Seven years ago we were witnesses of tremendous raise in popularity of game music released on the vinyl. For many studio records it was a journey in uncharted waters because nobody could predict how long this trend would persist. After some time we know for sure that despite of the growing interest in the streaming music, vinyl not only captured collectors’ private collections, but also revolutionize a way of listening games’ soundtracks.
The VGM fanbase is very passionate and kind and helpful and friendly. – Kevin Schulz
One of those studios is the Black Screen Records, which thanks to next records’ premiere gained the reputation as specialists in recording music from indie games on vinyl. Kevin Schultz who is responsible for this success agreed to share with me his thoughts about the music industry in Europe and tell me if indie apocalypse is over.
In 2015 we could observe small interest in game music albums released in the vinyl format. What do you think was the reason of this growth in popularity?
That was around the time I started Black Screen Records but back then I didn’t even know that there was a scene or demand of these kind of things. I’ve been a vinyl collector since I’m 18 years old and bought my first record (“Crisis” by the Canadian post-hardcore band Alexisonfire) at Underdog Recordstore here in Cologne – one of THE best record stores for alternative music in the world – because I’m a huge fan of that band and wanted to own a limited edition piece of “merchandise” and support that band with my purchase in some way. I think the same goes for game music on vinyl. If you’re fan of a game or composer or developer and want to support them, you buy shirts, posters, cups, collector’s editions, CDs and what not.
When the new wave of VGM labels popped-up 5+ years ago and started releasing game soundtracks on vinyl, a lot of gaming and soundtracks fans immediately jumped on it and supported this idea, and so more and more releases and labels followed. Vinyl are more expensive than CDs but they come with a larger-sized album art, liner notes, sometimes include posters, pins and even Bandcamp codes or Steam keys.
You can’t only listen to them but even put them on a shelf or frame them if that’s your thing, because they also look great on your wall. Plus most vinyl releases sound amazing – at least very different than CDs & digital. It also takes time to put on a record and you’re somehow more invested in the music. It’s just a nice thing to have and it’s yours to keep forever. I know it’s 2020 but people still like to own physical media and I think that’s awesome.
The Black Screen Records, despite of the fact that has on its records some premiers from the major productions, is famous for its premiers of the music for indie games. Why you choose this direction? Which album was the most successful?
I never really had a direction that I wanted to go with this label in the first place. When I started Black Screen Records, I still went to University and worked part-time for a music PR agency. I was fortunate enough to have a job that paid my bills and a family that supported me so I was never really dependent on “the label’s success”. It was more of a passion project back then – I just wanted to release the soundtracks to games that I loved.
That was the most important part of the label. And still is. I enjoyed playing Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee with my dad back in the late 90s, so when the ground-up remake Oddworld: New ’n’ Tasty came out in 2014, I obviously had to play it. I fell in love with the characters, the story, the visuals, the gameplay and the music again and as a vinyl collector myself, I simply thought it would be nice to own this soundtrack on vinyl. This idea was the start of Black Screen Records.
I play a lot of games (but never finish any of them), I watch a lot of Twitch Streams and Let’s Plays, I read a lot of gaming related websites and listen to an unhealthy amount of game soundtracks every single day at work. Whenever there’s a (new) game that sounds and looks fun, I check it out, watch trailers, play demos, read reviews and I always keep an eye on it. My biggest problem is that I want to release ALL the soundtracks. All of them. I love indie games, so maybe that’s why we’ve released so many indie game soundtracks. I don’t know.
But it was definitely the reason why I wanted to release an indie game vinyl compilation this year. I know that I can’t release all the soundtracks and that’s fine, but 14 songs from 14 indie games on one vinyl was pretty close, haha. Risk of Rain 1 and 2, Dear Esther, Oddworld, Divinity: Original Sin II, Thomas Was Alone, A Plague Tale, Vampyr and many others did all very well. VA-11 Hall-A is by far one of our best-selling releases. This game for example, its soundtrack and our vinyl release are very important to me and Black Screen Records. And so is pretty much every release we put out in some way or another. And I hope this will never change.
The Black Screen Records, celebrates the fifth anniversary of its foundation. In retrospective how do you rate the studio’s actions? If you could change something, what would it be?
Actually, there isn’t much I would change. Not because everything we did was perfect from the start (it wasn’t), but without the mistakes I made the label probably wouldn’t be at the point where we are right now. I learned a lot of things in the past five years and I still can’t believe what we have achieved so far. To run a label with my friends, to work with passionate people from all over the world on amazing projects, to be able to rent an office and hire people and pay all my bills with game soundtracks is a dream come true.
The music for indie games has been treated with a great respect, which it deserves, for many years. What in your opinion was the turning point which changed the way of looking at games and the music written for them?
I think we’re not quite there yet. Indie games get a lot more recognition than they did 5-10 years ago. Nintendo now has their own Indie World Showcase streams (what happened to Nindies, by the way?), the Guerrilla Collective almost entirely focused on new indie games and even IGN’s Summer of Gaming event had a dedicated indie showcase. Then there is the incredible team at Indie Arena Booth that almost single-handedly saved Gamescom Online this year with their interactive online exhibition.
But the VGM scene for one is still fairly small. Big news websites and gaming press still struggle to at least mention the game’s music in their reviews. 99% of the time, they still embed YouTube videos of ripped and illegally uploaded game soundtracks, they don’t mention the composers’ names or link to their Bandcamp or Spotify pages. Even if they don’t like the music, I think they should at least mention the music in one sentence. Nevertheless, the scene is growing and things started to change for the better. The VGM fanbase is very passionate and kind and helpful and friendly. There’s a dedicated VGMvinyl Discord server – which I’m not very active in – but I read pretty much everything they post because it’s super interesting and helpful to hear what everyone thinks about new games, new soundtracks, and new vinyl releases.
I think indie games can be very diverse and unique and don’t have to appeal to the masses like an AAA game. Smaller teams have more creative freedom and can bring their unique ideas to live in so many exciting and interesting ways – same goes for their soundtracks. That’s why I and probably many others like indie games.
I love exciting new gameplay mechanics, gorgeous art styles and a good catchy soundtrack. – Kevin Schulz
It still happens that some of composers who writes music for indie games don’t have such luck regarding the budget and they can’t afford recording musicians live. However such limitations unlock the creative reserves, which we could heard in games from thirty years ago. Then are you the supporter of the traditional methods of music composing, or you prefer when on the soundtrack we can hear the sounds of instruments played live?
I’m not a composer and not involved in the recording or production process of a soundtrack but I wouldn’t say that the budget has anything to do with the quality of a soundtrack or music album in general. Don’t get me wrong, I love big budget orchestral arrangements or full band recordings but a great song can be written, recorded and produced by one person in a bedroom with a MacBook and an audio interface.
And even if your budget doesn’t allow you to record an orchestra at a renowned studio in the UK, there are so many new ways to emulate full orchestras with software, samples and recording programs in your home studio and you can’t even hear the difference. The music should first and foremost benefit the game and support the gaming experience in some way. And most of the time the music also makes a great album that you can still enjoy detached from the game.
The press dedicated to the game industry and game developers mention many times about the indie apocalypse – the glut on the market and decreasing interest in indie games. How do you feel about those prognoses? Would it have impact on the game music generally?
I actually don’t know if there’s a decline in interest in indie games. I for one are now even more interested in indie games than ever before. And so are a lot of my friends. I want my games to be wholesome, short and fun. I love exciting new gameplay mechanics, gorgeous art styles and a good catchy soundtrack. And a fun game is a fun game not matter what label you put on it. The Last Of Us Part II is cool but have you ever played Lonely Mountains: Downhill on your Nintendo Switch in handheld mode on your couch after a busy day at work? (It’s awesome and super addictive) There are still so many upcoming indie games on my wishlist and I really can’t wait to check them all out.
That’s why I wanted to release a vinyl compilation with unreleased songs from upcoming indie games. I just couldn’t wait for them to come out and I wanted to tell people about my most anticipated indie games. We recently launched pre-orders for this compilation and we didn’t expect it to sell so well. Okay, it was a free vinyl, but I think people loved to idea of listening to unreleased songs from games they probably haven’t even heard of and maybe find their new favourite game or just have a good time listening to 14 songs that all have a totally different style.
And then there is Fall Guys: it launched in August and is already one of the most watched, played, downloaded and streamed games and I would totally consider that an indie game. Also, the game’s soundtrack is just catchy as hell (please go and check it out on Jukio Kallio’s Bandcamp or Spotify) and has been streamed over a million times on Spotify in total. So no, I don’t think that there’s a decline in interest in indie games.
People buy game vinyl for various reasons. They like the music, they think it looks cool. – Kevin Schulz
How, in your opinion, the worldwide pandemic influenced on the game music market?
I think it’s safe to say that this pandemic has and is still affecting us all. I don’t know in what capacity it has affected the whole video game music market or other VGM labels but we experienced lots of delays. Productions have been delayed, shipments have been delayed, games have been delayed. Due to strict shipping restrictions of two of our carriers, we had (and still have) to hold shipments to most countries in North & South America, New Zealand or Australia so I spent a lot of time talking to sales reps from various carriers about a solution for this problem.
We can’t produce any more hand-made / manually pressed vinyl options (splatter, ink-spot, split) this year, as the pressing plant had to shut down every other machine for safety reasons. But apart from a few delays, we haven’t really been affected by the pandemic. We’re all safe and healthy. But of course I hope that this time next year we can meet everyone at Gamescom here in Cologne again to celebrate our favourite video games and their soundtracks together.
Streaming services are becoming more and more popular each year. Especially among the young users. What kind of future do you see for the physical media?
I’m pretty sure that streaming will be a big part of our future. I love Netflix, I love Spotify. I really can’t wait to try out Project xCloud and hope Google Stadia will have a comeback at some point. These and many other streaming services are now part of my everyday live. They’re super convenient. But I’m confident that the market for physical media won’t disappear completely. There are always people like you and me that will buy vinyl, CDs, tapes, blu-rays, games, books, magazines, etc. Because we like to collect and own things.
For example, I’m buying more physical products now than ever before but I am also consuming more streaming services than ever before. Compared to digital sales, vinyl is still a niche market. And game soundtracks on vinyl is a niche market within a niche market. But people still buy vinyl, and labels still put out more vinyl and everyone is happy … I mean, as long as their vinyl arrives without seam splits or bent corners. I hate when this happens.
Sorry everyone! Microsoft and Sony will both release a digital-only version of their next-gen consoles. But I think that’s not the end of physical games. People stream more than ever but vinyl has been around for decades and the pressing plants are still running at capacities. So I hope the “vinyl hype” will last another year or two.
What grabs vinyl buyers’ attention in the first place according to you?
Oh, that’s a tough question. Probably the artwork. If people like what they see, they’re at least interested in it. If they haven’t even heard of a game, they will most likely not consider buying it. People buy game vinyl for various reasons. They like the music, they think it looks cool, they want to support their favourite artists or they don’t want to miss out on limited stuff. The latter happens quite often. I know lots of people don’t even own a record player. That’s totally fine. That’s also why we decided to give away a download code for the digital album with most of our vinyl releases.
Is the music journalism needed in today’s world where the game music becomes more and more available for everyone?
Absolutely! I think we always need all kinds of journalism to stay informed. Sometimes I just don’t want to click through countless playlists and listen to the stuff that Spotify thinks I like because of some weird algorithm. But I have to admit that music journalism has to change to stay relevant. Before I started Black Screen Records I worked in a music PR agency and had the honour to do press and marketing for some of my favourite indie bands.
During that time I saw a lot of magazines that came and went and even some of the biggest print magazines in Germany suddenly became online-only magazines and then had to shut down. We have lots of good writers in Germany but not so many good magazines. Some print magazines still don’t have mobile-friendly websites. And do you really need album reviews anymore?
Maybe… if you like the writing style of a certain editor and if they have a taste similar to yours. But you could also pre-save the album on Spotify and give it a listen once it’s out. For free. On the other hand, I love to listen to in-depth interviews with my favourite bands. I love to find out about exciting newcomers. I love to read long features about a new exciting things in the industry. So please music journalism, stay with us a few years longer!
As the founder of the Black Screen Records what targets you have for the next five years?
As mentioned before, I really want to release ALL the soundtracks on vinyl. Every. Single. One of them. But seriously, if we can continue releasing game soundtracks on vinyl that would be awesome. I also want to open a game soundtrack record store here in Cologne one day. Maybe next year if the current situation allows it. We’re also busy expanding our digital catalogue, do more vinyl compilations and we also have some pretty cool ideas for exciting new projects. We want to keep the quality as high as possible, even during these uncertain times and I hope people will still support us and our friends at all the other amazing game vinyl labels.