch.