Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
9 Amazing Elvis Covers, From Frank Sinatra To Kacey Musgraves
Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis' hits theaters June 24 with a star-studded soundtrack. In honor of the King and his new film, GRAMMY.com shares nine Elvis covers — because imitation is the highest form of flattery, thank you very much.
The legend of Elvis Presley still reverberates to this day, thanks to his knack for both boundary-pushing and genre hopping, as well as a unique style — all of which is embodied by his now-legendary discography.
It’s a legacy that’s currently exploding on the big screen thanks to musical-movie mastermind Baz Luhrmann. The simply titled Elvis, which arrived June 24, sees Austin Butler portraying the King of Rock and Roll and some of music's biggest names coming together for a star-studded soundtrack. Among some originals from the likes of Eminem and Doja Cat, much of the soundtrack consists of a series of Elvis covers from newcomers (Shonka Dukureh) and established stars (Kacey Musgraves).
But imitating the King is nothing new. From pop acts to blues artists, rockers to opera singers, generations of disparate artists have put their own distinct spins on Elvis classics.
These are some of the most memorable Elvis covers to date — including a few new additions, thanks to the film's soundtrack.
"Can’t Help Falling in Love"- Kacey Musgraves
One of the newest — and brightest — additions to the canon of classic Elvis covers comes Kacey Musgraves' heart-rending version of Presley’s 1961 standard "Can’t Help Falling in Love." While other artists have interpreted the song in fluffier ways (see: UB40’s reggae version), Musgraves lets the words shine in this acoustic version sung in the vein of her previous hit "Rainbow."
With a melody based on a three hundred year-old French love song ("Plaisir d'amour"), the tender track was originally recorded for Elvis’s film Blue Hawaii and is one of the most romantic songs in the singer’s repertoire — despite having a discography full of them. With lyrics that drip with passion, along with a nod to a previous Elvis hit "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)." Musgraves rendition of "Can’t Help Falling in Love" serves as a poignant moment for the GRAMMY-winning star, a self-proclaimed longtime Elvis fan.
"In the Ghetto"- Dolly Parton
As Elvis grew older, his songs went from the rollicking and simple cuts of the '50s to tracks with deeper meaning, including this heavy story song "In the Ghetto." Chronicling the life of a doomed young man and the effect on his hapless mother, the song is one of Elvis’ more somber cuts and one Dolly Parton makes all her own. While it's musically similar to Presley’s version (right down to the repeating guitar hook), Parton’s voice and vibrato add an even deeper layer of sadness to its lyrics while a drumbeat foreshadows a mournful ending.
For Parton, her "In the Ghetto" cover was the closest she’d get to Elvis. "I was going to meet him for the first time when he was coming to the studio to sing ‘I Will Always Love You,’ which didn't work out, as you know, because Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, wanted half the publishing," Parton said in an interview earlier this year. "I was gonna meet him and I'm sorry, I didn't get to meet him."
"Don’t Be Cruel"- Cheap Trick
How did an ‘80s pop-rock band manage to pull off a cover of a 50s-era Elvis classic — somehow retaining its flair while also making it their own? A seemingly impossible task, Cheap Trick did just that with their 1988 spin on "Don’t Be Cruel," complete with the era’s signature electronic drum sound and a vocal flair from frontman Robin Zander.
Written by the R&B and country singer/songwriter Otis Blackwell — who first broke out at Amauetr Night at the Apollo before writing "All Shook Up," "Return to Sender" and "Don’t Be Cruel" for Elvis, as well as "Great Balls of Fire" for Jerry Lee Lewis — the song marked the first track Elvis’ publishers brought him to record. The track no doubt inspired Zander, who once said that Elvis was one of the artists who made the biggest impact on his approach to singing and phrasing
"Are You Lonesome Tonight?"- Frank Sinatra
The Chairman of the Board and the King had an interesting relationship, which started with Sinatra’s pure hate of Elvis before they formed a friendship. One of the most formidable music stars in America in the 1950s, Sinatra knew that when Elvis shook his hips on "The Ed Sullivan Show" that his own brand of music, standards and swing, was suddenly old news.
"[Rock and roll] manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth," Sinatra mused in an interview in the ‘50s. "His kind of music is deplorable. It fosters almost universally negative and destructive directions in young people."
Nevertheless, by 1960, Sinatra realized he better align himself with the King to stay relevant — and later that year, the pair starred in a blockbuster TV special together. By 1962, the crooner recorded this smooth cover version of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", which allowed Sinatra to maintain his signature jazzy sound despite his earlier hatred of Elvis' aesthetic — demonstrating that maybe the pair weren't that different all along.
"I Got a Feelin’ in My Body"- Lenesha Randolph
Later on in Presley’s life, the King became deeply religious and as a result began recording a slew of spiritual and gospel songs from "How Great Thou Art" to "Amazing Grace." In 1973, he combined biblical lyrics with a disco sound in the form of "I Got a Feelin’ in My Body," which GRAMMY nominee Lenesha Randolph, recreated in the form of her cover of the track for the Elvis movie’s soundtrack.
Randolph, who plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the film, is supported by a powerful and seemingly massive choir on the track, with the whole affair transporting the listener into a Sunday service like no other.
"Viva Las Vegas"- Bruce Springsteen
The 1992 Nicolas Cage comedy Honeymoon in Vegas appropriately has a soundtrack populated with a bevy of Elvis covers by a disparate list of artists, from Billy Joel to Trisha Yearwood. However, one track that stands above the rest is Bruce Springsteen’s wild spin on "Viva Las Vegas," the otherwise corny Elvis song that the King released in 1964.
Springsteen plays up the song’s liveliness with a frenetic energy that could easily soundtrack a rowdy game of craps. Just like Presley did in his own career, The Boss deftly melds a country flavor to a rockin’ track. Top it off with his distinctive vocals and you have a worthy addition to both artist's stacked legacies.
"Love Me"- The Little Willies
Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller were the iconic songwriting duo behind a bevy of Elvis’s early rockin’ hits including "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock." In addition to the upbeat tracks they were known to concoct, the two also had a tender side.
Case in point: "Love Me," a sweetly sacrine song that the Norah Jones-fronted group The Little Willies covered for their 2011 self-titled debut album. Their version puts a twangy spin on the ode which, oddly enough, was originally penned as a farce.
"To be honest, when we first wrote ‘Love Me,’ we were thinking of it as sort of a take off," explained Stoller in a 2020 interview, who cited the satirical country duo Homer & Jethro as an inspiration. "It's got all these masochistic lyrics: 'Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel but love me.' It could have been a joke, but Elvis' performance makes it genuinely touching." Alas, so does Norah’s.
"Baby, Let’s Play House"- Austin Butler
Actor Austin Butler is accumulating an avalanche of rave reviews thanks to his stunning performance of Presley — and after listening to his covers of the King, including early cut "Let’s Play House," it’s easy to understand why. Butler made it a point to sing every song himself, a brave move that ultimately paid off thanks to his impressive vocal mimicry. Even Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie was taken aback, tweeting "Austin Butler channeled and embodied my father’s heart & soul beautifully."
It was a meticulous process, the actor said in a recent interview. "I’d hear him say a certain word and I would clip just that bit out so I knew how he said that word," he recalled. "I created my own archive of how he said every word and every diphthong, and the way that he used musicality in his voice."
"Jailhouse Rock"- The Blues Brothers
Let’s face it: the original "Jailhouse Rock" is a pretty kitschy track, from its hokey intro (who goes to a party at the county jail, anyway?) and right on through its cries of "Let’s rock!" But when one of the most successful satirical bands of all time fittingly put their spin on it, magic happened.
Released in the midst of the disco-70s, Dan Akryod and John Belushi formed the Blues Brothers as a Saturday Night Live sketch. It later became a smash move that featured the two (spoiler alert!) hauled off to jail. Antics, and this fun cover, ensue.
Photo: John Springer Collection / Getty Images
5 Ways Elvis Presley Forever Changed The Music Industry, From Vegas Residencies To Cultural Fusion
The music industry would be unrecognizable without Elvis Presley. Along with Colonel Tom Parker, the 20th-century innovator activated divergent spaces, helped architect the modern-day Las Vegas residency and so much more.
Is it possible to undersell someone by calling them "the King"? It might be when you're talking about Elvis Presley.
Despite rising from nothing to become one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century — and posthumously weathering periods of wrongheaded associations, from "fat Elvis" to rumors of racism — Presley didn't emerge simply as a monarch, or an icon baked into culture and taken for granted. These days, it's more edifying to consider him as an innovator.
That's how Panos A. Panay, the co-president of the Recording Academy, views the three-time GRAMMY winner and 14-time nominee. Instead of regarding Presley as a figurehead reigning over rock's development, Panay calls him "a multi-faceted superstar" who, along with his savvy yet misunderstood manager, Colonel Tom Parker, drew the blueprint of the multidimensional pop titan of today.
"I think people forget that this is a kid who grew up dirt-poor in the heart of the old south," Panay, who co-authored the 2021 book Two Beats Ahead, about the intersection of business acumen and musical artistry, tells GRAMMY.com. "He fused all the different things around him — from styles to music — to create something that literally took the world by storm."
Need a reminder of how seismic Presley's impact was? Turn to the first few pages of almost any rock bio, and you'll find the artist as a young man or woman, hearing "Heartbreak Hotel" or "That's All Right" or "Jailhouse Rock" for the first time. Chances are, they described that moment in the language of natural phenomena: a meteor strike, a tsunami, a thunderclap.
Every star in his wake who repeatedly overhauled their image, staked claims in wildly various media spaces, and fused divergent cultural signifiers owes Presley a debt of gratitude — from the Beatles to Beyoncé, from Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga.
Of course, Presley wasn't the first rock star. He didn't invent the music, and he arguably walked so others (namely the Beatles, who worshipped him) could run. But the fact remains: there's never been another Presley before or since. Here are five ways he irrevocably changed the music-industry landscape.
He Helped Braid Disparate Cultural Threads
Granted, rock 'n' roll was a colorless cultural interchange years before Presley showed up.
For decades prior, musicians both Black and white — from what we might designate "country" and "R&B" and "gospel" and "rock 'n' roll" spheres, but who were really parts of the same primordial soup — perpetually inspired and influenced each other.
But nobody elevated that fusion to the world stage than Presley, and his large-scale disregarding of easy racial and sexual categorization was highly jarring to buttoned-up 1950s America.
Hip-swiveling shock value aside, what would pop music sound like without his revved-up amalgam of gospel, blues, country, and R&B? What would it look like without his tousled hair, twisted visage and skin-tight black leather?
It's anyone's guess what an Elvis-free world would be like, but it wouldn't include disciples like the Beatles, the Stones, or scores of other greats. In other words, it would be a drag beyond belief.
He Galvanized A Nascent Teenage Market
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstram, Presley could scarcely have arrived at a better time.
"A new young generation of Americans was breaking away from the habits of its parents and defining itself by its music," Halberstram wrote in his 1993 book The Fifties. And with the advent of new technology — namely the transistor radio — came a paradigm shift in authority.
"The important figures of authority were no longer mayors and selectmen or parents," the author continued. "They were disc jockeys, who reaffirmed the right to youthful independence and guided teenagers to their new rock heroes."
Who was the ideal leader for this emerging market? In the cinema space, you had Marlon Brando and James Dean as brooding avatars for the post-WWII cultural milieu.
Then, in music, you had Presley, who landed in culture like an ambassador from Andromeda, ready to lead a teenage exodus from suburban monotony to frenzied, life-affirming joy.
He Activated Film & TV Spaces Like Never Before…
When Panay considers how to shepherd the Recording Academy into the future in the 2020s, he looks to what Presley accomplished on small and large screens during his career.
"If you want to know the future of the business, man, look at Elvis Presley," he says. "Look at all the artists that followed the guy. He set the mold for what a prototypical superstar is."
One way Presley did this, Panay says, was by transcending the boundaries of a record or concert and strolling into your TV screen in any number of films — especially during the '60s, when he focused on that component of his work with flicks like G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii and Girl Happy.
While Presley's films are sometimes contemporaneously criticized as formulaic dreck that stalled his creative evolution, the man did have serious aspirations as an actor — and presence in that space was important to pop's multimedia development.
…And Paved The Way For The Modern Music Video
As Panay says, Presley's participation in film wasn't just proof musicians could be actors. The entire point of a music video — to make an artistic statement while selling a record — is crystallized in Presley's films.
Through that lens, there's a direct thread from Love Me Tender and Jailhouse Rock to the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, Prince's Purple Rain and more.
Still, Presley's onscreen innovation extends beyond cinema: 1973's "Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite" was revolutionary in that it was the first live satellite broadcast to feature a single performer.
When you take it with the unforgettable "Jailhouse Rock" video and "'68 Comeback Special," a case can be made that Presley's DNA is encoded deep within in this modern artform.
Thank Elvis For The Las Vegas Residency, Too
Think the format of the Las Vegas residency is the province of wash-ups? Think again: This month alone, 2022 GRAMMY performers BTS, Silk Sonic and Lady Gaga will delight audiences in Sin City. (The 2022 GRAMMYs were held there, too.)
"People used to make fun of the Las Vegas residency," Panay says. "But name an artist right now who doesn't want a Las Vegas residency."
As Richard Zoglin explained in his 2019 book Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show, Presley's first Vegas run in 1969 — and more than 600 shows in the city afterward — set the stage for loftier, glitzier affairs.
This was a marked turn from the era's typical, intimate nightclub shows featuring older performers, like Nat "King" Cole or Judy Garland. "It opened the door to big shows," Zoglin told The New York Post. "All the modern residencies in Vegas, from Celine Dion to Lady Gaga — Elvis was the first of those kinds of shows."
So, next time Presley seems hopelessly fossilized in the past, a frozen face on a lunchbox, simply stream his greatest songs — they'll set your head straight.
"He sang from his heart," Panay says, summarizing Presley's genius. "He was an amazing interpreter of songs in a way that, frankly, few people before and after have ever been."
From there, consider how the pop universe would be unrecognizable without Presley — complete with the performers who never fail to wash away the drudgery of daily life, making it more vibrant, more colorful, more meaningful.
He was the King, indeed. But he was also something more.
Music's Television Empire
Netflix's "The Get Down" is the latest in a string of musical shows proving the new golden age of television is golden for music too
Television series about musicians and the music industry are almost as old as TV. The first network television season was broadcast in the U.S. seven decades ago and within a few years musicians were a central part of the story. When "I Love Lucy" debuted in 1951 Lucille Ball's husband, Desi Arnaz, played a bandleader, with plenty of music performance segments on the show. In the 1960s the Monkees parlayed a hit show into pop stardom and the '70s found "The Partridge Family" telling everyone to "come on, get happy."
Reality TV hit the scene in the '00s, and the small-screen focus was on a few unscripted series that took fans into homes of their favorite artists, from Ozzy Osbourne to Snoop Dogg.
But television is always evolving. The latest resurgence of music on TV arguably started in 2009 with Fox's "Glee" and has been further punctuated by the more recent success of "Empire" — the network's latest bona fide hit, which debuted in 2015.
Last year also saw the debut of Denis Leary's FX comedy "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll." The introduction of two acclaimed music-centric series was just a warmup for 2016, which has seen some of the biggest names in film bring stories of musicians to the small screen.
The shift coincides with what critics are dubbing the new golden age of television, a period of increased production of critically acclaimed television shows beginning in the mid-2000s. While television used to be dominated by broadcast networks CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox, scripted shows have found success on cable networks such as HBO and Showtime and, more recently, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon.
Two Oscar winners, Martin Scorsese and Cameron Crowe, and Oscar nominee Baz Luhrmann, have all come to TV this year. Although short-lived, Scorsese, along with Mick Jagger, brought "Vinyl" to HBO in February while Crowe's "Roadies" premiered on Showtime in June. Luhrmann might be taking on his most ambitious project yet, bringing "The Get Down," his much-anticipated musical drama, to Netflix. Part one of the 12-episode first season premieres Aug. 12.
Working with everyone from hip-hop artists Nas and Grandmaster Flash to author Nelson George, Luhrmann is recreating New York circa 1977, specifically the South Bronx neighborhood, where residents witnessed the birth of hip-hop and the decline of disco all while salsa and punk infiltrated other areas of the city.
Luhrmann — the man behind films such as The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet — believes TV, or what we used to think of as TV, is currently the perfect home for shows about music.
"Television no longer describes what we're discussing here," says Luhrmann. "The streaming services are more in the nature of broadcast. It's so great. There needs to be a new word because television used to be the place where you were super constrained — you were constrained by the times and morally, the rules. Now those two things are almost reversed."
"[Today] you have much more creative freedom. When you're dealing with music, a story about music culture, the ability to do it in segments really suits that because it's a way and space to tell the story laterally, but also horizontally. You can explore in a way you simply couldn't within a two-hour sitting."
For Crowe, who won an Oscar for writing 2000's Almost Famous, a film about a young reporter covering the fictional rock band Stillwater, the new wave of TV shows centered around music validates his belief that music is as important as ever.
"I was just hearing all this stuff about music is dead as a meaningful art form. 'It's too available, there's too many formats, nobody's paying for it, nobody values it,' and I'm just thinking, 'Bull, that's just not true,'" said Crowe in a June interview with Forbes. "And that's kind of the thesis of ["Roadies"], music matters more than ever."
The value of music in 2016 — in the age of streaming and YouTube — is a topic of frequent debate, but the current omnipotence of music as well as the massive success of touring and festivals lends credence to Crowe's belief that even if people are not spending as much they still love music as much, if not more, than ever.
Fandom is exactly what inspired Luhrmann's vision for "The Get Down" back in 2006.
"I started this concept with a question 10 years ago, which was, 'How did a totally new idea [hip-hop] get born from a borough in a time where there was little care for that borough or the people [there]?" says Luhrmann. "How did they come up with a brand-new, pure creative idea? I realized when we started to look at 1977, disco was the reigning music form, but there's something going on downtown called punk, you have salsa and the Latin influence and then you have this invention going on by a bunch of kids, which is essentially a kind of folk music in a way."
It was on that journey of discovery when Luhrmann started to realize the story he wanted to tell wouldn't fit within the two-hour confines typically reserved for film, which was exactly what the executives at Netflix wanted to hear.
"I started thinking of it as a movie, and as I did I thought, 'How do you tell all of that? The very nature of it is that it's unwieldy, the very nature of it has to be sprawling.' And sprawling and unwieldy are not words executives who make movies want to hear," he says. "But sprawling and unwieldy are exactly what Netflix wanted to hear because they want to hear something that has an ongoing life and cannot just be linear. The evolution of television caught up with me, and at the right moment the two things met."
Unlike a movie, in which stories tend to be neatly wrapped, television allows Luhrmann to think of the future. He is optimistic "The Get Down" will be renewed for a second season potentially exploring 1979, when disco was symbolically destroyed in July at famed Comiskey Park in Chicago by Disco Demolition Night, a promotional stunt that saw disco records blown up on the field following a White Sox versus Detroit Tigers game. Two months later, in September, Sugarhill Gang released "Rapper's Delight," the song widely credited with bringing hip-hop to the masses, and one of the first hip-hop songs inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.
For Luhrmann, as a fan of the music and the era, success is not his motivation. He is content to be the conduit to tell a story he loves.
"I care about [the story and] so many others care about it, I'm kind of the grand conductor. But it's a profound collaboration. That's also what drew me — it's a living history. In the past I've done things that were involved in the past. But this is a living history, the people are actually alive. And so I worked with them to help [tell their] story. And that's really enriching."
(Steve Baltin has written about music for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Mojo, Chicago Tribune, AOL, LA Weekly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens more publications.)
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.