In March, Tim Riley got a call from Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s longtime manager, who had a simple, slightly cryptic question: “What’ve you got going on this fall?”
Riley had known Rosenberg for years dating back to his days in the music industry working in A&R for Jive and other labels in the late '90s. In his current post as vice president of music affairs for videogame giant ActivisionBlizzard, he’d worked with Rosenberg on multiple occasions, syncing Em’s “’Til I Collapse” in the trailer for “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” in 2009, developing a special “Renegade” edition of “DJ Hero” featuring the music of Eminem and Jay Z the same year, and placing “Recovery” track “Won’t Back Down” in the trailer for “Call of Duty: Black Ops” in 2010. When Rosenberg asked him what he had going on in the fall, Riley knew that he could only have one thing on his mind.
The debut of Eminem’s “Survival” in the trailer for the upcoming “Call of Duty: Ghosts” videogame on Wednesday at a live event in Los Angeles wasn’t merely a sync, but a world premiere. It marked the first new song to be released by the famously reclusive rapper since “Recovery” single “Space Bound” in March of 2011. In its pairing of music’s reigning king of sales (over 100 million albums sold worldwide to date) with the video game industry’s biggest selling franchise ($1 billion reached for “Black Ops 2” in 15 days last winter), the premiere strategy speaks to the increasing levels of comfort and access major brands enjoy with music’s biggest stars.
“At the scale of a game like ‘Call of Duty’ it can be hard to find a like-size artist that fits with the brand,” Riley says. “In this case I think the song and the game are a perfect match. One helps the other.”
In June, Riley and members of his team flew to Detroit to meet with Eminem and Rosenberg while the artist was still writing and recording for his forthcoming, yet-to-be-titled, eighth solo album. “Survival,” produced by Eminem and DJ Khalil and featuring Liz Rodrigues of the New Royales, was one of a handful of songs that the delegation from Activision heard during the visit. The track’s lyrics made it clear why Rosenberg had thought of Riley and “Call of Duty” in the first place. Over four rapid-fire minutes, Eminem recounts his trials and triumphs in the music industry with a monstrous chorus from Rodrigues declaring “This is survival of the fittest / This is do or die / This is winner takes it all, so take it all.”
But, production-wise, the version of “Survival” played in the studio that day differed from the one that premiered online Wednesday. While in Detroit, Riley and his team had shown Eminem early concept art and gameplay footage of “Ghosts,” which the artist apparently took to heart. Over the next couple of months, Eminem turned in five successive versions of the song, each one bigger and more anthemic sounding than the last. The final master of “Survival” currently streaming online and in the “Ghosts” trailer, with its heavy electric guitar blasts and stadium-ready drums, wasn’t turned in until this Tuesday, and by then was “vastly different” from the earliest version of the song, according to Riley.
Similar to Beyoncé’s premiere of two new songs in commercials for Pepsi and H&M this spring, and Jay Z’s introduction of “Magna Carta… Holy Grail” in June via Samsung commercial, Interscope saw “Call of Duty: Ghosts” as a music delivery system with rarified marketing potential.
“For someone at Eminem’s level it’s a huge priority for us to find the appropriate partners and platforms to expose the music in a credible way,” says Steve Berman, longtime vice chairman and head of marketing at Interscope. “This one felt very comfortable because [Activision] understands the art and knows how to deliver. They have a rabid fan base and their own research shows that Eminem is the number one artist among ‘Call of Duty’ players in terms of affiliation.”
Interscope licensed “Survival” for use in “Call of Duty: Ghosts” and its related marketing materials for an undisclosed, all-in fee. Though the song is currently set to appear on Eminem’s forthcoming album, the label stressed that it is not the project’s first single. There are currently no plans to release the song to radio or iTunes, and Berman described its online rollout as part of a “viral campaign.”
In addition to premiering “Survival,” Activision will co-produce and finance a video for the song to be shot when Eminem returns from touring Europe in September. Riley says the company will continue to collaborate with the rap star in other capacities for the remainder of the year, although he declined to elaborate further. Eminem appeared in a taped address to the audience during the “Ghosts” announcement on Wednesday.
“There’s a lot to do still,” Riley says.
Although the Eminem album has no confirmed release date, its arrival isn’t likely to be far off from the “Call of Duty” release, set for early November.
“Their timing worked out well for us," Berman says. "It was an opportunity that we couldn’t resist.”