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by kenn on 11/15/2004 10:54:00 AM

Hey, Cool Music. And There's a Video Game, Too?


When the rapper Snoop Dogg's version of the 1971 song "Riders on the Storm" makes its debut tomorrow, it will not premiere on MTV or on the radio. Instead, the song, which was recorded with the surviving members of The Doors and includes outtakes of Jim Morrison's vocals, will be heard on Need For Speed Underground 2, a video game from Electronic Arts.

The unusual collaboration was recorded at the behest of Steve Schnur, whose title at Electronic Arts is worldwide executive of music.

Snoop Dogg had long wanted to cover "Riders," and The Doors were looking for a way to reinvent their catalog for a new generation. But how did Mr. Schnur persuade them to record the song as the theme for a video game, and then include new lyrics like "Need for speed/I'm trying to take the lead?''

"I didn't have to do that part," said Mr. Schnur, 43, a former senior vice president of Capitol Records. "They get it."

That was not always the case. Just a few years ago, Mr. Schnur and other video game executives had to cajole record labels into licensing songs for video games. But this year, when he was creating the 21-song lineup for Madden NFL 2005, one of Electronic Arts' most popular titles, the labels sent Mr. Schnur 2,500 songs for his consideration.

The contrasting fortunes of the record business and the video game industry explain the change in attitudes. Bedeviled by file sharing and claims of overpricing its products, the record industry suffered through three consecutive years of sales declines before finally stemming the losses this year. Meanwhile, game play is on the increase, rising 26 percent a year for the last five years among men between the ages of 18 and 34, according to Nielsen Interactive Entertainment.

As a result, video games have become an important avenue for the marketing of both emerging and established artists. "The way that music is integrated into games, when it is done well, it does help build awareness for artists," says Courtney Holt, head of new media and strategic marketing at Interscope Geffen A&M, part of the Universal Music Group. That awareness also drives sales, she said.

Electronic Arts is further exploiting its musical prowess by moving into the music publishing business. Today the company is expected to announce a joint venture with Cherry Lane Music Publishing to create Next Level Music. The co-publishing deal will seek to sign established and emerging artists, create original works and mine Electronic Arts' 22-year-old library of theme music.

Cherry Lane, which holds about 100,000 copyrights and is one of the largest independent music publishers in the country, will administer the compositions created for Electronic Arts games and sell them for use on commercials, films, trailers, TV shows and other media, like ring tones.

The deal further cements Electronic Arts' reputation as a mainstream entertainment powerhouse. Electronic Arts, based in Redwood Shores, Calif., is the world's largest video game company. Its $3 billion in revenues make it bigger than all of the other video game publishing companies put together, and bigger even than many entertainment companies, including Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation.

Electronic Arts' dominance, helped in large part by its 15-year-old Madden license and an exclusive hold on Nascar-branded games, is so complete that it is becoming a problem. "E.A. cannot possibly maintain its market share," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. Competitors are dropping prices, he said, and E.A. has shied away from titles for older players.

While the Cherry Lane partnership is expected to give Electronic Arts more influence within the recording industry, it does not yet represent a major source of revenue. "This move won't move the stock the first day," said Mr. Pachter.

The idea to reach beyond licensing the music composed for Electronic Arts' games was formulated in 2003 after Universal Pictures approached Mr. Schnur with a request to include the orchestral theme from Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor series in the trailer for the movie "Seabiscuit.''

"We didn't know what to charge," said Mr. Schnur. The cost of placing a song on a video game starts at around $5,000, according to recording industry executives, but a hit by a top artist could fetch three times that.

Soon after, MTV sought the rights to a track that the rap musician Just Blaze wrote for the game NBA Live. "A few of these happen and you start to think maybe there's something there," said Mr. Schnur.

But what ultimately brought Cherry Lane and Electronic Arts together is an awareness that many listeners are no longer discovering music via radio or even MTV. Instead, they are learning about new artists through the Internet, films, television and video games.

"It's becoming in many ways what radio had been during our era," said Michael Dowling, general manager of Nielsen Interactive. Gamers "feel in some ways that they are discovering these artists and helping to push them out into the public."

Lee Stimmel, senior vice president of marketing for Epic Records at Sony BMG Music Entertainment, added: "Music in a game like Madden is just like a new game feature - it's not seen as an advertising feature. It's not viewed by the user as someone programming to them."

At Electronic Arts, however, the value of in-game music was not always appreciated. When Mr. Schnur joined the company in 2002, he had to persuade his colleagues to include on-screen graphics that would show a band's name and label affiliation at the start of each song in a game, much as music video channels do.

Producers at Electronic Arts saw the music credits as a waste of screen space, and preferred to leave the liner notes where they had always been: at the back of a game's instruction booklet. "My pitch was that an entire generation was raised with that expectation" of MTV-style credits, said Mr. Schnur, who began his career as an intern at MTV. Electronic Arts tested the idea, and the feedback from gamers and the record labels was positive.

At the end of 2002, Mr. Schnur started EA Trax, an internal licensing venture that gave him a platform for selling record companies on the hard-to-reach demographic of young men - the core of Electronic Arts' audience.

Artists soon discovered the benefits of having a song picked for a game. When the remixer Zach Sciacca, known as DJ Z-Trip, was told that two of his songs would be on the Madden soundtrack, he was so elated that he got down on one knee, clasped his hands together and thanked Mr. Schnur's assistant.

"What E.A. did for me is something I couldn't have done on my own," said Mr. Sciacca, who will make his major label debut on Hollywood Records. "I couldn't have gotten those tracks out to people on that magnitude."

Electronic Arts has no plans to pursue soundtrack albums. The reason is simple: stand-alone video game soundtracks have not proved particularly successful. The critically acclaimed orchestral soundtrack for Halo by Microsoft sold only 40,000 copies, although the accompaniment to Halo 2 is expected to sell better. And the seven-CD box set for Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which featured a slew of 1980's radio hits, sold fewer than 30,000 units.

When stand-alone soundtracks did not attract buyers, Mr. Schnur tried a novel move - packaging the soundtrack inside the game's box. As a result, the music from NBA Live 2003 was certified by the Recording Industry Association of America and is now platinum - chalking up sales of at least a million copies. Critics said that the unit sales were misleading because the CD was bundled with the game, but Mr. Schnur makes no apologies. "There is no reason music has to be sold in a jewel box and shrink-wrapped in a record store to be certified," he said.

Yet even as video games and the artists who write music for them become more mainstream, Mr. Schnur says he still thinks of the games as an underground phenomenon. Mr. Schnur compares video gaming to the early days of rock 'n' roll. Both have been accused of corrupting young minds and have been scorned by parents and clergy members. Both have been forced to adopt advisory ratings. And, said Mr. Schnur, video games are something "your parents will never understand."

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