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Interview with ALEX HACKFORD, A&R at SCEA/Sony PlayStation - Nov 22, 2010

“When I’ve put a band in a game their touring radius broadens, they get radio ads, record deals … it’s been a visually quantifiable effect”

picture Video game licensing has become a major revenue stream for artists, publishers and record companies alike, with hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing fees now up for grabs. But for up-and-coming artists the incentive is not only financial as the rewards for getting your music featured in a game can be career changing; the exposure can lead to record deals, advertising placements and the capture of a whole new audience of pixel-addled gamers.

We speak to Alex Hackford, an A&R at Sony Computer Entertainment America known for featuring unsigned bands in major PlayStation games, about how video game music is chosen and how to pitch your songs.

How can licensing a song in a game affect a band - why is it so important?

The fact that today labels are signing less and less content, based on records selling less and less, you have to be able to diversify your portfolio as a band, and from a band management perspective, the ability to be able to put a song in a game is huge.

With PlayStation’s Major League baseball game, I take at least one band per year that has no publisher, no label, no booking agent, no nothing, and put it in that game. It’s a game that’s only released in the U.S and Canada, so it’s a local litmus test, a focus test. The best way to do a focus test is to restrict the territory so you’re able to get a real sense of the effect that you are having. Baseball has a very distinct fan-gradient, and obviously the soundtrack somewhat reflects that.

Having your song in a video game is just one tiny piece of a much larger structural puzzle, a strategic game plan of how to get your message heard by the right types of people. When I’ve put a band in a game, we’ve seen their touring radius broaden, they get radio ads, record deals … it’s been a visually quantifiable effect.

I like to think I’m choosing awesome bands but the other part of it is the climate over the past 15 years has become DIY, both from recording, mixing and mastering a record, to marketing it, getting it to the right types of people and creating a business. I work with bands that have that DIY attitude, as opposed to sitting back and saying, “Make this happen for me.”

How did you get started in the music and entertainment business?

I have been a musician for most of my life - I play all the woodwind instruments and I played in a bunch of different jazz and punk bands growing up - and it was a natural progression from there. I knew I wasn’t going to make a considerable living as a saxophone player - I had to find a creative way to involve myself with music that would actually play the bills.

I graduated college in New York and went to work at a well-known talent agency in the mailroom. I didn’t like that process at all so I went to work for Columbia Records, as a second assistant, learned the business and worked my way up to being an A&R manager. I then worked at Sanctuary Artists Management, which was a big management firm in NY and London, and came to PlayStation. It has been an interesting and circuitous journey … the only tie that binds was the love of music - music production and being involved in that creative process.

So how are songs chosen for games?

Music supervision for games is very similar to the process for music supervision for film or anything else. I work very closely with game directors, game producers and first party developers - the people who are actually making the games.

We go through the process and each game has a different process. It becomes trial and error, plugging things into the game and seeing how they work, pulling them out, going from there.

We have a game here called Sing Star, which is one of the first and largest selling music-based games. It’s a competitive singing game, and we’ve just released our dance version featuring a bunch of big artists. In that instance, the process for song selection is very different than for games like Gran Turismo, Twisted Metal, God of War, because it’s about the songs and wanting to perform them.

The funny part about that process is that sometimes a great song is not fun to sing - if there is a 25-minute guitar solo or lots of screaming for instance - It’s fun because we take the songs and put them into test code for the game, sit down, crack open a couple of beers and see how they play.

With other games, it’s a luxury to put things into an SDK and really have a sense of how it’s going to sound, how it’s going to play. There a certain instances, like cut-scenes in games that are scored statically, meaning there is no adaptive element to the music. So if I’m playing Heavy Rain, there are lot of cut-scene cinematics that are static - they stay the same no matter what happens in the game.

In that instance, cue placement, just like there would be in a film, is very important because, you know when a cue starts, how it starts, where it starts, what elements of the cue are used, and it really ties into the emotional arc of the scene. But a lot of times in game play, the user is prescribing the discovery elements, or emotional elements within a game, so it’s hard to dictate cue placements based on an independent user’s actions.

From a musician’s perspective, it’s fascinating. It forces you to see the amount of creative control of how your music is going to be interpreted because different scenes get made from larger scene.

Unlike a film, which is two hours of static visual material, a game is up to 60 to 70 hours of content. Composers for games that have 60 or 70 hours of content are generally composing maybe 4 hours of music. So that music then has to adapted through the rest of the game play in such a way that a lot of times it doesn’t come up the way that a composer intended. So there is a lot of trust and collaboration that goes into that process.

How do you find new music?

I get pitched so much music. I probably get 25-30 CDs a day and then constant links and blogs and different bits and pieces. I know there are some music supervisors who like to have the act of discovery themselves - “I want to dig for it and find that nugget, I don’t want it to be handed to me by the person who represents the music.” I’m less precious partly because we have a big-volume business, but also because I have a very small department here who would do specific song-based placements, so I need to avail myself of all the people I have.

We all have trusted filters in any aspect of our lives. There are those types of filters that I have other musicians, specific publishers, some label reps and other music supervisors.

I have some really good friends who are big DJs all over the world and I lean a lot on those guys because tonally - from a song and not score-based perspective - a lot of the music in our games is up-tempo. There are calls sometimes for slower down-tempo ballad-y stuff but that’s not the norm. My friends know what reacts, what’s new and what’s not. They have a visual representation of that stuff.

So I lean heavily on those types of people as well as people in touring and established bands, a lot of sort of nerdy blog searching and then a couple of shows on KCRW. But for the most part, I’m digging on my computer. Not so much radio, but Little Steven’s radio show in NY was one I always found really cool stuff on.

Game production is generally a long process, so how much do you try to coincide the timing of the release with the music you are giving the exposure to?

From a production timeline perspective, our games take roughly 14-16 months from the point we get involved to the point that they actually come out. I’m dealing a lot with managers or artists themselves because if I’m nine months from the release of my game, most people don’t even have stuff recorded that’s going to coincide with the release.

I love to make opportunities that are larger than just the opportunity in the game. To do that the band has got to have the record out, and be touring on the back of it, and people aren’t generally touring on the back something they’ve had ready nine months before it’s coming out. It’s a delicate and fun juggling process.

The game audience are more nit-picky and critical than any audience out there, definitely more than TV and as much if not more so than film. If you buy a $60 video game and spend 50 hours playing it then you are going to be hypercritical just by virtue of the time investment and the time-monetary investment. That breeds a certain type of microscopic deconstructionism. “I heard that song on Grey’s Anatomy two months before this game came out, how could they use it …?” Believe or not, that stuff happens, and it happens frequently.

Can artists approach you directly?

Absolutely. I’m listening to most of the A&R registries that PULSAR puts out and music supervisor directories that come out. Sony has particular rules about unsolicited content, so an email with a public streaming link is always better than somebody sending an MP3. If you’re sending an MP3, odds are I don’t know you, odds are I’m not going to download it - I’ve had to replace two or three computers because of corrupted files or viruses. I’m very wary of people sending me stuff unsolicited.

At the same time, I try to put as many unsigned bands into our games as possible because I’m a musician, I’ve been in bands and managed small bands and know how hard it is to get your foot in the door and so I try to make sure that door stays open.

If a band is sending music, how do you like to receive the submissions?

Ideally, I prefer a link to a site like VoxNet, or SendSpace - something that allows me to stream and preview the song before I download it. A MySpace page works for that although I prefer a site with hi-res download options.

Does that mean you like to receive .wav file options?

Absolutely. Downloading a .wav file is always the quickest, easiest way to do it.

Does subject matter make a difference when opening an email?

A lot of times games come out at a certain time every year. You can research their release cycle and figure that nine months before the game is supposed to be released is when I’m going to be working on it. This type of information is easily obtainable with a little bit of legwork. There are sites like Kotaku and Gameinformer, as well as just going into stores like EB Games, or GameStop, looking at their release schedule and asking, “What do you have coming out?”

If you are a band, artist, manager or publisher, those are the type of approaches I would make. It would really take no more than an hour of your time, and would greatly, greatly increase the odds of somebody like myself, or like Steve [Schnur] at EA or the people at Activision or Harmonix checking out your material.

Are the selections you make your personal choice or do you have guidelines?

It really is an organic and moving process. Some directors trust your taste and some directors are very specific about what they want. I don’t ever fully subjugate my own tastes because that’s part of the art of doing this, but at the same time you want to service the product and project as well as possible. I figure it would be naďve of me to assume that I have a better idea of what the product needs than the person who is making it. So I always work very closely with the production team and the director, the creative director and producer to make sure we come to a consensus. Sometimes if there’s an idea I think is just out of the park, I’ll really fight for it if they don’t agree with me, but by and large it really becomes a give and take process.

There’s some instances where we’re dealing with a classic rock song, and I know I can get a secondary song by the same artist – it’s just as good but not as well known – and for a little less money I’ll push for that. Because again, part of what I always got from video games when I was playing in college was exposure to stuff I didn’t know before.

Especially with all the user-uploaded content options that are available for most games nowadays, with next-gen consoles with 360 and PS3 you can upload your own music. So if it’s a song a person knows, they don’t like it playing unless it’s something they haven’t heard in a while. I try to put things in that does “I never knew that song,” and that’s great. I know ‘Mississippi Queen’ by Mountain, but I’ve never heard ‘Never In My Life’ before.

When it comes to budgets, how do you value music?

It’s relative. There is definitely perceived rates within games at this point, just as with film and TV, which have been around for a lot longer than video games have. There is a perceived value to songs in games and if we’re talking about licensing as opposed to paying for original content, I generally value licensees based on a band’s cultural cache and relevance at the time, as well as record sales and things like that, and make my assessments from there.

The argument I always come up against is profit and loss issue. When the bean-counters here are looking at my balance sheet and saying, “Is this song going to sell more copies of the game or not?” That’s unquantifiable unless it’s a music-based game like Sing Star, Guitar Hero or Rock Band, where the game couldn’t exist without the music. If it’s a first-person shooter, or an action game, or a sports game, it’s a hard question to answer.

I try to keep my reach within a certain field, and obviously be able to justify it by the band’s current marketplace value. If the band is writing original music for the game, and we’re going to own it, which is generally how we do these things, then the rates are significantly higher because the band or label or both are giving up percentages of the copyright.

At PlayStation, we have a pretty significant catalogue of original music that we have amassed over the years. Everything from 8-bit to 16-bit music and full orchestral scores – by people like Jim Dooley - as well as songs by people like Rakim and a bunch of other big bands.

What is the average amount of money that an indie band can make from a placement in a video game?

Our fees are competitive. For an unsigned band, we’ll pay anywhere between five and eight thousand dollars.

Do you have an example success story of a band that you’ve helped through licensing?

We were the first people to sync a band called Friendly Fires. They didn’t have a deal at the time and it all just sort of exploded from there.

What characteristics make a song licensable for the video game format?

It depends on the game. We don’t make a lot of M-rated (There is a rating system called the ESRB that rates video games which is very similar to the MPAA, the rating system for film.) song-based games. Ultimately the primary issues that we have with M-rated songs are brand mentions like somebody’s rapping about my Nike boots or whatever else. That becomes an issue because we have to clear the use of a brand name, the tertiary major brand.

Lyrical content – if somebody’s talking about murdering somebody violently that becomes an issue as well. Although sometimes it doesn’t - in God of War, a multi-million selling game, the main character is running around eviscerating people and we used music with a bunch of heavy bands: Trivium, and Dream Theater and Killswitch Engage, all of which were incredibly violent.

With Major League Baseball, which I’m working on right now, I have to clear the rights and practices of Major League Baseball itself, as well as with the MLB Players association and the ESRB.

Do you need the instrumental track for the song?

We’ll always ask for hi-res instrumental, hi-res a cappella, if it’s available.

Does it make more sense for a band to approach you directly, or are there certain publishers or libraries they would be better approaching first?

There are a couple of different pitch-houses I really like Zync, LipSync Music and Bank Robber Music. They are all sync-houses who basically aggregate content from a stylistic perspective and pitch it out to select supervisors like myself and people at other game companies, TV and trailer houses.

LipSync is very independent leading edge kind of stuff. Zync is similar but with a little bit more established, bigger, more melodic bands. Bank Robbers is pretty much across the board. Each one of these companies have their own particular aesthetic, but they try to service every genre. These are always people who I rely on to filter me and feed me material.

In my understanding of how those deals work, they take a flat percentage of whatever syncs they are able to get you. I’ve done a bunch of stuff with SonicBids (HQ interview) as well who are a great company.

Is there any bands that you are placing right now that you feel are really excited about?

There’s this awesome new band out of New York called The Rassle (HQ interview) - they are the new band that I’m putting in Major League Baseball.

Interviewed by Aaron Bethune

Next week: Epic head of A&R Jo Charrington on signing and breaking JLS, Paloma Faith and Scouting For Girls

Read On ...

* Music supervisor Greg Debonne on how to get your music licensed in TV
* The Rassle react to being chosen to feature in the MLB video game