I would like to tell you that I was first introduced to dance music in underground Berlin clubs, where mysterious resident DJs blew my teenage spirit away, performing indescribable magic with beats and synth lines. But that would be a lie. My first exposure to dance music came in the form of a ’90s futuristic racing game called WipEout. Obsessively playing at a friend’s house, I met the Chemical Brothers and Orbital, both of whom graced the soundtrack; Not long after, the admirably chaotic sim Crazy Taxi introduced me to The Offspring, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater introduced me to Bad Religion. I first heard Garbage on the soundtrack of an obscure 2003 PlayStation 2 DJ game, Amplitude, created by a Boston developer called Harmonix – the same developer who would go on to create the wildly popular Guitar Hero series. Those games sold 25 million copies, and I know I wasn’t the only student who discovered a previously undiscovered love for cheesy dad rock while raising a plastic guitar to the sky during Boston’s More Than a Feeling.
Even though I’m showing my age with these hot cultural references, video games are still an important tool for discovering music – especially among children and teenagers, of whom a full 90% play regularly. In many ways, we’re in a golden era for games as a discovery tool. You might find a new favorite band in CHVRCHES after hearing their moody theme for expensive art-house game Death Stranding, or discover Lil Nas X from his anthem for the 2022 League of Legends World Championships.
Artists present music about Minecraft and Roblox and DJs spin sets in Grand Theft Auto Online. It’s hard to imagine anyone discovering Ariana Grande through her Fortnite concert series last year, as she was already one of the biggest pop stars on the planet – but with over 27 million visitors, it’s certainly not out of the question that some of them were new to the music. The influence of video games on music discovery continues to grow; Depending on which study you look at, between 25% and 30% of people now encounter new music through games — and the percentage is higher among Gen Z.
Most video game soundtracks are composed specifically for the game in question. In the 1980s and ’90s, talented musicians attempted to wring characterful and impactful music from machines with three or four sound channels and negligible memory, a creative challenge that led to some of the most persistent catchy tunes in pop culture history: think Pac-Man, early ones Mario or Pokémon Game Boy themes.
Nowadays, game scores are more like film scores, performed by full orchestras and unconstrained by technical limitations. (Video game soundtracks are among the most streamed albums on Spotify and have had their own vinyl boom.) But games that use licensed music for their soundtracks — from the racing game Forza to the annual Fifa soccer games — are making millions aware the artists depicted on it.
EA, the developer behind Fifa, likes to see itself as a career builder for musicians. The soundtracks usually feature both established stars like Bad Bunny and Gorillaz, who both feature on the Fifa 2023 soundtrack, as well as newer artists like Peggy Gou, who featured on Fifa 2019. Often these newer artists are the ones you can expect to see publicity a few years later.
Steve Schnur, EA’s Head of Music, is optimistic about the soundtrack’s impact on the music industry: “We knew video games could become what MTV and commercial radio were in the ’80s and ’90s. Any song in Fifa – whether it’s a new track by an established act or the debut of an unknown artist – will be heard almost 1 billion times around the world,” he told the Guardian in 2018. “Clearly no medium in the history of recorded music can deliver such a massive and instantaneous global presence.”
The Fifa soundtrack has changed with tastes – it might have been mostly mainstream rock in the mid-’00s, but now it also includes grime, EDM and pop – but it also shapes tastes. Hence the concept of “Fifa Songs” – the kind of tracks you would hear over and over again as a football-mad 11-year-old, the musical backdrop for your generation. This suggests why video games are a particularly powerful avenue of music discovery: Because game soundtracks find their audience at precisely the age when music has the most profound impact on taste development, and forever associate that music with indelible, iconic imagery.
I first heard Flying Lotus in GTA5; A few summers later I saw him live and strangely felt transported back to those fictional streets of California. Streaming music can feel like a throw-away item — Spotify keeps feeding you so many new tracks that few really take it in. When you play a game, the music you hear gets etched deep into your emotional memory. That’s why every time I reach for the lasers on a Chemical Brothers set, I remember being 10 years old – I first heard their music wide-eyed and tearing down the track in a PlayStation racing game .
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