Up until recently, Cord Worldwide was a provider of music and audio solutions such as sonic branding for the film and advertising industries. Meanwhile, record label Laced Records was delighting video games music fans with its great catalogue of indie and triple-A scores such as Doom and No Man’s Sky.
These two worlds collided in April 2018 when games services provider Keywords Studios bought the two companies from Cutting Edge Group. This move enabled Keywords to branch out in music services and Cord to branch out in games, with Laced Records sitting perfectly at the end of the supply chain.
Danny Kelleher, Laced Records’ CEO and Cord Worldwide’s MD, tells us that Laced was “already having bigger conversations with bigger publishers” when the acquisition happened, but having the Keywords’ label now further facilitates the firm’s business.
“Publishers would say: ‘Oh that’s great, we actually already have a contract with Keywords!’ So that makes the process of collaborating easier. Business-wise, Keywords is very very different obviously – they’re a services business and Laced is essentially a reseller and record label. But what we want to have with Laced now is kind of an extension to Cord services.”
Enters Alastair Lindsay – this industry veteran has spent a whopping 20 years at Sony, most recently as head of audio, having first started as sound designer and composer then becoming music production manager and then head of music. He joined Cord in January 2019 as head of audio.
“My passion is the creative side of music and audio for games so it’s just something that I wasn’t doing much over the past few years at Sony and I really wanted to get back into being able to find new interesting solutions and ideas for music, for games,” Lindsay explains about his move to Cord.
Since the Keywords acquisition and now stronger with Lindsay’s expertise, Cord works with publishers and developers on trailers, music and audio direction for games – from working with composers to supervising scores to licensing music to recording sessions all the way through to Laced releasing the soundtracks and monetising the music.
“I’m working a lot with Alastair on the Cord stuff now,” Kelleher confirms. “So obviously we want to provide very good music from start to finish but with Laced as a bolt-on to that, looking at how we monetise the assets that [developers] have actually paid for. So it’s an end-to-end service where it’s not a client spending money on services: we can actually generate revenue for them off the back of releasing these soundtracks commercially as well. Cord has a proven history in other fields, in Hollywood, in television and advertising, and I think those skills are very transferable into video games.”
THE WIPEOUT EFFECT
If music and audio directions have similarities between film and games, there’s still one major difference between the two creative fields: developers, especially indie studios, don’t necessarily know where to start with music. And that’s when Cord enters the game, Lindsay explains.
“They probably have some idea of what they want but this is where we really like to be involved and give them some suggestions or, if they do already have some suggestions, offering up some alternatives,” he says. “If they thought about licensing the music, we ask them: have you thought of working with a composer? Have you ever thought of working with the recording artists themselves to create something bespoke for your game? So basically anything’s on the table – and creative solutions too.
“Video games is a creative space and it’s such a diverse world, so let’s try to offer something original, something different that’s going to make that game stand out, make it sound different from everyone else.”
Cord’s services don’t stop at creating a soundtrack for your game, it offers technical suggestions as well with Lindsay explaining that sometimes developers don’t see how they can implement music in certain ways that make it a more seamless and more engaging soundtrack.
“Video games is a creative space, so let’s try to offer something original, something different that’s going to make that game stand out, make it sound different from everyone else.”
Said soundtrack can be licensed tracks or a composed score, with both having pros and cons – the choice will depend on what you want to bring to your game: cultural relevance and marketing push or a bespoke sound and interactive atmosphere?
“Licensed music, if you have the budget for named artists, that can always be a little bit of a pull,” Lindsay says. “An example when I was working at Sony was the Wipeout franchise – it was always known and respected for its music. So there was a lot of work getting the right music in it. It brought some fans to us as well because people knew the franchise because of the music. The artists have their fans, they have their PR channels so you can then do some cross promotion, so it can help market the game, especially if it’s a smaller title. The downside of licensing a track is what you can do with it is limited. You can potentially get hold of stems [the individual instrument files and vocal channels] for the tracks and get permission to do some edits or some remixes, but where a bespoke, composed score trumps licensed music is you’re starting from scratch.
“If you’ve got a very interactive soundtrack that you want to do, you can basically make the music to fit the system that you’re creating. So it’s going to be a more seamless integrated experience. The composer could be a recording artist too, somebody that you would have potentially licensed the music from but who will then write something bespoke. The downside of composing music is it can take a very very long time. Especially the bigger titles where they’re wanting hundreds of minutes, maybe even eight to ten hours of music.”
A licensed soundtrack can sound quite tempting to indies thanks to the potential marketing push – however, studios need to be aware of the challenges of licensing, as Lindsay highlights.
“With commercial music, negotiations with the rights holders can be [challenging],” he says. “There’s been many occasions in my time at Sony where people wanted to license certain tracks, they know what they want, but you can’t license them for various reasons. There’s either too many rights holders involved and then the cost may be prohibitive as well. You can get some good deals but a lot of the time, if you want a big name, then you have to have the money – and budgets can be quite restrictive in games. So that’s the main challenge really. And then it’s just negotiating and having those relationships with the rights holders, the record labels, the publishers, the artists managers. You have to have everyone on board – so it’s part relationships, part good negotiation skills.”
Cord’s job is precisely to facilitate these relationships though, whether you’re going the licensed or composed route, with Lindsay’s experience in the industry then becoming an invaluable asset for the company.
“Over the years I’ve met and spoke to hundreds of composers so there’s a lot people out there very keen to work within video games,” he says. “So it’s about understanding who’s out there, what they have to offer and there’s also a bit of being at the right place at the right time because it’s been cases where someone would just get in touch with you and then it just so happens you’re looking for somebody for a particular title. That happens a lot.”
When you go down the composer route, Lindsay points out that you might want to choose to work with well-known film composers, thinking that adding a big name next to your game will undoubtedly benefit it. Well think twice, as he warns that “that has its own challenges,” adding that he doesn’t think “it brings too much value to the game.”
When we ask why, he answers: “I don’t think game players are generally that interested. I think game composers have a bit more credibility than film composers do in games. They’ve been around for a long time, they’ve built a fanbase and listening to video game music is very niche but very popular and it’s a certain crowd… They’re not necessarily people who are into film soundtracks I don’t think. They’re buying into a whole world, a whole game experience, they want everything. So it’s definitely an interesting audience. That’s something Danny could explain: the people who buy vinyl records and game soundtracks.”
YOU SHOULD GET IT ON VINYL
Danny Kelleher definitely has a lot to say about that and about the added value of releasing special edition soundtracks and vinyls.
“The merchandise numbers seem to increase every year,” he says. “And people are obviously still very keen to get their hands on collector’s edition box sets. So I think with the vinyl side, as music gets better and better in games, it’s opening up another opportunity for the consumer to hold something physical for a franchise that they really love which they are now downloading from the PS4 or Steam rather than going into a traditional brick and mortar store and picking that game physically off the shelf. It’s just an additional thing which goes towards the game consumers’ need to collect.”
But releasing your soundtrack on vinyl doesn’t mean instant success though, as Kelleher points out.
“I’d love to say it all comes down to how good the music is, but unfortunately that’s not always the case,” he smiles. “In terms of commercially being viable, for a vinyl release especially, which is very expensive to manufacture, you do rely a lot on the IP and the franchise being a success.
“We worked on a couple of great soundtracks where the music was absolutely beautiful and so much work and effort went into it but unfortunately the game wasn’t a hit with fans. So you had this beautiful element of music but unfortunately the franchise just didn’t get big enough for people to care about buying that merchandise.”
That leads us to discussing one of Laced’s successes, the Dead Cells soundtrack, which I will literally take every opportunity to talk about. Its vinyl is sold out and that all comes down to… Bethesda.
“[Dead Cells] was is in early access and we were working on Doom and there was a lot of back and forth on getting that vinyl together and the head of licensing in the US for Bethesda said: ‘Oh, I’ve sunk quite a lot of hours into this game Dead Cells and it’s got this amazing soundtrack, you should get it on vinyl!’ And I checked it and I thought ‘Actually, that’s pretty cool!’,” Kelleher laughs. “So I got in touch with Twin Motion and they were really happy to put something together.”
Another type of release that’s meeting success is powered by nostalgia, with publishers getting in touch about older titles.
“It’s not your traditional soundtrack album,” Kelleher explains. “Back in the day we were just being given a lot of cues basically. These could be 10 or 20 seconds long and then there would maybe be some pieces of music which would be more like a traditional music release of around three minutes. But mainly it could be 40 tracks of ten seconds. And when I first looked at these I thought: ‘Well how do you sell that on vinyl?’ That doesn’t sound to me like a listening experience that I personally would buy. But what we’re finding is actually the consumers are so attached to the IP, they hold on to that vinyl and listen to some of those songs – it might not necessarily be like listening to a whole album of singles but it’s these tiny bits of cues and music which they associate with that franchise and they really do want to own it.”
Lastly, the success of Laced’s vinyls sometimes has literally nothing to do with music.
“I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess on the percentage of our customers that don’t actually play our records…” Kelleher starts with a smile. “But I know for a fact that some customers don’t play the records. We have people contacting us regularly saying: ‘Can you recommend a good frame that would hold the vinyl? I don’t have a vinyl turntable but I want to display it as a piece of artwork on my walls’.
“I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess on the percentage of our customers that don’t actually play our records…”
“We’ve worked with Abbey Road Studios quite a lot in terms of mastering the music, remastering it again for the vinyl format which is obviously very different from digital. So we put so much effort and time into the music that it just makes us a little bit sad that people are like ‘I’m just going to put it on my wall’,” he laughs. “But at the same time, we put an equal amount of effort into the artwork and actually the artwork on any title we release probably takes longer to do than getting the music up to scratch for a vinyl. We try and steer away from using traditional packs shots. We want to have a bespoke, unique piece of artwork.”
When you ask the pair about their ambitions for Cord Worldwide, you can see the PR training showing through for one split second as Kelleher answers it’s to “be the go-to agency for end-to-end solutions for music and sound in video games releases.” But in the bat of an eye, we’re back to happily chatting about what is obviously a work of passion for them – they’re both absolutely dedicated to music and games.
Kelleher continues, touching upon licensed soundtracks: “One of the main obstacles is sometimes the music is a little bit of an afterthought so developers might have had a great idea but don’t have the knowledge of how complicated it can be, with the publishers and record labels and getting approved and so on and so forth, so some of those ideas just die.
“There could be ten different writers on one song and they all have to approve the use of it. So the sooner you have those conversations the [more likely] we can deliver exactly what they want. But the main thing we want to do is actually come up with bigger ideas around that track: so how can we remix it? How can we integrate it into the soundtrack? Can we look at the artist doing something bespoke around that track? The more time we have, the more creative we can be.”
And Lindsay to conclude: “We’re forward thinking as well and obviously with Google Stadia and games coming to streaming platforms, there’s definitely going to be some issues there with regards to music and rights. So we’ll be there to guide people through that process. We know what’s up and coming, we know the music industry and how it all works.You don’t want games pulled off shelves because of these things, so we look into the future of what’s happening within both games and music.”