Photo: Recording Academy
4 Must-Know Ways For Music Makers To Succeed In "Finding the Money"
The Recording Academy New York Chapter hosted an illuminating, resource-rich discussion on where and how income is generated in today's music business – here's what you missed
Making a living in the music industry has always been tough. In fact, leveraging creativity for profit has challenged artists for centuries. But today's music professional faces not only the need to create work that has value, but perhaps more the daunting task of identifying where and how income can be generated for their work.
To that end, the Recording Academy New York Chapter and their Professional Development Committee held an event titled "Finding the Money" at the Bryant Park Hotel in Manhattan on Mar. 28. New York Chapter Executive Director Nick Cucci welcomed music industry leaders in attendance for a panel discussion on how independent creatives can maximize their revenue and avoid costly pitfalls and miscommunications.
Moderated by Chris Carroll a lobbyist for Yoswein New York, the panel discussion included Binta Brown, Founder of Fermata Entertainment and Big Mouth Records; Alex Heiche, Founder and CEO of Sound Royalties; Richard Barone, singer/songwriter and front man for The Bongos; and Neeta Ragoowansi, SVP and Co-Founder of NPREX.
With music in their hearts and money on their minds, here are four key takeaways from the panelists and their dynamic and informative discussion.
1. Have the money conversation first
Artists and songwriters can sometimes be hesitant to talk business. As we all find out sooner or later, this can cause huge problems down the road. The “money conversation” doesn’t have to kill the creative vibe. Get it out of the way first. Don’t wait to sort it out later when no one remembers as clearly. For instance, before a writing or recording session, creators should agree—in writing!—who is part of this composition, what they each plan on contributing (music, lyrics, instrumentation, etc...), and what they are there to accomplish.
Barone offered advice on this occasionally touchy subject. He advocates for splitting credit down the middle whenever possible or when in doubt. “As a solo artist, I had other co-writers come to my apartment in the village for writing sessions. One well-known artist came with a briefcase with an agreement ready to sign. The contract said that everything we write is going to be split 50/50. First, I was offended because I thought we were just playing music in a room, but then I realized later that it was actually a smart thing to do.”
2. Figure out your income revenue streams
Gone are the days when a creator can merely wait for fat checks to come in the mail from their record label and or publisher (of course, this always only applied to a lucky few). Streaming and new digital sources of revenue (SoundExchange, for example) can be valuable sources of ancillary income; however, it’s important to understand the basics first: royalty calculations, copyright, and the monies owed to you from your Performance Rights Organization (PRO, such as BMI, ASCAP or SESAC). Dedicate time to understanding how the business works and educate yourself on how your music makes you money. Ask questions, ask your PRO contact, ask your manager, ask your fellow music creators and take notes.
Heiche is an expert in this area and offered up advice that all new artists should follow: “One of the common mistakes we see are songwriters that are collecting from a PRO but never signed up with a publishing entity or created their own pub designee. Creating your own LLC and registering it with the PRO will allow you to collect the other half of the writer’s performance share on the publishing side. It will also open the door for sync licensing opportunities.”
"The numbers in other countries are huge and are growing, and that’s where the money is going to be.” –Neeta Raggowansi
Meanwhile, Ragoowansi focused on income generated by international performance royalties, also known as “neighboring rights,” and the tangible benefits to a more proactive approach of signing up directly in other countries. A publishing administrator (Kobalt, TuneCore or CD Baby, for example) should be able to take care of this. Neeta says, “Don’t sign up with your PRO and then sit back and hope you get paid as a songwriter. Be aggressive and think about your other markets. Often, we are U.S.-centric and miss out on the bigger picture. The numbers in other countries are huge and are growing, and that’s where the money is going to be.”
3. Get a designated business manager
As the saying goes, artists who don’t manage their business will soon find that they have no business left to manage. Artists who reach a certain income threshold will need a full-time business manager, who typically works on commission. Until then, most artists will find a CPA when tax season comes around, which isn’t enough in many cases.
Make sure someone from your team understands all aspects of the music business, including royalties, licensing, publishing and copyrights. Even if your manager is a wizard at understanding contracts, you will still need a lawyer (if not on retainer, then a phone call away).
If you need reminders (and let’s be honest, we all do), set alerts to check your balances and run cash flow reports monthly, quarterly and annually. Above all, you need to know where your money is coming from and how it is being spent.
"If you don’t feel comfortable advocating for yourself to be paid, find someone who can do it for you.” –Binta Brown
Brown, who currently works with Chance the Rapper, shared her invaluable wisdom and offered a touching piece of advice: “When other people are using your music, remember how much love, effort, energy, and money you put into creating what you created. When they ask for permission so they can use your creation to amplify the value of what they’re doing—whether it’s in a podcast or a retail store or whatever it is—they’re generating value from that. You have contributed to their value, and they owe you! You have absolutely every right to insist on having an agreement that ensures you are going to be paid, and if you don’t feel comfortable advocating for yourself to be paid, find someone who can do it for you.”
4. Protect yourself
One relatively easy way to protect yourself is to pay attention to your metadata. Make sure it is correct on the label copy and liner notes. Metadata is the information embedded in an audio file that is used to identify content it includes the following information: Artist name, album title, song titles, year of release, genre, ISRC, and UPC. Double check your spelling and syntax and always ask for a final copy. Mistakes with metadata may seem trivial but can be costly.
When in doubt, ask questions. The more you know, the less likely you will make mistakes, and the less likely you will be taken advantage of. As always, make sure your team has your best interests at heart and has the knowledge and passion and hustle to make your dreams a reality.
If you need help but can’t afford a lawyer contact Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts here.
Check out this handy ‘Finding the Money’ list of helpful links here.
Photo: DR Music
Fatou Samba, K-Pop's First African Idol, On Creating A Multicultural Musical Landscape
Blackswan's Fatou Samba, who was born in Senegal, will release her debut solo mixtape Aug. 19. She spoke to GRAMMY.com about finding her lane in K-pop and her hopes for the genre's evolution.
Growing up in Senegal, K-pop idol Fatou Samba knew she wanted to pursue music. Inspired by the country's diverse sounds and those of Belgium — where she moved at 12 — and a love of K-pop that began in her teen years, Samba has become the only African performer in the K-pop industry.
After moving to South Korea and getting her start as a model, Samba joined the multicultural K-pop group Blackswan as its rapper, singer and dancer. Her debut solo mixtape, PWAPF (short for Psycho With A Pretty Face), is set for release Aug. 19 while the K-pop group will embark on a tour in September and is teasing a mini album.
"All I can say is look out for Blackswan. Because we have a lot of things coming up and when I say a lot I mean it," Samba tells GRAMMY.com.
Formed originally under the name RaNia 11 years ago and rebranded as Blackswan in 2020, the six-member group (whose other members are Leia, Sriya and Gabi) is the brainchild of DR Music — the agency known for forming legendary first-generation K-pop group Baby V.O.X. Blackswan's unshakable spirit and powerful dance tracks like "Tonight" and "Come Close" have garnered a considerable fanbase, known as LUMINA.
As a member of Blackswan, Samba is the company of other multicultural trailblazers like Syria (K-pop’s first Indian idol), and Leia (K-pop's first Brazilian idol). For many Black K-pop fans, Fatou’s mere existence in the industry helps them feel seen in a space where racial insensitivity and cultural appropriation can sometimes go hand and hand. Though multicultural groups like Blackswan may seem like a rarity in the K-pop landscape, this will likely change as the genre continues its westward expansion.
The stakes are currently high as Fatou revs up for the three-song mixtape, produced by Korean musician leanon. The 27-year-old chatted with GRAMMY.com about the microaggressions she faces a Black K-pop performer, her musical influences, and how she plans to leave a lasting impact on K-pop.
How has your background of growing up in two different countries influenced you musically?
In Senegal I grew up hearing a lot of Soukus, Afrobeats, and old hip-hop songs. Then when I moved to Belgium, European pop and R&B and rap is what I heard mostly. So I think growing up in Senegal, then moving to Belgium made me not so afraid of searching for other genres, or having a more broader view of the music world.
What has your experience been like so far as a Black K-pop idol? Have you ever gelt limited or experienced any forms of discrimination/microaggressions?
Well on stage I have a very bold, tough, confident look as an idol. But sometimes, when I'm off stage, people expect me to have this same aggressiveness. My other colleagues in the industry, they're allowed to be more soft, feminine and cute off stage. But people always expect me to always be tough. So I think that's some type of micro aggression. But in the past, I've discussed this idea that you shouldn't put Black people or Black women into a box. Like we don't all have to be tough, loud or aggressive. Of course on stage this is a plus, but off stage we are just normal people.
In what ways do you believe multicultural K-pop groups like Blackswan are helping to create a more inclusive image of K-pop?
With us being so multicultural, I just hope people who look like me or Syria or Gabi or Leia, have more confidence, and become more courageous about going after their dreams and not being afraid. And not really holding themselves back just because they are different or from a different cultural background.
What music genres do you hope to explore with your group and upcoming mixtape?
Well for Blackswan, I would like us to be more experimental and not just stick to one image. I want to try everything. Like more girly, cute, tough, more R&B smooth, ect.
For my mixtape PWAPF there's two different beats: one drum beats and two trap beats. The tracks on there will include "Castle Key (Roll)" and "Gucci (PWAPF)" and "Lingo (Stunna)", all of which I helped compose/write.
For future solo pieces, I would really like to try out some songs with heavy boom-bap beats; I love boom-bap. Also I would like to try out Afrobeats, of course, along with more R&B.
What can we expect from Blackswan’s comeback?
You can expect a very tough, confident and very performance-heavy stage song. We will also be leaving to tour in Belgium this year as well as in Japan.
You started off modeling first in South Korea, so what made you receptive to joining Blackswan when you were offered the chance?
What people might not know is that, since I was young,music has always been my passion. Even my family friends were like, "Fatou, if you don't end up playing music. I don't think you can do anything else."
When I was 14 I was introduced to K-pop bands like Shinee through my friends, and from then have dreamed of doing what I'm doing now. So actually, I got lucky that I was able to model first and have experience being in front of the camera. Once I got this huge chance to actually [pursue music], I didn't even think about it, because it was my original dream anyways.
How has been navigating past Korean beauty standards in the industry alongside the ones that are placed on Black women by our communities?
To be completely honest with you, I've never paid any attention to beauty standards. Because I've always been confident in the way I look. The thing is, beauty standards always change; like next week something else might be in trend or or considered prettier. So I feel like we should just not pay attention to them at all.
Wear what you want to wear, put on the makeup you want to put, or whatever makes you feel the most confident and pretty. Just don't worry about them because you can never measure up to them 100 percent.
What's been the most rewarding experience about being like a K-pop singer?
So far, it's when I see Black girls under my comments saying things like "Because of you I've gained the confidence to go after my dream" and "Thank you so much for helping me out, thank you so much for working so hard." I'm like wow, you're thanking me but I should be thanking you for supporting me. It's a different type of happiness. It gives me goosebumps.
How are your parents and family feeling about your success and everything that you're doing?
My mom actually cried. She was like, "Oh, now you're not only my Fatou now, I have to share you with all of your supporters." But she was very proud and very happy for me. And my two little brothers also were like, "Well, yeah, we kinda expected you to go in that direction," so they are also very proud and happy for me.
What are some other career goals you have besides modeling and singing?
In future I would love to try acting or like emceeing for music shows.
What type of lasting impact do you hope to have on K-pop?
I just hope that me doing this right now gives the next generation the confidence to follow their dreams. Also to speak their mind, because [as an idol] we have to be very careful about what we say. You have to think, like, 100 times, but …we're not reboots, so speak your mind and be confident of where you stand and stand up for yourself.
Photo: Brandon Bowen
Demi Lovato's Road To 'Holy Fvck': How Sex, Sobriety And Rock & Roll Fueled The Singer's Most Authentic Album Yet
With her eighth studio set, Demi Lovato lays her pop persona to rest in favor of a rock-star resurrection.
In January, Demi Lovato held an impromptu funeral for her pop music. After wiping her Instagram feed clean, the singer posted a single photo: A solemn Lovato serving up two middle fingers, surrounded by her team all dressed in black, the wall behind them adorned with relics of her past musical eras.
What fans didn't know at the time was that the makeshift memorial marked the start of a new chapter for the two-time GRAMMY nominee, slyly laying the groundwork for her eighth studio album HOLY FVCK. The singer — who recently re-adopted the use of feminine pronouns in addition to the nonbinary 'they/them' — would officially announce the full-length in June, after months of teasing lyrics alongside sultry Instagram photos showing off her newly-shorn brunette buzzcut.
If the album's cleverly misspelled title and sacrilegious cover art are any indication, Lovato seems primed to embrace a new level of sexuality and subversion heretofore unexplored. "I wanted to flip the phrase 'holy f–k' on its head. And instead of just saying 'holy f–k,' I wanted to write a song that says, 'I'm a holy f–k," she revealed in a July interview with SiriusXM Hits 1, calling the NSFW title track "definitely a sexually charged song, but it's really fun."
Arriving August 19 via Island Records, HOLY FVCK promises to decisively — and fittingly — set fire to the pop-star persona Lovato has so carefully crafted for the past 11 years. This time around, Lovato dives headfirst into the emo-influenced rock that inspired her 2008 debut Don't Forget and its 2009 follow-up Here We Go Again.
"I went into this album with the intention of separating myself from the music that I've been doing and embarking on a new journey that was grounded in the roots of where my music started," she told Billboard in June. "If you go back into my older catalog — listen to my first album, my second album — [there's] definitely the pop-rock influence."
More than merely influential, the combination of electric guitars and bright, pop-oriented melodies was actually the bedrock of Lovato's brand when she first catapulted to stardom in Camp Rock, the 2008 Disney Channel Original Movie she headlined opposite the Jonas Brothers. Thanks to the star-making power of the Disney machine, her debut album arrived three months later — putting her pop-rock princess identity on full display with effervescent tracks like lead single "Get Back," sassy Hollywood takedown "La La Land" and fan-favorite emo anthem "Don't Forget."
Roles on Sonny with a Chance — her very own Disney show — and 2009's Princess Protection Program with then-bestie Selena Gomez soon followed. But it was always Lovato's magnetic voice and image as the network's resident rocker girl that helped her stand out amid a crowded Disney Channel class that included Miley Cyrus, Gomez, the JoBros, Cole and Dylan Sprouse, Emily Osment, Debby Ryan, and more.
"I'm the new kid, and that's how I kind of felt when I came into the whole Selena-Miley-Jonas Brothers thing," the then-rising star admitted in a 2009 profile for The New York Times when she was just 16. "Like, O.K., where do I come in? How am I different?"
Of course, Lovato's musical journey from fresh-faced Disney Channel starlet to re-christened rocker is inextricably tied to the life-or-death demons she's faced in the glare of the spotlight. Over the years, she's battled addiction to drugs and alcohol, grappled very publicly with an eating disorder and mental health struggles, and opened up about her painful history of both sexual and familial trauma.
The first time the star entered in-patient treatment was in 2010 after making headlines for punching a back-up dancer in the face on the Camp Rock 2 tour. Though she admitted years later that she began using cocaine at age 17, any mention of drugs and alcohol was kept decidedly vague as Lovato made the requisite press rounds post-rehab.
In September 2011 — eight months after leaving treatment — Lovato was kicking off another album cycle for her third studio set, Unbroken, which found her abandoning the pop-rock of her first two records for a sprawling sonic palette rooted in early 2010s R&B, with tinges of electro-pop and soul balladry.
She channeled the angst and trauma of the preceding year into the album's soaring lead single "Skyscraper," which became her first solo Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. But though she projected a narrative of sobriety to her army of Lovatics, the 18-year-old quickly relapsed and fell back into dangerous old patterns. "I wasn't working my program," she recounted in her 2017 documentary Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated. "I wasn't ready to get sober…I was either craving drugs or on drugs."
The rest of the singer's beleaguered history with addiction is well-documented at this point — even if, sometimes, the truth about her drug and alcohol abuse has revealed itself much later. In the same documentary, she came clean about the fact that she'd filmed her 2012 MTV doc Demi Lovato: Stay Strong under the influence of cocaine, all while espousing the virtues of her newly sober lifestyle. Soon enough, an intervention by her management team prompted a drastic course correction, and at 19, Lovato began her first real year of sobriety.
The following year, she leaned even harder into the pop-centric sound she'd started exploring with Unbroken on her fourth album, Demi. As its eponymous title suggests, the 2013 effort was meant to be more personal than its predecessor, which meant paring down the number of guest features and collaborators to deliver electro-leaning power pop (lead single "Heart Attack"), middle-of-the-road country-pop ("Made in the U.S.A.) and club-ready dance tracks ("Neon Lights").
By 2015, Lovato had fully established herself as an unequivocal pop star with the release of her fifth studio set, Confident. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — her highest chart entry since Here We Go Again reigned atop the list in July 2009 — and earned the singer her very first GRAMMY nomination, for Best Pop Vocal Album.
In retrospect, though, Lovato confessed that the bold, seductive persona she was projecting at the time on singles like "Cool for the Summer" and the Max Martin-produced title track — as well as the album's very title itself — was nothing more than a facade.
"I wasn't confident at all. I had a false confidence because I was conforming to everybody else's ideals," she admitted to Glamour for the outlet's April 2021 cover story. "I was trying on different identities that felt authentic to me but weren't me. The super-feminine pop star was an identity that sounded like it fit and looked like it fit, so I put it on like it fit."
According to her 2021 docu-series Dancing with the Devil, no one in Lovato's inner circle knew when she had secretly relapsed in early 2018 while promoting her sixth album Tell Me You Love Me. Six months later, she was fighting for her life in the intensive care unit of L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center having overdosed on a lethal combination of opioids laced with fentanyl.
Lovato's near-fatal ordeal and subsequent recovery hung heavily over the proceedings of her seventh studio set, 2021's Dancing with the Devil… the Art of Starting Over. Standalone single "Sober" — a heart-wrenching confessional ballad she released just one month prior to the overdose — served as a chilling cry for help before the LP's arrival, and album tracks like "ICU (Madison's Lullabye)" and "Dancing with the Devil" reopened the proverbial wound and forced fans not to look away.
However, cut to a year later and, for the moment, Lovato seems to have grown past the impulse to sit in that same trauma. "Demi leaves rehab again/ When is this s–t gonna end?" she snarls in the opening line of HOLY FVCK's lead single, "SKIN OF MY TEETH." But rather than kick off a shame spiral, the world-weary declaration morphs into a hard-charging anthem of survival that's equal parts rebellious and resolute — indicating that she's celebrating a new lease on life.
Second single "SUBSTANCE" similarly serves as a winking double entendre, flipping the script on what listeners may assume for a more high-minded quest: Lovato gleefully wails, "So I ask myself/ 'Am I the only one looking for substance?'/ Got high, it only left me lonely and loveless/ Don't wanna end up in a casket, head full of maggots/ Body full of jack s–t, I get an abundance/ Am I the only one looking for substance?"
That's not to say HOLY FVCK traffics solely in themes of survival and addiction. Ahead of the album's full unveiling, the singer premiered a number of tracks live with a hard-charging performance at the Illinois State Fair.
Whether tearing through a sexual tour of Los Angeles ("CITY OF ANGELS"), inviting fans into her rock 'n' roll circus ("FREAK") or demanding they place her status as a role model firmly on the funeral pyre ("EAT ME"), Lovato howled like a banshee unleashed — finally letting loose the rocker girl she's seemingly kept locked inside for the past 13 years. It seems the last f-word she had to give was the one she put in her album title.
Take, for example, "29," a scorched-earth indictment of her six-year relationship with actor Wilmer Valderrama, which she now examines — as the title suggests — from the same age her ex was when their romance began.
"Finally 29/ Funny, just like you were at the time/ Thought it was a teenage dream, just a fantasy/ But was it yours or was it mine?" she questions on the chorus. The stark turnabout is certainly a shock, considering the singer referred to Valderrama in the 2017 documentary as "my everything." But the song's damning lyrics explicitly reveal that she's gained a new, clear-eyed perspective — a theme that rings true across many of HOLY FVCK's 16 songs.
While the album proves to be a major sonic shift, HOLY FVCK ultimately seems to serve two major purposes for Lovato: to represent the truest version of herself as an artist, and honor just how far she's come on her journey.
"I've definitely been through a ton," she told Jimmy Fallon during a June visit to "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." "That's no secret to the world… I came out of treatment [last year], and I realized I really want to do this for myself and I want to make the best album possible — something that really represents who I am.
"I think the best way to do that — the easiest way to do something, the most authentic — is to do it clean and sober," she continued. "So I made this album clean and sober. I can't say that about my last album. But this one I'm really, really proud about."
Photo: Davide Belotti
Global Spin: Avalanche Kaito Deliver A Magnetic Performance Of "Toulele" On A Stage Constructed From A Playground
Avalanche Kaito — whose music combines West African griot storytelling with scuzzy noise punk — offer a live performance that's just as imaginative and unexpected as the trio's musical foundation in this rendition of "Toulele."
Two vastly different musical styles and cultural worlds collide in Avalanche Kaito, a trio led by West African griot and multi-instrumentalist Kaito Winse.
Hailing from Lankoué — a village in the northern region of West African country Burkina Faso — Winse is a modern-day griot, carrying forward his country's tradition of oral storytelling through music. Winse is now based in Brussels, Belgium, and Avalanche Kaito was formed after he met two Brussels-based musicians: guitarist Nico Gritto and drummer/electronic musician Benjamin Chavel.
In this episode of Global Spin, the three artists deliver a colorful performance of their song "Toulele," embodying their cross-cultural and far-reaching musical stylings. At the heart of the music is the juxtaposition between an ancestral musical storytelling style and futuristic sonic instrumentation.
The group assembles inside a large, warehouse-style building for their performance, using an elaborately-constructed wooden playground as their stage. Each of the three performers gets a turn in the spotlight, with Winse's vocals giving way to scuzzy, electronic instrumental solos.
In other moments of the trio's 12-minute performance, Gritto and Chavel take a break from their instruments, allowing Winse a brief a capella moment. Here, it's easy to imagine the traditions that inspired his musical style, and to contemplate the griot sounds that span backwards through generations and continue to hold a prominent place in West African culture today.
"Toulele" is one of eight tracks on Avalanche Kaito's self-titled album, which arrived in June 2022. Listen to the album here, watch the group's full performance above, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Global Spin.
Photo: Poppy Thomas Hill/Flickr
The Evolution of Video Game Music: From 8-Bit To The Metaverse And The GRAMMYs
Recognizing the impact of video game music, the Recording Academy created a new GRAMMY Award category: Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media. Industry experts discuss what's next for the billion dollar video game music market.
From the introduction of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985, video games have proliferated global markets — from massive, online interactive worlds to free smartphone apps. Like music, video games have become an integral part of daily lives, while sound and music are an increasingly important aspect of gaming.
According to a Deloitte survey, 83 percent of Millennials and 87 percent of Gen Zers play some format of video games at least once a week. Fifty-eight percent of adult gamers and 70 percent of teen gamers stated that video games help them to stay connected with their friends, make connections, and express themselves. As such, the music within video games are a vital part of the experience and identity of a game.
"Music and games have always been intertwined in my mind," says Tayler Backman, Sound Designer and Composer at Hyper Hippo. "Whenever I hear a theme from 'Super Mario 64,' I’m immediately brought back to my childhood and some of my favorite memories playing the game with friends."
Music helps weave the tapestry that heightens a gaming experience through "emotion, immersion, and story," adds sound designer and composer David Fairfield. Games can also inspire; long-time gamer Jon Batiste told the Washington Post that he has been influenced by video game music since childhood.
Video games have given a broader platform to established artists and working musicians as well. Consider the connection between "Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater" and punk and ska music — the 1999 game introduced those genres to hundreds of thousands of new, young listeners — or the way the "Crazy Taxi" soundtrack featured Bad Religion and the Offspring. System Of A Down's Serj Tankian contributed to the soundtrack for "Metal Hellsinger" while jazz has been used in a variety of games.
The connection between video games and music has evolved into a massive market that's projected to exceed $200 billion globally this year. Recognizing its significant cultural impact, the Recording Academy has even created a new category: Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media.
Music will continue to evolve, but its fundamentals and importance will not. "In the beginning, video games reflected global culture. Over the next generation, video games began to influence culture," says Steve Schnur, Worldwide Executive & President of Music at video game company Electronic Arts. "Today, video games have become culture. And their principal cultural driver will always be music."
The Past: Getting Into The Groove
From its inception, video games have maintained a complementary relationship with music. Yet the way music is used in video games has evolved substantially over the last 40 years (and its genesis can be traced back to the 50s before the first video game even existed).
Early '80s gaming platforms like the 8-bit Commadore 64 home computer could only produce three notes; while the NES was a vast improvement, its musical output was still highly limited. Back then, a developer couldn’t make music and sound effects play simultaneously. This climate required composer-developers to exercise the full breadth of their creativity.
"When video games first started, the composer was often a developer on the same project. It was a solo endeavor," Fairfield says. Working alone has its limits. It's understandable, then, that the sound of a game would take a backseat to its functionality.
Still, the music and sounds from these older games are classics, and have had an undeniable influence on modern music, from EDM to synthwave. Today, game studios have entire departments dedicated to music and sound effects.
"We are now entering a time when technology enables greater collaboration and community. We inspire, push, challenge, and encourage each other to greater levels," Fairfield continues. "Game studios that recognize the value in creative collaboration will find better ways to enable it, and reap the rewards."
The Present: Getting Into The Game
Video game music has several formats and pushes music forward in various ways. "It can be defined as the music composed natively for specific games or artists that activate/integrate themselves into existing games," notes Mark Rasoul, founder of MARK THE FUTURE and former VP of Marketing for 100 Thieves, a brand and gaming organization. "Ultimately, it’s important to understand the benefits from three different groups — the game publisher/studio, the musician/artist, and the actual gamers themselves, each of which has different POVs, needs and opportunities."
The way composers and artists find their way into video game music is somewhat similar to the traditional music industry. Both require putting in the work to develop your talent, find your voice, and get your work out there. But the video game industry also requires a level of technical know-how, as well as knowledge about how sounds work in a digital or virtual platform. These particulars have left the music industry attempting to navigate a new landscape.
"Video games have been making waves with new revenue streams for some time," says Uziel Colón, the former Senior Project Manager, Latin & Music For Visual Media at the Recording Academy, who played a role in the development of the new GRAMMY category. "There are lots of platforms through which people are monetizing video games, and the Metaverse brings even more new revenue streams. In the future, video games and music will merge — it’s already happening."
As the music world catches up to gaming, be prepared to see fascinating innovations — not just in how music is distributed and marketed, but how it is created and how it interacts with fans.
That said, some aspects of the music composition side of things will remain the same. It’s important for artists to follow what drives them, not be driven by what to follow. "I think the best way to get started is to just spend as much time as you can making music that means something to you and that you're proud of. How things sound sonically really matters in such a competitive field," advises composer Jonas Friedman, who has created music for video games such as "Splinterlands" and "Halo: The Fall Of Reach," as well as numerous films.
The best way into the industry is preparation; Fairfield suggests 10,000 hours of learning is a good target. "That's around 5 years of full-time employment, or 10 years of part-time evenings and weekends. I started earning my hours in middle school with my first [Digital Audio Workstation]," he notes. "Create, fail, learn, fix, and repeat. GET YOUR REPS IN. From there, it was evenings and weekends, side-projects, and tours."
Any evolving and competitive market requires time and knowledge. It’s also important to know the gaming landscape, as well as its various fanbases, because this is also your fanbase.
The Present: Global Access
Gaming has a monumental global platform, offering the music within games an international recognizability that may otherwise take years or decades to cultivate. According to Deloitte, 34 percent of Gen Z gamers look up the music they hear in games to buy or stream; nearly a quarter share music recommendations with fellow gamers.
"Video games are bigger than the film and music industries combined," says Schnur. "And I believe one of the main reasons is that gaming has never feared technology. We’ve embraced technology from the very beginning, and often evolved it. Video games are an entertainment medium that always shifts towards the consumer. That’s why the future of this industry is driven solely by players’ imagination."
With constant enhancements in technology, access to music and the ability to create it will also increase. Fairfield believes that the decade-plus trend of proliferant music-making tech will only continue.
"This will bring in a new pool of talented creators into our industry….The downside of this accessibility is that it will flood the industry with mid to low quality content, and potentially drive prices down due to supply and demand (we've seen this with Spotify)," he says. "It means that game studios will have a lot of unique talent available to them — when they learn how to parse through the noise — which will lead to some really amazing innovation."
The Future: AI And Evolution
Gaming is ingrained in Gen Z's culture and its earnings are projected to be over $260 billion by 2025, notes Rasoul. There are over 2.7 billion current casual gamers worldwide — over a third of the world’s total population. Consider that number for a second: video games are a nearly unparalleled musical platform; it's like hitting a Konami code to access.
As video game music continues to evolve, there will be a whole host of new opportunities. These opportunities have yet to be fully capitalized on in the music industry, but the turn has already begun.
"I think it will be a continuation of what we’re seeing now with more opportunities for game soundtracks and composers to be recognized and reach new audiences," echoes Friedman, adding his enthusiasm for the new GRAMMY category. "That sort of acknowledgement for the artists behind the music, and respect for the industry as a whole, I think will become more commonplace."
Some even believe that musicians will soon prefer placing songs in a video game over films and television.
"Movies are much more fleeting and moments in time. Video games, behaviorally, bring people back, over and over to play," Rasoul says, positing that the nature of video games makes them a more dynamic and evergreen platform. "Games update over time, which gives the artist more opportunities to re-engage their music and audience." With the metaverse peeking its head into the conversation, this interaction has the potential to become even more lively, organic, and customizable.
In the future, Rasoul strongly believes musicians will inform gaming. "Artists will simply produce their own game experiences to communicate their music stories, versus needing a partnership with an existing title. Development resources are more abundant than ever, and creating their own franchises can produce long term fan engagement."
Backman, the composer, agrees, suggesting that mainstream artists may release an album within a video game, or curate a radio station within the game's universe (like Flying Lotus and others did in "Grand Theft Auto"). "We just saw Dr. Dre in their last [downloadable content]; your mission involves helping him get his stolen phone back, but you also see him and Anderson .Paak record a song together. I think we’re only going to see more and more of this type of merging of video game music and mainstream artists."
"I also hope this means the more ‘mainstream’ composers — Hans Zimmer, Phillip Glass, Trent Reznor, etc. — will start creating themes for games as well," continues Backman. "The work that’s happening in game themes and music is already incredible, but I think our part of the craft of game making might gain a little more notice and prestige if we have an Oscar winner composing the theme to the next 'Uncharted' game."
Video games create new worlds — some familiar, some fantastical — but they all have music. The future of video game music is full of endless possibilities, with the chance to tell new stories in different ways, to have music interact with fans on a completely new level, and with unprecedented levels of global access.
Photo: Jay Sansone
Anaïs Mitchell On Newport Folk 2022, The Power Of Musicals & Her Eternal Bond In Bonny Light Horseman
Anaïs Mitchell released her first self-titled album two decades into her career — which speaks not only to the vulnerability therein, but her consolidative attempt to make songs with staying power.
Songwriters have likened their craft to every medium under the sun; for Anaïs Mitchell's purposes, photography will do.
When trying to capture a feeling, she tries to find a shot neither too wide nor too narrow — that "gauzy, beautiful, poetic space where there's imagery that speaks." That last word — "speaks" — reminds her of a slightly jarring story.
As the GRAMMY winner recalls backstage at Newport Folk 2022, she once met the Canadian songwriter Ferron. "She said, 'You have to understand that if you say an image, if you say a word, you summon a spirit. If you say the word 'door,' you summon the spirit of a door,'" Mitchell recalls.
As Ferron elaborated, this meant Mitchell must choose her words meticulously — so as to not agitate the spiritual plane.
"I loved that, because I think that is true," Mitchell continues. "There's something about imagery — it speaks to us that isn't always through the conscious mind. It speaks to your body and your memory and your senses." And while Mitchell has been making records for 20 years, this partly explains why she chose to make her first self-titled album — it spoke that it was to be.
In this interview backstage at Newport Folk 2022, learn about Mitchell's latest creative moves, her ineluctable bond with her bandmates in Bonny Light Horseman, and what musicals and parenting teach her about the ineffable art of songcraft.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What's been your relationship with Newport Folk over the years?
I definitely heard about Newport when I was coming up, even as a historical event — the Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger stuff. It's this legendary kind of place. I started to come to Newport several years ago; I think the very first time, I came in, played my set and then rolled out.
I've come back a few times — for my own music, and also with my band, Bonny Light Horseman. I've come to really appreciate how it can be if you hang out the whole weekend. How many folks you meet, and also, the level of collaboration that happens. It feels less like a festival and more like an artist residency.
Tell the readers about your bond with everyone in Bonny Light Horseman. I'm sure it's very familial.
So, the trio of Bonny Light Horseman [includes] Josh Kaufman and Eric D. Johnson. I met Josh when I was living in Brooklyn, and he was also living there. We started to mess around with these old kinds of British Isles folk songs.
He said, "Hey, you know who would be great for this music is my friend Eric!" And I'd just discovered Eric's band, Fruit Bats, and really flipped out for it. So, I was like, "Sounds great!" We got together and it felt very intuitive to make music with those guys.
Since then, I made a solo record this past year with Josh and a couple of guys who have often played with Bonny Light Horseman — JT Bates on drums and Mike Lewis on sax and bass. It does feel like the Bonny Light world has spilled into my own music-making and recording world, and I'm so grateful for it.
I'm sure it feels like you're not working a day in your life with those guys.
[Laughs.] They're fun. They're funny. We have a good time. It feels easy, and that's funny for me. A lot of the time I think things need to be hard. I worked on this musical, and it took a decade of my life. I was like, "I'm going to work on this thing every day for however long…"
It's like the harder you're laboring over something, the better the end result will be.
Right? It isn't always the case! Sometimes it is; sometimes it's not. And then, I think, meeting those guys and falling in love with playing music with them reminded me how it can feel easy and also be good.
You've talked about how you "want your songs to walk on their own legs." What are your techniques to write a song that can exist apart from you and widely apply to others?
You know, I did this Pete Seeger tribute the very first night of this festival, and I sang a song I had learned as a kid, growing up. Someone had taught it to me and sang it to me. I never knew that Pete Seeger had written it; I never heard a recording of him doing it. I love that type of folk song; it makes its own way through the world.
For me, it's all about finding this sweet spot between what feels intensely personal and true — that you can stand in your shoes and sing — and then also what feels archetypal. Like you're tapping into something older and younger, you know? Something that could have been sung a hundred years ago, and could be sung a hundred years from now.
That's what thrills me the most when I'm writing — that I can be in the center of that Venn diagram.
I've noticed that songs tend to begin a little more generally, and then you fill in the details as it rolls on. Is that a conscious form of architecture for you?
I could talk about songwriting for, like, hours [Laughs]. But it's like a camera lens, right? You get the wide scope, and then the specifics — and then, sometimes, you turn the lens a little too far and it's a little too specific, and you have to pull back.
There's somewhere in the middle where it's kind of this gauzy, beautiful, poetic space where there's imagery that speaks — because images speak to us. Anything you say, you know?
Do you ever write a song and then stop yourself? Like, "This spirit I'm summoning isn't appropriate for right now! It's too raw and prickly!"
I mean, I like raw! This record I made recently is interesting, because it's a self-titled record. It's the first record I've made where all the songs actually are me — the speaker in the songs is me, and the songs are actually from my own life. I'm not taking on the voice or story of another character.
Did you have a propensity for that in the past?
I have, yeah! Obviously, working on that musical for years and years — that was a grand experiment in that type of stuff. And I love that stuff also, but there was something about this record that felt like: How honest can I f—ing be? That was the job; that was the task.
That's not easy.
Yeah. To put my heart all the way on the sleeve and be OK with it. There are a few songs that took a really long time to figure out how to write, and I think I had to figure out what was true.
Who are your go-tos, as far as confessional singer/songwriters? Joni Mitchell is often the first artist that people grab for, but there are obviously so many.
Well, Joni for sure was a huge influence early on. And then when I came of age musically, when I was in high school, it was the time of Lilith Fair in the '90s. Ani DiFranco was huge [for me], and I was on her record label for years. Tori Amos, you know.
All those women — it's almost embarrassing how emotional that stuff is, but I really responded to it as a kid. I wanted to emote and express like that. People come to music for different things. Some people will come to it…
To get drunk?
[Laughs] They want to get drunk! They want to dance! And music can help you do that. And some music is to help you cry, you know? That's a thing music can do, and sometimes, I think that's part of my job as a songwriter.
Were you particularly in touch with your emotions as a kid?
For the times that I was growing up, my parents were very OK with emotions. I have two kids of my own — a 9-year-old and a 2-year-old. The popular understanding nowadays is: "See the emotion and validate it!" When I was a kid, it was less like that. It was kind of like, "Get your s— together, come back to the table and we can talk."
I think it's a popular therapeutic tool to just acknowledge and observe the emotion rather than immediately assign it meaning.
That's lifelong work right there, to be able to be OK with that.
I love that you made a self-titled record, by the way. That's a classic choice.
You know, I always wanted to do it! Usually, you do it with your debut record, and I'm now 41. I thought it was funny to do it at this point in my career, but it really did feel like, first, a return to songwriting after a long time in the theater world. And second, it was so personal and heart-on-sleeve, like I was saying.
What notes did you give Josh as a producer? I'm sure you wanted the record to leap out in a certain way. A certain bodily impact, regardless of the contents.
You know, I hadn't made a new record in a long time — especially of new songs — because I was working on Hadestown, my musical. When the songs started to flow again for me, I didn't want to look too hard at them. I didn't want to overthink them.
I remember feeling that way about the record: I need to make this thing right now. I didn't want to get in my head about what kind of record it was; I just wanted to lay it down.
So, for Josh, maybe a guiding light was wanting to keep the focus on the lyrics and the singing, because they are very wordy. That's just what my DNA is, I guess. A lot of storytell-y kind of stuff. I think he tried to create a space where that story could shine.
An atmosphere that's conducive to the feeling.
Yeah. A buoyant kind of warmth around the vocal that doesn't necessarily compete with the vocal. What I hear in the record is that it sounds very live to me, which was how it was recorded — just us in a room.
That nice, organic bleed between the musicians.
Totally! I love mic bleed! You want it to be stewing together.
As a parent, is it a trip to hear music through your kids' ears?
It's fresh to hear what my 9-year-old is into. She's into some pop music that's caught on with kids, like Imagine Dragons and stuff like that, which I wouldn't necessarily be exposed to otherwise. It's like: These guys know how to write a song.
You can appreciate the craft. It's not like it's being piped into CVS, washing over your brain.
Absolutely. And it's fun to try to turn her on to cool stuff. She's into musicals, which I love, because I've been listening to my favorite musicals nonstop. I just have a crazy amount of admiration for that craft.
I've gotten into them just from being a jazz fan. Like, "That Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is pretty. What's that from?"
What a match made in heaven, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Speaking of trying to craft a song that can walk through the world on its own legs: It used to be that the way a song got out there in the world was through a musical. That's what the musical theater was for — debuting these classic songs.
So, they were necessarily songs that could work in the musical, but they were repurposable. You could sing them at a wedding or a funeral and they would work.
What are your favorite musicals?
My all-time favorite is "Les Miz." I'll never get over that musical, and I've seen it a ton of times. It's so emotional for me, and epic, and political…
What's the best tune? I'll check it out later.
"On My Own" is a classic one. I love a lot of them — "Lovely Ladies," "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." I love Sweeney Todd by [Stephen] Sondheim.
I know, right? I got tickets for my 9-year-old and I to see 'Into the Woods," which is in revival on Broadway right now. I'm very excited. But I tend to love sung-through musicals where there's not a book scene and then a song — where it's all sung. I love the trance you can get into with that type of show.