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Why the music industry wants in on video games

The music industry wants in on the capitalist dreamworld of video games

Gaming could present a lucrative source of revenue for artists, but it’s likely to only be the richest that benefit from it

Back in 2017, Lil Yachty described how he spent an evening earning a bit of extra cash while playing video games on the live-streaming platform Twitch. Using a third-party donation system which allows fans to directly compensate their favourite Twitch creators with microdonations, the Atlanta rapper was charging $500 to follow back others streamers, $50 for critiquing songs sent to him by SoundCloud rappers, and – much to the annoyance of his manager, Coach K – $5 for farting on camera. In the end, he said he made $1,500 that night.

None of this was necessarily remarkable – Yachty, a Gen Z rapper, was simply using Twitch like a lot of other people his age – but whether he realised it at the time or not, his actions were foreshadowing a new chapter in the crossover between video gaming culture and music. Today, with the number of new streaming subscriptions starting to slow down and a music industry desperate to open itself up to new markets, video games are starting to be seen not only as a tool of promotion and fan engagement, but also a potential revenue stream in and of themselves.

Obviously, the link between video games and music isn’t new. Games have long courted record companies to license songs, likenesses, and whatever else they can think of: think back to the 1980s and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker video game; EA Sports Big’s string of mid-00s rap-inflected titles like SSX TrickyDef Jam Vendetta, and NBA Street; the ultra-cool Grand Theft Auto radio stations; the bands who built careers off the back of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and FIFA soundtrack syncs; or more recently an artist like Hudson Mohawke composing the original soundtrack for Watch Dogs 2. Still, these examples are a little different to, say, Danny Brown premiering his Twitch EP for the first time on (yep, you guessed it) Twitch, Grimes utilising the platform to announce new music and a tour while playing the notoriously challenging action-RPG Bloodborne, or Dazed cover star Lil Nas X headlining this year’s TwitchCon. Here, artists and record companies are embedding video games more deeply into their business models.

In 2018, Drake and Travis Scott made headlines when they broke Twitch’s viewing records by streaming Epic’s smash hit battle royale Fortnite alongside the celebrity gamer Ninja. The numbers made Lil Yachty’s haul look small fry. We don’t know what the Canadian artist took home that night, but Ninja reportedly made bank, securing 90,000 new subscribers, which might have equated to at least $250,000 in monthly revenue. Ninja was also likely raking in donations, too, in the same way Lil Yachty did a year earlier. Prior to his recent move to rival streaming platform Mixer, that’s how Ninja made a lot of his money on the platform, alongside a multitude of brand partnerships and paid subscriptions to his channel. For viewers during the internet-breaking Drake moment, the donations were a means for them to show their appreciation in conjunction with the usually frenetic chat system and its array of candy-coloured emojis.

Beyond Twitch’s subscriptions and donations, there have been other recent attempts by musicians to find new marketing and monetisation options in video gaming. In K-pop, BTS released the fan fiction-esque BTS World for iOS and Android, which is littered with microtransactions to swell their already sizeable revenue, while League of Legends, a hugely popular MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena), received a promo video featuring (G)I-DLE’s Jeon So-yeon for its South Korea-held World Championships last year. Other MMO games, like Fortnite and AdventureQuest, have hosted virtual concerts from Marshmello and Korn respectively.

So what does it all mean? Well, embracing gaming culture might offer musicians and their fans the chance to interact, not dissimilar to the way Instagram has provided an often tightly controlled glimpse into the lives of our favourite musicians, actors, and designers. Video games can be a casual, chill pastime, and streaming – particularly if it takes place in a low-key environment, like an artist’s home – might be a means of solidifying relationships between fan and artist while making the latter feel more authentic.

“The eyes of record company execs might be lighting up at the thought of actual in-game monetisation... With that might come a host of digital merchandising possibilities for the music and fashion industries. Want to deck your character out with Lil Yachty’s red braids? Sure, why not”

It also offers artists a way to align themselves with a relatively untapped video game market and gaming portion of their own fanbase – one potentially more willing to part with its cash. Gaming, lest we forget, is an expensive hobby, from blockbuster titles costing £49.99 to in-game purchases, post-launch content, and pricey merchandise. Gamers have been trained to spend money, and it’s embedded into their hobby at every level, which is more than can be said for music, where fans rarely pay for more than a blanket £9.99 streaming subscription and the occasional merch drop. Twitch, or something similar, could represent a not insignificant revenue stream as labels charge fans to subscribe to their beloved artist’s channels (pricing tiers currently range from $4.99 a month up to $24.99 on Twitch). Donations might offer additional income through buttons embedded into channel pages which enable fans to tip streamers or artists in real-time; because transfers occur through a third party like PayPal, the recipient keeps most of that money, cutting out the live-streaming platform from the equation. With Spotify still only paying $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream, and recently blocking attempts to raise it, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising if these Lil Yachty-esque side hustles take on a more prominent role.

Away from the landscape surrounding games, the eyes of record company execs might be lighting up at the thought of actual in-game monetisation. When Marshmello played a gig in Fortnite, helping populate the game with a record-breaking 10.7 million players, it came with the option to purchase a Marshmello skin – basically, an in-game costume – for 1,500 V-Bucks, Fortnite’s currency, equating to roughly £12.99. These types of cosmetic customisations have taken on increasing significance as games have adopted the free-to-play model, which users can take part in a game for free but are encouraged to make small one-off purchases within it (off the back of these transactions, Fortnite managed to make over $200 million this May alone). This suffusion of IRL money within video games is helping turn them into digital platforms – i.e. sites of commerce and consumerism – in their own right. With that might come a host of digital merchandising possibilities for the music and fashion industries. Want to deck your character out with Lil Yachty’s red braids? Sure, why not. Think it’d be cool to have your avatar wear Young Thug’s iconic Jeffrey dress? No problem. Fancy a digital version of Rihanna’s Fenty brand for your Sims? Consider it done. 

Such opportunities will probably only ever serve an elite strand of recording artist. “I expect artists on Marshmello’s scale to do these type of schemes,” wrote music industry analyst David Turner in his Penny Fractions newsletter earlier this year. “However I don’t see much value in this model outside of its most capitalist extremes.” At the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Fortnite has incorporated, without credit or compensation, the viral dance moves of rappers such as Blocboy JB and 2 Milly, who are now suing Epic for this very reason. Not only does Fortnite fit a long history of big companies and tech platforms appropriating black creativity, it reinforces the economic discrepancy between the haves and have-nots of the music industry.

Similar commercial dynamics have played out in high-end fashion’s embrace of video games. Final Fantasy partnered with Prada in 2012, and Louis Vuitton made Lightning, a character from the same Japanese franchise, the face of its SS16 collection. Moschino took things one step further when it teamed up with The Sims in April, enabling players to clothe their in-game characters with its signature patterned style. But what if the prestige of the brand transferred into the game with a relative price-point, upholding all the terrible IRL values surrounding status that some of us use video games to escape from? Folks might end up shelling out hundreds of pounds for limited edition in-game clothing, a proposition well within the realms of possibility, given people have been paying top dollar for seemingly useless in-game items for years now – somebody bought a weapon in the popular online shooter CS: GO for $61,052.63, and there are countless other bonkers examples from a variety of games and genres.

All this might sound stupid, and perhaps even kind of bleak, particularly when considered in relation to the widely held if misguided belief that video games exist to offer escapism from our day-to-day grind (or else become the day-to-day grind itself). The evidence, at least in mainstream games, seems to suggest they’ll become increasingly elaborate forums for the buying and selling of ephemeral digital objects, reinforcing and perhaps even exacerbating existing real world inequalities.

Thankfully, music’s underground has exhibited more utopian thinking. Fire Festival took place in Minecraft’s Lego-like block world last year, bringing together artists for two days of virtual DJ sets, not totally unlike Marshmello’s concert in Fortnite. Hudson Mohawke, Kai Whiston, Iglooghost, and Charli XCX producers Umru and A.G. Cook all prepared sets, with Charli herself even making a brief cameo at the event. The game world was decked out in the blues, pinks, and whites of the non-binary flag, and even featured a gigantic Grammy award for SOPHIE as an ode to its hopeful thinking (the electronic artist was nominated for an award, but didn’t ultimately win). There was also an in-game art gallery with rooms stuffed full of weird, wonderful pieces. The whole thing felt gleefully idealistic. Organiser Max Schramp and a team of volunteers crafted a digital version of what they want music festivals to become, raising $1,750.97 in player donations for the LGBTQ+ charity The Trevor Project in the process.

What might an event like Fire Festival look like if everyone was remunerated for their labour and time? We might find out soon enough, with its organisers newly rebranded as Open Pit, self-affirmed “leaders in the virtual event space”. They’re committed to keeping digital spaces “open and free for everyone”, so it’s hard not to imagine advertising being incorporated somewhere down the line to help pay for it. Who knows, maybe they’ll host a virtual launch concert for Charli XCX’s forthcoming album, with Christine and the Queens, CupcakKe, and Troye Sivan performing digitally in front of giant in-game billboards selling Charli-branded tamagotchis and Spotify subscriptions? When Jamie Brooks, formerly one half of Elite Gymnastics and now releasing music as Default Genders, predicted that 2020 will be the year of “alexander wang gaming chairs and boiler room sponsored CS: GO tournaments”, maybe they weren’t far off – these types of brands will almost certainly look to find a place in the games themselves and their increasingly lucrative marketplaces. 

Is this all just optics, though? After all, on a structural level, games and music are already intimately linked. Twitch is owned by Amazon, which has its own Amazon Music streaming service, while Tencent, a gigantic Chinese investment company, funds a number of music streaming and video game services, and is even in talks to buy ten per cent of the major label Universal Music Group. Such far-reaching, increasingly monopolistic organisations will probably attempt to bring the two words closer, with the fashion industry similarly chomping at the bit for a piece of that highly-valued Gen Z pie. It remains to be seen whether the benefits extend to anyone outside of music and fashion’s one per cent.