Gaming may be a few decades old, having long ago ridden its light cycle out of the arcade, yet many still seem to think game music consists of bloops and bleeps.
It's an idea as outdated as disco. So it's fitting that Nile Rodgers -- the legendary producer and Chic member who best connects that era to this one thanks to his Daft Punk collab "Get Lucky" -- is the person most responsible for giving game music a proper hearing in North America.
Back in 1998, three years after the first PlayStation popularized CD technology in gaming -- dramatically increasing game music's complexity by allowing prerecorded streaming rather than just live sequencing -- Rodgers launched Sumthing Else Music and Sumthing Distribution to get game soundtracks off screen and into stores.
But this story really begins back in the late '70s, when Rodgers first became a gamer.
“When we first started making records, recording studios were not the sort of high-tech, inviting atmospheres they are now,” Rodgers recalls. “In the old days, studios were sort of dungeons with gear. They didn't want you to be aware of time because recording studios ran 24 hours a day. We just worked and worked and worked, and whenever we'd find ourselves mentally and artistically exhausted, we would go to the video game arcade.”
So the Chic crew would play "Pac-Man" and "Asteroids" and when they walked the few blocks back to the studio, they'd find themselves singing those old 8-bit melodies. Once consoles came out, Rodgers would buy all of them, from landmarks like the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System, to forgotten platforms like the Phillips CD-i. But as much as he loved the games, it was the tunes that truly stuck with him.
"We'd write lyrics to them," he laughs. "A lesson I learned when I first started making records was that the most powerful tool when it comes to marketing music is repetition -- and what's more repetitious than video game music? You just hear that stuff, and you can't get it out of your head."
Rodgers began developing a great respect for composers like Koji Kondo, who scored "The Legend of Zelda" and "Super Mario Bros." series. “I just liked it because it was cool compositions, it moved the action along, and as the platforms became more sophisticated, the composers had greater ability and greater access to instruments, be they digital or analog,” he says. “And I thought ‘man, I’d like to give these people a larger platform for their music.’”
Initially, Rodgers’ label was intended for more traditional music – one of the first records he released was an indie solo album from David Lee Roth's DLR Band -- but then he was approached to release a "Resident Evil" soundtrack. He found that both releases had a built-in niche fanbase, but there was one big difference between rock musicians and game musicians.
“I didn't have to worry about bailing the video game soundtrack composers out of prison 'cause they were busted for smoking pot in Washington Square Park. Video game soundtracks and video games, they come out on time. Rock and roll, the business that I come from, can be somewhat undisciplined, especially in the '80s and the '90s -- we were really a bit out of control."
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Eager to give his life more order, Rodgers went all in with game soundtracks and his label and distro company became the genre's ground zero. From the first few "Halo" soundtracks, the latter two of which Rodgers produced, to pretty much every major release nowadays. In the last year alone, they've licensed and distributed soundtracks to "Resident Evil 6," "Borderlands 2," "Darksiders II," "Gears of War: Judgment," "Jet Set Radio," "Metal Gear Rising: Revengence," "Saints Row: The Third," "Tomb Raider," and more.
Full orchestras have recently taken to touring classic game scores in North America, but they have yet to see the massive mainstream successes they enjoy in Japan. Still, Rodgers believes it's just a matter of time.
"I would love to have some of those great composers reap those kinds of rewards, of people knowing their music even if they're not gamers. That would be amazing. Some of my friends who are big composers in Japan, they sell out stadiums. You can hear them playing game music, and it’s like going to see a rock band here. That's not the quite the same in America."
But times are changing. Earlier this year, Rodgers' release of the soundtrack for Journey, composed by Austin Wintory, even nabbed a Grammy nomination, the first-ever for a game soundtrack.
"That's a huge, huge, huge milestone. Whenever a video game soundtrack finally wins a Grammy, everybody's gonna say 'I owe this to 'Journey,'" Rodgers says of the first soundtrack to blip onto Grammy's radar.
Why this matters is because Grammy recognition also puts game music on the public's radar, and helps them realize that it’s more than blips. Rodgers says that the genre has grown so diverse now that there is no definitive sound it.
"And that's what I love about it, because it, like life, is evolving and changing and morphing and getting better. So to have a definitive example of it means that, on some level, it stopped,” he says. "Man, I wouldn't be involved in it if I could actually define it. I certainly wouldn't wanna distribute it or put it out, that's for sure. I just look at it as music. Period. End of story."