Indie Rockers Get New Gig: The Video Game Soundtrack

In October, Alex Seropian, the president of Wideload Games and the dynamo most famous for creating Halo, the best-selling Xbox title in video-game history, announced his company’s newest release-a kitschy action saga called Stubbs the Zombie. When it came time to pair the onscreen action with music, Mr. Seropian and the game’s publisher, Austin, Tex.–based Aspyr Media, eschewed the typical techno thumping beats and hard-rock music usually found on gaming soundtracks for a striking new source: independent rock bands.

“There’s a whole generation of consumers in their mid-30’s who grew up with video games,” Mr. Seropian said. “I would agree that our target market will be a super-set of the indie-rock scene.”

The soundtrack, featuring 13 exclusive cover versions of 1950’s pop songs by indie acts like the Walkmen, Death Cab for Cutie and Ben Kweller, represents not just a powerful marketing tactic but the latest cultural evolution of the rapidly exploding $12 billion video-game industry. Video-game makers are looking for hipster bands to help lend their games cultural cachet. And as the market for recorded music declines, independent bands are finding themselves hankering after deals to score music for hot Xbox and PlayStation titles. As it happens, it’s a marriage made in heaven: A whole new generation of bands have come along themselves raised on Nintendo and Sega, and they’re now eager to see their music intertwined with this mushrooming entertainment medium.

“There’s been a change,” said Shawn Rogers, the creative director of film and TV licensing at the Seattle label Sub Pop Records, home to Rogue Wave, the Shins and Postal Service. “People realize that at the end of the day, it’s just music. I don’t think bands make a hell of a lot of money, and if they get a song in an ad, or on a video-game soundtrack, they make a chunk of change, so they can keep touring. They need to do that to get the word out.

“It used to be,” he continued, “that people were way more purist. A whole new generation has come along that doesn’t hold it against bands trying to make a living.”

Indeed, those independent bands on the Stubbs soundtrack who circulate through downtown boîtes like the Bowery Ballroom-populated by the hipster flotsam who flock to indie rock precisely for its tang of the subaltern-have been able to embrace the video-game-soundtrack concept without the attendant stigma of selling out or, worse, seeming uncool.

“Games are different for that, because they are less about selling a product and manipulating someone’s mind, in that sense, than: ‘This is a game you are controlling and you are participating in,'” said Dave Hodge, avid Halo player and member of the Canadian music collective Broken Social Scene, speaking on a recent Wednesday evening as he mingled near the rear of the Bowery Ballroom. The 32-year-old trombone player was clad in a butterfly-collar button-up over a tight black T-shirt, billowy jeans and tortoise-hued square glasses. “It’s more interactive, and it’s not a TV yelling at you to buy a product like a Hummer.”

Other rockers share Mr. Hodge’s rapport with games.

“I love when two interests in my life intersect; music and video games intersect in the same way,” Nick Harmer, the 29-year-old bass player in Death Cab for Cutie, said. “Games are more interactive and exciting than watching TV. Rather than turn on a lame-ass reality show, I’d much rather put on a video game,” he said. “The fingerings are the same. There is a lot of patterning in video games, and there’s also a lot of patterning in music.”

The close union of indie-rock bands and video games may arise from the community of computer programmers and game designers who also fill the ranks of some of today’s biggest indie acts. Broken Social Scene’s Mr. Hodge also holds a job as creative director for Finger Music, a Los Angeles–based company that develops sound effects for video-game soundtracks. “I almost have to play video games, to an extent; I have to keep in touch with what’s going on in the industry.”

Drummer Chris Deaner, 31, who plays with the Brooklyn band Plus/Minus, also writes Java code for companies like Deutsche Bank and Time Warner.

“Dorks are cool-that’s definitely part of what’s going on with indie rock and gamers,” Mr. Deaner said. “Just look at the fact that so many band members are programmers. Fifteen years ago, programmers were considered nerds. Not anymore. People are embracing dorkiness; it has been like that for awhile.”

Of course, while Stubbs the Zombie retains the bankable elements of a gaming paladin like Halo, video-game sales remain driven as much by marketing as by addictive playability. And for an independent game publisher like Aspyr, far removed from the entertainment and media capital of New York, the firm needed to infuse the Stubbs release with unconventional promotion to spark interest in the game.

Indie rock allowed them to do just that. The soundtrack features indie stalwarts such as Ben Kweller doing a version of the Chordettes’ “Lollipop”; Death Cab for Cutie’s emo poster boy Ben Gibbard crooning “Earth Angel”; the Flaming Lips playing “If I Only Had a Brain”; and the Walkmen, a New York band that sold out Webster Hall for two nights in October, playing “There Goes My Baby.” News of the Stubbs soundtrack swirled through the pages of Rolling Stone, Billboard, USA Today and the online Web zine Pitchfork Media, where writer Aaron Mandel weighed in on the release with the publication’s signature intellectual gusto, describing the soundtrack as “anachronistic … strange [and] marketable.”

By pairing their game with indie-rock ambassadors, Aspyr created a marketing campaign that has revved the P.R. engine so crucial for game publishers, whose bottom line depends on separating their titles from the chaff in the booming video-game industry, which last year surpassed Hollywood box-office revenue by some $500 million.

“One of the great things about the soundtrack from the press we’ve got is that this is bringing attention to the game,” said Zach Rener, a senior producer at Aspyr who assembled the artists for the soundtrack. “This is contributing to the buzz of the game. When you’re a 45-person company in Austin, Tex., sometimes you feel like you’re in a shouting match at a football game with the large commercial game publishers. We’re going to lose to the big guys every time if we just market games the traditional way.”

For Aspyr, releasing a stand-alone soundtrack presents clear marketing advantages. Along with the initial buzz generated from the announcement, the presence of bands like the Flaming Lips and Death Cab for Cutie carries the potential to boost the game’s consumer base among those acts’ ardent followers.

Not surprisingly, marketing experts say that the trend of merging two demographics to boost a product’s sales is a growing strategy in an entertainment market fractured into ever-smaller niches by the profusion of media choices.

“By putting exclusive music on video games, you’ll attract the music-obsessive fans that will seek out an artist’s material. It’s like buying an import with an exclusive remix,” said Richard Welch, a managing director at Crystal, Ogilvy and Mather’s leading-edge marketing group. But Mr. Welch cautioned that although a particular game might be able to lure indie-rock fans clicking daily on Pitchfork, the video-game market has grown so wide and so large that companies need to successfully appeal to a mass audience-the music alone won’t drive revenue.

“To suggest those who play video games are more apt to listen to indie rock is a mistake,” he said. “Games now reflect, I think, an audience that is right across the board. Video games are so popular that to think people who play only listen to a certain sound of music is an absurd assumption. This is mass media now.”

Still, the marriage of indie-rock bands and video-game soundtracks offers a snapshot of an epochal shift in music and home entertainment, where today, video games have secured their place in the vanguard of entertainment consumption-even in a city like New York, long populated by cultural consumers who didn’t remain locked in front of the television clutching game controllers. Aspyr has broken the barriers traditionally separating video games from New York’s urbane culture, potentially opening a new outlet for indie music.

“For games and bands like us, it’s a source of revenue,” said Mr. Hodge of Broken Social Scene, adding that he would have no problem placing his music on a game soundtrack. “It mainly comes down to your personal philosophy-and if you love playing video games and you don’t have a problem with the content of the game, then why not put your song in it?”

The notion that a band may erode its cultural currency by licensing its music for advertisements, television spots or even cell-phone ring tones-which themselves recorded around $3 billion in sales last year-hasn’t taken hold with today’s rising indie acts. Modest Mouse, an indie band now on Sony Music, sold their song “Gravity Rides Everything” for a Volkswagen TV spot pushing-what else?-a minivan. The Shins had a song on a McDonald’s ad, while the 16-track mix album for The O.C. features a compendium of indie-rock bands. Also this year, artists like the Postal Service and Zero 7 helped propel Zach Braff’s film Garden State at the box office, as well as pushing the film’s soundtrack to the No. 2 spot on iTunes. With CD sales still locked in a pitched battle with music downloads, and with a panoply of media choices vying for consumers’ dollars, budding bands-and the independent labels who distribute them-see an untapped audience among the millions of gamers holed up in front of their television sets for hours on end.

“I don’t know what the term ‘sold out’ means at this point,” said Daniel Efram, the manager of the band Clem Snide, which recorded “Tears on My Pillow” for the Stubbs the Zombie soundtrack. “I mean, I just look at it as opportunities where there weren’t any before. Quite honestly, it seems like an amazing position with all the mediums that are out there. Even a couple years ago, indie rock didn’t have the opportunity; quite frankly, the market wasn’t there.”

“Doing a soundtrack like this is the only way you get paid-either you travel and play concerts, or you try to get your songs used in movies and TV and the like,” said Hamilton Leithauser, the lead singer of the Walkmen.

Still, the profitability of the union between indie rockers and video-game makers remains to be tested by the market itself.

“Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll see if anyone actually buys this record,” said Zach Rogue, the lead singer of the Seattle band Rogue Wave, which also has a track on the Stubbs album. Game makers, though, already view the pre-release hype garnered by the soundtrack as an indicator of indie rock’s selling prowess.

“We’re going to keep doing this,” said Mr. Rener of Aspyr. “Kids play more hours of video games than they spend watching TV. Video games are a fantastic way for labels to promote their artists and bands to promote their music. This is about putting themselves out there.”