We’re in something of a golden era for video game soundtracks. While video game soundtracks have been great for a long time, the mainstream is finally beginning to pay attention. Just last year, a new category was created at the Grammys to honour them, while the BBC Proms dedicated their most recent season to video game music. In the popular music world, it feels like every indie musician worth their salt — from Japanese Breakfast to Daughter — now has a video game soundtrack under their belt. Slowly but surely, video game soundtracks are becoming major cultural moments, woven into the fabric of our everyday lives — when we look back on the musical moments of the pandemic, it’s as likely that we’ll think of the meandering, bucolic beats of the Animal Crossing soundtrack, as we will Dua Lipa or “WAP”.
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Having said that, cultural products that cater for nerds who exist squarely at the intersection of music and gaming have, thus far, been thin on the ground. Danny Kelleher is here to change that — he’s the founder of Laced Records, a record label dedicated to adding an artisanal touch to the world of video game music. Laced provides a sprawling number of music-related services to the video games industry, spanning label services, sound design and publishing — but their signature product is the plush, special edition vinyl records they create for video game soundtracks. Their overall goal is to act as a bridge between the two spheres of music and gaming, helping to legitimise video game music as the art form it truly is. As Kelleher will tell us, music and gaming have a lot to learn from each other.
Kelleher has always had a dual interest in music and gaming — like many video game heads, he started young, playing hours of Sonic and Streets of Rage with his brother. He remembers the soundtrack to the latter as surprisingly varied — “it touched on electronic and techno, there’s even a bit of jungle in there.”
The video game industry loomed large in Kelleher’s family life, too — his aunt is Caroline Miller, owner of Indigo Pearl, a PR company which represents some of the biggest names in gaming, including Epic Games, Sony, Ubisoft and Niantic. When Kelleher went to study PR & Marketing at the University of Westminster, Miller insisted that he’d learn more by working with her, so he joined Indigo Pearl, helping out with the day-to-day of major video game PR campaigns between university assignments.
At the same time, Kelleher pursued his passion for music. He began managing artists, putting on live music nights at his local clubs and university venues, and presenting an unsigned music show on Smoke Radio (Westminster University’s local station, which counts Greg James amongst their alumni). One of their early guests was singer-songwriter Lucy Rose, who would later go on to achieve a level of indie-rock success as a solo artist and as part of Bombay Bicycle Club.
When Kelleher graduated, he spent a while bouncing between the worlds of music and gaming — he worked at Indigo Pearl for a few more years before joining Charm Factory, a music PR agency that worked with artists from Polydor and Universal. The music world was fun but brutal — long hours, after-work gigs, and the discomfort of constantly seeing artists ground down by the industry machine: “I became quite close friends with some of the artists I worked with, and I saw them go to major labels and get chewed up and spat out. If their first single came out and it wasn’t a hit, it’d be radio silence from the label.”
To Kelleher, the dismal experience many artists were having in the music industry was entirely at odds with his experience of working in the gaming industry, which by contrast felt like “a more positive space to work in — both commercially, but it’s also very forward-thinking.” Kelleher began to imagine helping out artists by “bringing them into the gaming industry as collaborators, and being able to create a new revenue stream for them.” Thus, Laced was born. Today, Laced exists as a three-part business: Laced Records, Laced Publishing and Laced Audio.
Laced Publishing is responsible for manufacturing those luxe vinyl boxsets. Combining the worlds of video games and vinyl is a no-brainer — gamers tend to be natural collectors, an urge perhaps stemming from the same, completionist streak that drives them to sink hours into virtual worlds. Meanwhile, just as the rise of streaming has decimated CD collections around the world, the gaming world has gradually grown less physical — gamers now more likely to download games than they are to pop down to their nearest shop when the latest big release comes out.
Consequently, hardcore gamers crave a physical aspect to their fandom, which is where Laced steps in. Their vinyl records are designed to be “as much a piece of art as they are a listening experience.” Laced tends to work closely with fans to create artwork that feels like an extension of the gaming world, rather than something perfunctory. It’s an approach that’s led to the dramatic, blood-red vinyl they created for DOOM’s anniversary re-release, and the saw-shaped vinyl they created for the soundtrack to Disc Room — a game which sees the player solving puzzles while trying to avoid a series of whirling blades.
It’s a well-quoted statistic that half of vinyl buyers in the US don’t actually own a record player, and gamers are no different. Kelleher tells me that customers frequently email customer support asking for “display vases for the vinyl — which is very nice and flattering, but sometimes I’m like, look, the music is really good too, please play it at least once! Even if it’s just on your friend’s player, and you stick it up on your wall afterwards.”
Publishing isn’t necessarily the sexiest side of the music industry, but it has allowed Kelleher to have a huge impact in connecting two worlds: “There are a large number of games companies that aren’t registering their music rights with collection societies, which means they’re leaving money on the table. Last year, we launched Laced Publishing basically to help our clients collect the revenue that they’re entitled to.” Music copyright can be baffling to anyone who hasn’t worked directly with it, so lots of Kelleher’s work involves “educating our clients on what music publishing is, how it works — and basically offering to go out and collect the royalties for them.” Composers will often retain their writer’s share in music copyright, so collecting these royalties doesn’t just have a positive impact on the gaming studios — it benefits music artists, too.
Laced Audio provides sound design and composition for video game studios — and for larger clients, this can often involve bringing bona-fide popstars into the gaming world. A prime example of this is Laced’s work on Absolver, a 2017 martial arts game: “One of the developers asked me if we could get RZA from Wu-Tang Clan onto the soundtrack, since he famously loves kung fu. I said ‘sure thing!’, as if I just casually had RZA in my phone book — but one of my team members managed to track down his agent, and he was into it! We didn’t have a massive budget, but we did manage to get him into the studio, and he collaborated with Austin Wintory on the boss song for the game.”
Over the years, many commentators have identified gaming as an industry music has a lot to learn from. While it seems like there’s been progressively less and less money sloshing around the music industry — with streaming economics slashing artist income, and more and more promising artists being corralled into oppressive record deals — the gaming industry has gone from strength to strength.
For Kelleher, the high barrier to entry posed by video game development has essentially future-proofed the industry — while anyone can download GarageBand and quickly record a track, creating a game from scratch is a very different kind of endeavour: ”When you compare the costs to creating a game to the costs of recording an album and kicking off a marketing campaign, the difference is staggering. When you’re spending that much money to make a game, you always have to be thinking about how to get it back.” Cultural differences between the music and gaming worlds have also played a part. While the music industry has had a long track record of reacting to technological change by lawyering up, gaming “tends to come up with ways to quickly embrace and monetise big changes.” One needs only look at the differences between how music and gaming have used the ‘freemium model’ — while streaming services like Spotify offer limited ways for music fans to spend money beyond the standard subscription price, free-to-play games have rolled out a whole ecosystem of add-ons and microtransactions, allowing players access to infinitely varied worlds and personas, if they’re willing to pay.
“I think we’re going to see more labels using games as launching platforms for their albums and artists”
So as someone who has spent his career straddling the worlds of music and gaming — gazing into his crystal ball for a moment, what does Kelleher see in the future of the two industries?
“I think we’re going to see more labels using games as launching platforms for their albums and artists. Games are definitely used at the moment to promote artists, but I think we’ll see more collaborations where albums are predominantly launched through games — perhaps they’ll even be specifically created to tie into the themes of that game, or to appeal to that audience. I think indie games will become a key source of talent, not just for indie musicians, but for emerging composers, too.” We’re already seeing this happen — System of a Down’s Serj Tankian recently took to rhythm shooter Metal: Hellsinger to debut an original song, while Justin Bieber entered the world of mobile game Free Fire as an avatar named J.Biebs to debut his single “Beautiful Love (Free Fire).”
Kelleher sees increased customisation and flexibility as a key element of the future of music and gaming. In particular, adaptive music — which changes depending on what’s happening in a game’s narrative — will become increasingly more sophisticated as technology develops, providing a rich creative (and financial) seam for artists to mine. An example of the possibilities of adaptive music is No Man’s Sky, an open world game whose soundtrack was supplied by post-rockers 65daysofstatic. Like the vast, interplanetary world of the game, the soundtrack is procedurally generated — meaning that no two players will hear the same series of noises.
Kelleher sees this sense of infinite adaptability as something that players will continue to demand: “I think that younger audiences are going to want more freedom when it comes to the music they listen to while they game. Lots of players will just switch off the in-game music and will put on a Spotify playlist with their own music — this is quite a complex area to go into, but if the right deals are struck, there could be a way of bringing outside music into the gaming experience, and using technology to make it interactive and responsive to the gameplay. I’m already having some conversations about making this happen — but I think it’s going to take a while to properly roll out.”
A flexible, immersive gaming environment integrated with outside music might sound dangerously close to the kinds of experiences wishfully proposed by metaverse platforms — but according to Kelleher, that pipedream isn’t quite here yet. “I don’t think we’re going to see every single person in the world wandering around with a headset on. Technology companies might be able to make these worlds, but they’re going to struggle to make them fun without gaming companies. They’ll have to lean on gaming heavily, if they want to make these worlds places where people actually want to spend time.”
Whether 2050 will see Spotify crumble, forcing us all to consume the new 46 track-long Drake album via Fortnite, remains to be seen — but it’s likely that the worlds of music and gaming will continue to move closer together, and that people like Kelleher, who can explain the unique culture and nuances of these worlds to each other will continue to be increasingly important.
Thank you to Rough Trade East for providing the location for Danny Kelleher’s photoshoot.