Are video games the future of music? That seems to be an opinion shared by many players from those two industries, which are both undergoing a re-engineering of their business models.
With annual revenues of several billion dollars, the videogame industry is still booming, contrary to the record industry, where a rapid decline is ongoing. Videogame business is so good, in fact, that many see them as a lifebuoy that could potentially slow down the music industry’s decline. Simon Cann, author of many practical guides on music creation and the industry that surrounds it, states it very succinctly in his book Building a Successful 21st Century Music Career: “Videogames are an excellent way to earn a living with music, since they’re at once both a revenue stream and a promotional tool.”
The best embodiment of this new reality dawned on us last October. Ubisoft – a multi-national company from France with offices in Québec City and Montréal – announced a partnership between its new subsidiary, Ubiloud, and the elder statesman of independent music labels in Québec, Audiogram. Besides strengthening Ubisoft’s foothold in the province – projections show that the company will employ more than 3,500 people by the year 2020 – this distribution deal means an expansion into new territory for both companies.
For Didier Lord, director of Ubisoft’s music group and Ubiloud’s de facto head honcho, the popularity of videogames is a golden opportunity to launch new talent. He’s a true believer in innovation, much more inclined to let emerging artists benefit from Ubisoft’s notoriety than to turn to well-established ones. “My goal is to encourage emerging artists,” he repeatedly says when asked about his motivations. “We are well-established in our field, and we realize that the impact of videogames allows them to become a cultural locomotive. Since our main specialization is games, we’ll benefit from Audiogram’s expertise to help us find the stars of tomorrow.”
“For the first time in history, our catalogue sales surpassed our new release sales. We must therefore find avenues that will allow us to introduce new artists, and this deal with Ubiloud is a big part of it.” – Alixe HD of Audiogram
As for Audiogram, the company fully embraces this new challenge. “We already have our publishing house, we are in charge of records and concerts, and this new partnership is one more that lets us diversify,” says Alixe HD, director of marketing and promotion at Audiogram. “It’s getting harder and harder to launch a new artist, and numbers don’t lie: for the first time in history, our catalogue sales surpassed our new release sales. We must therefore find avenues that will allow us to introduce new artists, and this deal with Ubiloud is a big part of it.”
In the same week as the Ubisoft deal was made official, Audiogram also announced a distribution deal with Sony Music, one more confirmation of the unstoppable globalization of the music industry. Where, in the old days, breaking internationally seemed almost unthinkable for some, it’s now part of and career plan. Rapper Imposs – a founding member of Muzion – is the first artist to benefit from Ubiloud’s support, and he can already attest to the impact that major distribution can have. Since his song “Stadium Flow” was featured in the game Just Dance 2016, he’s found many new outlets for his music.
“It’s really cool to get messages from Europe, South America or even Africa, at least it shows a videogame can have a real impact all around the world,” says HD. “The trick is converting those accolades into sales, and that’s what we’re working one with this new business model. Marketing has to be in on the game and that’s where Audiogram comes into play; but the artist, too, needs to be willing to play the game.”
“We want to seek out artists that already have their own universe, a unique personality, and integrate them to games that fit their universe,” says Ubisoft’s Lord, adding that he has no intention of creating a sausage factory pumping out generic music. “Obviously, if a game’s title is Just Dance, you know you’re going to need a certain type of music, says Imposs. “But when I met with the people at Ubisoft and Audiogram, they were adamant that they wanted me to retain my musical identity. We played stuff we were working on and they picked what they liked. There was never any kind of pressure to make me fit into a pre-determined format.”
But when the time comes for Audiogram to develop new talent, will the label favour artists with strong international potential, slowly moving away from its traditional role as an incubator for local Francophone artists? “Not at all,” says HD. “First, our catalogue already has Anglophone and instrumental artists. Plus, I really don’t see why we would stop seeking out new Francophone artists: bands like Loud Lary Ajust or Pandaléon, even though they sing in French, have a very contemporary sound that would be a perfect fit for many games.”
“What’s cool with video games is that they each have their own universe,” Lord concurs. “Just Dance will obviously require poppier songs, but take a game like
Far Cry, for example (a very elaborate first-person shooter, NDLR), we could very easily integrate more alternative material to it.”
Lord adds that he’s fully committed to use music beyond the simple game soundtrack. He cites Woodkid, whose track “Iron” was used in the ad campaign for Assassin’s Creed Revelations. “The song didn’t fit with the historic side of the game, but it was perfect for the ad. And God knows that the trailers for major franchises like Assassin’s Creed are hotly anticipated, so we expose those artists to a huge audience.”
When a strong brand pairs with a strong song, the result is what could be called the iPod Effect. Just think how many people got into Canadian singer Feist or Israeli chanteuse Yael Naim after hearing their songs in Apple TV ads. That’s what Ubisoft plans to do for a new generation of artists, thanks to its videogame titles.
Which doesn’t mean that well established or even retired artists won’t be able to benefit from this. If a good placement in a game can help an emerging artist, a few old-timers have also received a boost from this new platform. The latest episode of the Metal Gear franchise takes place in 1980s Afghanistan. Songs from the era were therefore used, from Billy Idol to Kajagoogoo, Europe to Hall and Oates, thus exposing a whole new generation of listeners to those thirty-year-old classics. And that not to mention strictly musical games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Even though their popularity is declining steadily, they were still a boon for “historical” artists to develop new markets. One good example is Aerosmith, who had more success with its special edition of Guitar Hero than with their own albums, which were million sellers nonetheless!
The possibilities seem nearly endless. Beyond songs themselves, one can also imagine deeper collaborations with certain artists. “That’s what happened with Cœur de Pirate, who penned the music for Child of Light,” Lord explains. “We felt her musical universe was perfectly aligned with the game. It’s really exciting to work with top talent, like a few years ago when we worked with Amon Tobin on the game Splinter Cell.”
Background music, soundtracks, ads… After years of hardships, one could be forgiven for thinking that the industry is about to bounce back thanks to the huge video entertainment market. “We have no choice but to explore new avenues, which means that we’re going to start attending E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the biggest yearly trade show in the videogame industry, on top of the music events we’re used to attending,” says HD. “We can’t let ourselves be victims of this crisis, we must act. When Michel Bélanger founded Audiogram thirty years ago, one would be hard pressed to say that the conditions were ideal to launch a new record label, but he did it anyways because he believed in his idea. He launched Paul Piché’s Nouvelles d’Europe and that took off, and he came back with Richard Séguin’s Double Vie.”
Apparently, where there’s a will, there’s a way.