Gaming’s Top Synch Players
These are the executives soundtracking games and esports events
Senior director of A&R/marketing
Khoury’s team helped 100 gecs, along with Charli XCX and others, headline Minecraft’s Square Garden festival in April, drawing some 160,000 viewers and raising $50,000 for the COVID-19 food-bank charity Feeding America. Khoury says gaming has opened new frontiers: The notion of an artist performing virtually for 27 million people would have been a pipe dream otherwise. “The technology allows for bigger, deeper integrations on the music front. That didn’t exist a few years ago.”
Are you a gamer?
Unfortunately, yes. My girlfriend hates me for it — “I’m researching and developing, babe!” I play a lot of battle-royale games: Call of Duty, Fortnite, Apex Legends. Also NBA 2K20, Madden, all the sports games. Being in quarantine, it’s like a social network. I catch up with my friends every night with gaming. We don’t call, we don’t FaceTime. It’s gaming.
Senior vp creative synch in the U.S.
Palmer’s team helped usher Australian DJ Alison Wonderland into a celebrity Fortnite World Cup Championship last year in New York, even though she’s not a big gamer. (“I still don’t know how to play it,” she tweeted. “I hope at least I make u all laugh.”) Over the past seven years, games have become so prominent and lucrative that fewer artists say no. “We’ve definitely seen more artists raise their hands to be involved in projects,” says Palmer. “In previous years, they weren’t necessarily interested if the title was too obscure or the money was too low.”
How much gaming do you do?
I have spent an embarrassing amount of time playing FIFA over the past seven months. When I had children, I got rid of my PlayStation. I was like, “I can’t be the guy who’s retreating to the man cave and playing video games until three in the morning with a baby in the house.” I have two kids, and as they grew older, we decided to get a PlayStation and jump back in.6464558939
Capitol Music Group
Senior director, creative synch
VP, head of creative synch licensing
Migos have been associated with so many games — Madden NFL 20, MLB 19: The Show, NBA 2K20, Need for Speed: Heat — that Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time publisher Activision gave Quavo an exclusive preview to hype before launching this October. (This prompted super-fan Trippie Redd, who’d boasted of his $500,000 Bandicoot-themed necklace, to say he was jealous and “appalled.”) Does Migos risk gaming oversaturation? No, Volk says: “They exist in that streetwear-sports-meets-gaming-meets-hip-hop-culture intersection. That’s their sweet spot.” Capitol’s roster is full of “evergreen” gaming artists, Swiatowy adds, including NF, Lil Baby and Alison Wonderland.
How crucial are game synchs for revenue now that the pandemic has shut down concerts and other revenue sources?
Swiatowy: “It’s more important now than it ever was. As we’re seeing fewer synch spaces for artists, this is an area we will hopefully be able to tap into even more. And it helps with exposure. More people are playing them simply because they’re stuck at home.
Volk: “A lot of these artists just think it’s cool, regardless of what the synch fee might. To be in Madden, that’s an I-have-arrived moment.”
Senior vp experiential marketing and business development
Two years ago, Ruden sat in the audience at the Overwatch League Grand Finals, which drew 20,000 gamers and esports fans, and felt overwhelmed by what he calls the “opportunity to integrate music with this audience.” In 2019, Ruden and his team steered Columbia into more gaming partnerships: The label turned to Twitch for part of the rollout of Lil Nas X’s debut EP, 7, which aired on Imane “Pokimane” Anys’ popular stream; partnered with TwitchCon for an official party at San Diego’s PetCo Park headlined by Blink-182, Au/Ra and others; and, in April, booked Y2K to livestream for a League of Legends championship afterparty.
How do you build credibility among the gaming audience?
Your creative is going to have to continue to get better and better, and you’re really going to have to understand your audience. Although gaming culture is so big, each subculture within that is very narrow. You have to be careful that you’re not targeting the wrong audience. They’re very different. There are hundreds if not thousands of subcultures that approach gaming lifestyle very differently.
Senior director of synch, recorded music, Concord Recorded Music
Director of synchronization, sports, video games, television, Concord Music Publishing
At Concord, synchs usually begin with the artists: “Writers and managers will come to us and be like, ‘Hey, any word on the new FIFA game? Any word on the new Madden game?’” says Verigan. One of these was Denzel Curry, whose collaboration with Glass Animals, “Tokyo Drifting,” will appear in EA Sports’ upcoming UFC 4 while players load screens or choose their characters. Verigan also landed a Molly Tuttle bluegrass song, “Take the Journey,” in a recent Sims 4 add-on. And sometimes songs can graduate, like Curry’s “Shawshank,” which Bickford’s team placed on the Madden 20 soundtrack last year and wound up expanding to the NFL itself: The Kansas City Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu used it in his social media highlight video last November.
How do online multiplayer games create more synch opportunities?
Verigan Diplo just did a Fortnite in-concert DJ set that we licensed one of our songs for, because he wanted to use it in the DJ set — five or six years ago, I wouldn’t have even assumed that would be a possibility.
Bickford It’s not necessarily focusing on getting a song in the body of the game or the soundtrack of the game, but being involved in the larger conversation around the game, whether it’s marketing or a trailer or having something tied to user-generated content.
Executive vp/head of music
Over the last four years, Baldwin and Decca have spearheaded the expansion of Universal Music Group’s classical division into the score-hungry worlds of TV, film and video games. In May, Kelly Lee Owens, one of Decca’s songwriters, announced she would appear in a 12-hour exclusive Minecraft festival called Club Matryoshka, along with rising stars such as Arlo Parks and Mauv. “I’m not a gamer myself,” says Baldwin. “I’m like, ‘You’re doing what? Cool.’” But with Decca representing neo-classical composers such as Sebastian Plano (who wrote the score for PlayStation’s Everything) and electronic artists such as Floex (composer for Xbox’s Machinarium, which has sold over 4 million units), Baldwin is intimately familiar with the evolution of gaming synchs. “It’s an area that’s only growing,” she says.
What types of composers click most effectively with gaming scores?
Writing for video games is a complicated process, and you have to be able to write longform pieces. Our roster of composer-artists write orchestral pieces for professional orchestras or they write operas for big companies. So they can hold a longform narrative. It’s a challenging medium.
Worldwide executive/president of music
A former Capitol Records A&R chief, longtime label executive Schnur crossed over to EA in 2001, when licensing songs to games was pretty much limited to one-offs like Madden NFL using a Ludacris track. “Nobody had gone full-on,” he says. “It has changed a lot. Sometimes a producer would find somebody on their own game team to create a score because they happened to play guitar or piano. Now we have the biggest composers on the planet.” Among them: Academy Award winners Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino.
What’s the next step in using music for multiplayer games?
Multiplayer games are about hanging out with your friends and making new friends. Fortnite created a virtual venue within their hugely popular open-world real estate. I think you’re going to see that happen more and more. Marshmello and Travis Scott were an enormous success [with Fortnite in-game concerts]. The next move is to learn from them and grow and create something unique. It’s not a matter of just doing the same old thing.
Senior vp brand marketing
Kirkpatrick sees opportunity in gamers who spend four to eight hours per session, listening to music the whole time. “My role is to look above the synch,” he says. “How do I take a Madden opportunity, turn it into a collaboration with an artist during the NFL draft or kickoff and create a marketing plan around that?” He’s working on several “massive” projects in this vein that he can’t announce yet, but he points to Travis Scott’s Fortnite appearance in the spring, which involved virtual roller coasters, underwater crowds, lasers and, of course, copious violence. “I don’t think anyone has combined music and gaming in such a storytelling event,” he says. “There will certainly be people trying to emulate it.”
What’s your history with games?
I’ve owned every console except for the Atari Jaguar. That includes ColecoVision. I’m a lifelong gamer, from making the finals of the original Tron contest in the early ’80s to being at 100 rounds-plus on Borderlands 3.
Associate director, creative synch
Patter came out of a meeting with Childish Gambino’s managers and EA music supervisors with a deal to place the singer-rapper’s “Feels Like Summer” on the FIFA 19 soundtrack — as well as his own custom team within the game and a bespoke uniform that players could access by beating his team. Fortnite, says Patter, has shown publishers that splashing a song on the end credits isn’t nearly as lucrative as licensing music in the background during the game itself. “It’s not just about music discovery anymore,” he says. “It’s about creating an experience that’s integrated into the game.” Adding to the synch opportunities: esports, in which top gamers request “hype videos and teaser trailers, highlight reels and even walkout music,” says Patter.
What’s your history with gaming?
I’ve always been a big FIFA player, and Grand Theft Auto. Love playing against friends and getting supercompetitive. But I’m not a huge gamer anymore. Once you break five or six controllers, you realize you might not have the patience.
Interscope Geffen A&M Records
VP sports and gaming
Because she played Just Dance growing up, Billie Eilish was happy to license “bad guy” for the 10th installment of the game — and then went a step farther, ambushing teenage fans who thought they were testing Just Dance 2020. “We surprised about 20 fans that day,” says Nieman. He explains that an artist’s presence in a game usually begins with a simple synch and grows from there, such as Zedd licensing “Adrenaline” for the FIFA 17 soundtrack, then designing a “kit,” or jersey, for a customized team in the game. “To deeply integrate it into the game — that’s really my goal,” he adds. “How do we go the extra mile?”
Why are in-game activations so important for labels and publishers?
Grand Theft Auto has been doing radio stations inside the game for the longest time. Now, in-game concerts are huge. We’re all trying to create those moments, when you have games like Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone, Minecraft, Roblox, these huge games that have these virtual worlds, how do we integrate a song or a merch item? It has become the new trend for sure.
Republic Records, Def Jam Recordings, Island Records and Verve Label Group
Manager, licensing and synchronization
Last summer, after Krummann received a request from Electronic Arts, Def Jam’s Beau Young Prince found himself in front of a microphone rapping a version of his song “Big Moe” translated into Simlish — the language characters use in The Sims. “He killed it,” says Krummann. “It’s not quite English — you can still recognize it.” (The Simlish version of “Big Moe” has yet to come out in the game.) Krummann — who started out as an intern for music supervisor Chop Shop and has worked on synchs for over two years at Universal — also recently placed Bishop Briggs’ “Jekyll & Hide” in the trailer for season four of EA’s Apex Legends.
How long have you been a gamer?
I played when I was younger, when I lived at home with all my brothers — they’re big gamers. During quarantine, I’ve been getting into Call of Duty with my boyfriend. I’m still getting the hang of it.
VP licensing and soundtracks
The key to gaming synchs, says Betley, a nongamer, is understanding the tone of each project. D’Angelo’s “Unshaken,” in the 2018 game Red Dead Redemption 2, had a low-key, dramatic Western-movie tone; A$AP Ferg’s “East Coast Remix,” co-starring Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross and others, provided a more upbeat tone for UFC 3 the same year. “I’d liken it to a movie — if it’s an action movie and they’re looking for fight songs and driving montages, that’s one thing,” says Betley. “If they’re looking for an end title, that’s totally different.”
How important is it to place songs within the context of the game, rather than just the opening credits or end titles?
It really depends on the game. Sports games, the songs tend to be used in menus, so a lot of what you’re doing in MLB or FIFA or Madden is building your team, changing your uniforms. There are all these ancillary parts of the game that aren’t necessarily “I’m on the field playing the game.” My husband plays MLB all the time; he’s trading players and upgrading pitchers and music is playing during those moments.
President of premium content A&R
Mackay compares placing songs in games to scoring movies. The label had eight songs in visionary creator Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding: Timefall last fall (in part due to Sony’s connection with PlayStation), including the moody Khalid-Major Lazer collaboration “Trigger.” “Death Stranding is a dystopian, armageddon Mad Max where the earth is ending and it’s about the fact that humans haven’t taken care of the environment,” says Mackay. “So obviously a 110-beats-per-minute uptempo pop song is not going to fit in that context. You’ve got to get the tone and the texture right.”
What were your first games?
Intellivision was my first gaming console. Then I was an Atari guy. I was definitely one of those kids who would get on his bike with what felt like 17 pounds of quarters in his pockets and ride to a 7-Eleven about three or four miles away and they had Pac-Man and Defender and Galaga.
GM, Virgin Records Berlin
Universal Music Group has devoted an entire label, Enter, to placing music in esports events. Enter is a 2-year-old joint venture between UMG and esports giant ESL, and Neipp notes that ESL reaches fans who have “pretty amazing educations, high income, and they stream 10 to 12 hours of music a day.” The label has signed and released nearly 200 tracks, some from unknowns who uploaded songs to the label’s webpage, others from established EDM producers like TheFatRat. Enter’s strategy for TheFatRat is to leverage exposure from his appearances at major gaming events, like last year’s ESL One Hamburg, to boost his streaming numbers: “Fly Away” has 50 million Spotify plays while “Rise Up” has 10 million.
How has the pandemic affected synchs for games and esports?
Streaming numbers have gone up like crazy during [the coronavirus], and obviously you can reach more audience in livestreams. But most of the events have been postponed or changed to online performances. It’s a two-sided sword.
Sr. Director of film, television, sports and gaming
With help from Levin’s team, Rock Band veterans Green Day returned to gaming over the past year, first with a performance at The Game Awards in December to announce its pack for Beat Saber, then with “Fire, Ready, Aim” in a Rocket Arena trailer in June. Plus, Wale headlined an event for the Call of Duty league in January and Shawn Wasabi performed as part of the League of Legends Mid-Season Streamathon in May. “As games are evolving and changing, the synch conversation evolves right along with them,” says Levin. “With new technology coming into play, there’s new real estate in these titles.”
How has the pandemic created new opportunities for music in games?
Once we were under quarantine, we’ve definitely seen gaming have a moment. Engagement really has taken off. We’re at the forefront of those conversations to make sure we’re participating.
Warner Chappell Music
Manager, creative licensing
A lifelong gamer who has worked at Warner Chappell for three years, Restaino sees opportunity in trailers: His team placed Karen O’s version of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” in the Final Fantasy 7 trailer in April. “[Trailers] are such a massive online space for kids looking for tutorials or finding certain features,” says Restaino. “It gives us a whole other lane. It can lift the energy up for a minute and a half, as opposed to months of [in-game] narrative.”
How have gaming synchs evolved in recent years?
There was a huge emphasis back in the day on sports games and first-person-type shooter games. The gaming space has been blown open with character-driven games, with narratives from beginning to end. It gives more space to different types of music.