Music labels, artists and legacy gaming companies are leaning in to new gaming and music relationships

Earlier this month, Ariana Grande, rocking her traditional high ponytail, dazzled audiences with her hits “Raindrops” and “Be Alright” against backgrounds of dreamy, candy-colored sets. It wasn’t your typical concert. Grande, wearing a shimmering dress made of shards of glass, towered over her fans and smashed them with a bejeweled hammer upon her entrance. At one point, she sprouted wings and flew across a landscape of floating bubbles and ornaments, blowing kisses back at her fans dressed as mini Ariana Grandes.

All of this could only happen within the world of “Fortnite.” The virtual concert is expected to top the 12 million concurrent players the Travis Scott “Astronomical” event saw last year. In the three days after Grande’s event, video streams of her hit “Be Alright” surged 123% from 42,000 streams to 93,000 streams, according to MRC Data.

Video games have long served as a way for consumers to discover new music. But over the past year, the pandemic gaming boost and new metaverse technology have further merged the worlds of gaming and music, reaching new audiences of concert-goers and music streamers. So much so that the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics featured the theme songs of “Dragon Quest” and “Final Fantasy,” to popular role-playing games. 

Music labels, talent agents and brands are all looking to be part of the equation, namely to reach young audiences who might be experiencing their first concert in a virtual setting. Even legacy gaming companies are seeking new ways to position their games as platforms for music discovery. And even with in-person concerts coming back, experts say the assimilation of music and gaming, such as virtual concerts, has staying power.   

“We are right at the beginning of a massive new industry,” says Jon Vlassopulos, VP, global head of music at Roblox. “Artists, labels, publishers, venue and festival owners, video platforms, all have a chance to reinvent themselves and capture first-mover advantage. Virtual performances are now an integral part of the music landscape even with the return of IRL [in real life]concerts and other types of events and will become more immersive in the months and years ahead.”

A new generation of concert-goers

Young audiences are a big reason why music marketing is blending much more with video games today. Multiple studies point to music discovery stopping by 33-years-old. After that, many people simply continue listening to the bands they know and already love. With such a tight window of opportunity, it’s essential to reach young audiences where they are already spending the majority of their time. In 2021, that means the virtual worlds of video games. Already, with 2.9 billion worldwide gamers taking part in the $177.8 billion industry, brands and ad agencies have been bolstering their capabilities to reach these young gamers.

“For many kids, their first concert will likely be a virtual concert and it’s going to be normalized for them,” says Jarred Kennedy, chief operating officer at Wave, which uses gaming technology to create virtual concerts for artists like The Weeknd, Dillion Francis and within gaming environments like Roblox and social platforms like Twitch, TikTok and YouTube. “For kids who are coming of age and getting into games, it’s the way they are getting entertained. Instead of having two separate tracks—where there are game scores and music recorded for consumption—these lines are blurring.”

In fact, Gen Zers and millennials spend more time gaming than taking part in other forms of traditional entertainment like watching broadcast TV, reading, and yes, even listening to music, according to an August Newzoo study of 72,000 people across 33 markets. The study found that the younger the generation, the more time is spent on gaming, with Gen Zers and millennials averaging around seven hours gaming every week. Gen Zers make up the largest majority of video game players, with 81% taking part. Roughly 25% of Gen Zers’ leisure time is spent gaming compared to 14% listening to music.

Credit: Newzoo

Brands hear the music

Naturally, music labels and the talent that fuel them are driving many of these concepts forward. Increasingly, musicians themselves are angling to be part of the world of video games. For recording artists during the pandemic, virtual concerts replaced in-person shows as forms of revenue drivers. Although top talent can still make more with in-person stadium concerts and tours, virtual concerts allow them to bolster their business portfolios and cater to an even wider base of fans, since many of the virtual concerts on platforms like “Fortnite” are free to all players. For talent that might not see themselves headlining stadium tours, the chance to grow their following virtually spells big opportunity.

Geoff Sawyer, a video games agent at United Talent Agency (UTA) who focuses on fostering collaborations between UTA’s music clients and the gaming industry, says artists’ interest in collaborating with video games has never been higher.

Over the past year, the agency has secured “Fortnite” virtual concert deals with artists like DJ Marshmello, rapper Trippie Redd and singer Dominic Fike. Marshmello’s “Fortnite” concert alone was attended by 10.7 million players. For chart-topper Post Malone, UTA crafted a deal with Pokémon to have him headline its 25th anniversary virtual concert in February on YouTube and Twitch as well as another deal that made the rapper and songwriter an owner in esports organization Team Envy.

“Video games are becoming the most influential arbiters of pop culture in the entertainment industry. With their thoughtfulness and authenticity, partnerships between the gaming and music industries in particular have built up a strong momentum,” says Sawyer. “Authentic artist integrations are one of the most effective ways a game can delight its audience, and that audience might well be hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The mutual benefit is massive.”

For brands outside of the world of gaming and music, there are still opportunities to become incorporated into the events. Wave, for instance, has worked with brands like Crocs, Asics, People Magazine and Hyper X to secure product placements in virtual shows. For instance, Dillion Francis wore a pair of Crocs during his virtual performance that changed color based on viewers’ votes.

“A lot of times when brands look at opportunities like this, it’s how can they bring added value, not just sponsor or slap on their logo, but bring added value to an experience and to a community,” says Kennedy. “In a virtual environment, the opportunity to doing that is robust.”

Bridging connections

Platforms like Roblox see the potential and their place in creating virtual concerts and album release parties their users can take part in. “Artists can perform in an infinite venue that they dream up, connect directly and literally hang out with millions of fans in a single night—instead of having to fly around the world for 18 months on a physical tour,” says Vlassopulos.

Vlassopulos says Roblox has a goal to make music an integral part of its platform’s experience, where 46.6 million daily active gamers, mostly under the age of 18, can explore and play games in millions of virtual worlds as avatars, a concept it promotes as a metaverse. On its way in doing so, Roblox is starting to license more music catalogues like Monstercat onto the platform so developers and creators can use it to enhance the virtual worlds they are creating. Roblox has also created experiences to introduce a love of music to its players. With Splash, players can DJ and create music, and in games like Robeats, music fans can play with their favorite songs.

Of course, virtual concerts, album release parties and artist meet-and-greets are popular with music labels and artists and can be monetized through virtual merchandise and VIP experiences within Roblox. Over the past year, Roblox has worked with Columbia Records, Warner Music, RBC Records and others to create virtual experiences popular with players in the U.S. and Europe.

After its Lil Nas X virtual concert in November 2020 garnered 36 million visits and with virtal merchandise expected to bring in more than eight figures by the end of the year, the platform replicated the concept for artists like Royal Blood, and this past weekend for UK rapper KSI, as well as launch parties for artists like Zara Larsson, Ava Max and Why Don’t We. Vlassopulos says labels are seeing between 5% to 1,000% increases in streaming numbers and social followers during events. Video

The path to integrating music with gaming isn’t always smooth, however. With so many users and platforms growing so quickly, it can be challenging to regulate the use of music, as social media platforms like TikTok have seen. In June, Roblox partnered with Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) for future music usage after being embroiled in a $200 million lawsuit from the National Music Publishers’ Association for illegal use of music. 

Not your parents’ music

Legacy gaming companies, seeing the momentum in the space, are also further positioning their games as drivers of music discovery to reach younger audiences. Electronic Arts (EA), the U.S.’s second-largest video game company behind Activision Blizzard, is releasing its own hip-hop album in partnership with Universal Media Group’s Interscope Records for the soundtrack of its upcoming “Madden NFL 22” game out on August 20. Unlike with past soundtracks, 11 songs have been exclusively made for “Madden” from hip hop artists like Jack Harlow, Swae Lee, Tierra Whack and Moneybagg Yo, and available across streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. The 11 songs will be included in a 56-song in-game soundtrack. It’s a deviation away from purely licensing existing songs, an approach that has been in place for the company’s entire 40-year history. This is a product that can live on its own outside of the game.

The new tactic allows EA to promote itself through the up-and-coming artists on its album. The musicians are creating original content with the music over social and digital platforms to promote the new game. EA’s collaboration with the NFL also means the songs will be used for the football season kicking off next month, playing in stadiums and at NFL events.

Credit: EA

Steve Schnur, worldwide executive and president of EA Music Group, says the new approach better positions the game as a place of music discovery for the next-generation of football fans, a tactic that has always been part of the company’s strategy but is leveling up.

“It’s a little disruptive in the sense that people generally want to hear what they know already, but we feed them the tone and sound of what they will love, not what they have loved,” Schnur says. “There’s high expectations of next-generation football fans to lean into Madden and to hear what’s next.”

Therefore, it’s important that the album not sound like something parents might play. “There was a time when the NFL sounded like Bon Jovi. Football does not need to continue to sound like it belongs only to the people in the suites,” he says. “The tone should sound like it belongs to the people in the stands—the next generation of season ticket holders; the next generation of people who may respond to the advertisers of the sport.”

This article first appeared in

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Ilyse Liffreing

Platforms Reporter, Campaign US

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