Big-Game Players

Video game soundtracks give enterprising musicians a captive new audience.

Bands trying to gain national exposure face barriers higher than J. Lo must have been when she sported that Pomeranian 'do at the Grammys. Getting airplay has become so cost-prohibitive, only major labels can cough up the $100,000-plus in legal payola it takes to break into rotation on a commercial station. Video outlets like MTV, BET, VH1, and Much Music are even further out of reach.

Because of this, artists must find alternate outlets for their music. The Internet has been great for bands, but its utility is limited by the abundance of acts online and the general lack of any quality control, which can make discovering a decent group on the 'Net like finding the sober guy at a Phish concert.

Another outlet is beginning to emerge, however. Video game and software applications make up a niche market that remains somewhat hard to penetrate; nevertheless, a handful of locals are making the most of opportunities to enter the arena.

Leading the way is the progressive electronic music duo Twine. In 1999, the group composed a CD-ROM for the audio software company Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro loop series. A series of sound fragments meant to be used to create new music, it was enough of a hit for the company to request a second installment. Twine has also contributed music to be used in games for the Colorado-based video game development company VR-1.

"It's actually very lucrative," says Twine's Greg Malcolm. "I was very surprised at how much so, at first. It's a great way to supplement income and, more important, to have the capital to reinvest in equipment."

Another local outfit, North Royalton-based Latticesphere Records, recently entered a business relationship with Virgin Interactive, a spin-off of Virgin Records. Virgin is looking to incorporate songs from Latticesphere artists into its popular "Anytime. Anywhere. 20 Bucks" video game series, which could pay dividends for the label's acts.

"It allows them to reach out to people that normally would not be looking for them in the first place," says George Radmilovic, founder of Latticesphere. "If there's a killer rock band on that game, you're going to enjoy it and say, 'Well, who is this?' It's an advertising medium for the band."

Granted, it's a fairly limited medium at this point. Competition is intense, and most opportunities are for electronic-based bands that compose digital scores.

"Most games are still MIDI composed, in which case you can't just write a song and submit it," says Chad Mossholder, the other half of Twine, who works as a sound composer for VR-1 in Colorado.

But despite these obstacles, it's clear that the field is opening up. Just ask local goth duo Midnight Syndicate. After receiving raves for its music in gaming publications such as Games Unplugged and Gaming Report, as well as getting approached by indie game makers, Midnight Syndicate is looking into full-scale work for computer firms and has already talked with Sony.

"It's very viable now. I think it's a tremendous avenue," says Ed Douglas of Midnight Syndicate. "It's a growing market, and there's no way that, if somebody's enjoying the music for even a split second, that they're not going to look and see who's doing it. It's one of the best ways for bands to get their music out there."

Video games also provide repeated exposure unmatched in virtually any other medium. Unlike radio, where even the hottest song will be played only four or five times a day, gaming software provides continuous saturation of an artist's music. Many games take upwards of a hundred hours of play to beat, ensuring that the game's music will be drilled into players' heads.

Moreover, the gaming market is booming. NPD Group Inc., the industry's leading market-information provider, reports that retail sales of U.S. video game hardware, software, and accessories increased 43 percent in 2001 over the previous year. The total U.S. video game industry grew from $6.6 billion in 2000 to $9.4 billion in 2001. And as the technology continues to develop and the market continues to grow, so will bands' chances of capitalizing on it, as Twine has.

Says Malcolm: "For the music software field in general, I see a bright future, as more amateur musicians realize the untapped potential of their PC."

It all could mean a new music market as big as Ms. Lopez's coif.