Why Video Game Music Deserves A Dedicated Grammy Award


Posted February 27, 2011 - By Rick Damigella

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Video Game Grammy: Civilization 4 Song Wins Grammy

Seeing as how “Awards Season” comes to a close tonight with the Academy Awards, it seems an appropriate time as any to bring this up for consideration for next year. Because history was made at one of  this year’s other big trophy-fests, the Grammy Awards, when a piece of music originally composed for a video game won an award; the first time music created for a game has received such an honor. The award bestowed upon Christopher Tin was a milestone moment and a beginning, a beginning from which other artists who bring game audio to life deserve to be honored, a beginning which couldn’t have happened if not for a push for recognition for game music that began over a decade ago.

Congratulations are in very much in order for Christopher Tin for his Grammy win. Christopher won the award for Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists for his composition, "Baba Yetu," which featured the Soweto Gospel Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. To gamers, it is considerably better known as the opening music from Civilization IV. For those trying to figure out why a piece of music recorded for a game released in 2005 won a Grammy in 2011, it is really quite simple. Christopher Tin released the song on an album for the first time just last year. This is definitely cause for celebration amongst gamers, game audio fans and especially the other artists who create music for games. But it is only the beginning. What truly needs to happen is for the Grammy Awards to give video game music its own, dedicated category.

Right now, video game music releases are in fact eligible for a Grammy award, beyond the category in which Christopher Tin won. However, unless they win the way “Baba Yetu” won, they are relegated to a category named “Score Soundtrack Album For Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media”. Other Visual Media. Ouch. Ok, at least it is a start. And that start began back in 1998, when there was a movement in the game audio world pushing for Grammy recognition.

At the time, during an interview I was doing with Michael Greene, then-president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) about the just-announced Grammy nominations for that year, I posed the question about this very subject to him. I don’t recall the verbatim specifics of his answer other than NARAS were considering it.
And indeed, video game soundtracks became eligible for Grammy recognition in 1999, in the Score Soundtrack Album category due in large part to successful lobbying of NARAS by game industry pros like Tommy Tallarico.

Much to their credit, this was very forward thinking by the Grammys, because at the time, game music was still quite young in terms of actual physical releases, especially in North America. In the decade-plus that has elapsed, game soundtracks have continued to grow, in both quality and in numbers of physical and digital releases to the point that now, more than before, game music needs it’s own Grammy category. But why you may ask?

There are dozens and dozens of new, original film soundtracks released yearly, but not nearly the same number as original scores for TV shows, which is why it makes sense for TV scores to be included in the same category. A quick perusal of Amazon’s top 100 selling soundtrack albums finds only a single album of music from a television show would be eligible for this category; the original soundtrack to Doctor Who Season 5 (yes!). Now let’s talk about game music.

In 2010, the following game music soundtrack albums were released and were ostensibly eligible to be considered for a Grammy award: Halo: Reach, Alan Wake, God of War III, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Fable III, Mass Effect 2, Bioshock 2, Dante’s Inferno, Monster Hunter Tri, Uncharted 2, Medal of Honor, Forza 3, Army of Two: 40th Day, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, Plants vs. Zombies and Super Meat Boy. And this is not even a comprehensive list, nor does it touch upon limited edition soundtracks packed in with games. And yes, those should count too.

Recall when Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock came out last year. One million copies of Soundgarden’s Telephantasm: A Retrospective, were packed in. The album literally went platinum on the day the game released, because those one million copies were non-returnable. Effectively, the album sold a million units before the first copy of Warriors of Rock left a store. Granted, it wouldn’t have been eligible for this particular Grammy category since it featured previously released music, but if an album packed in with a video game can receive RIAA platinum certification, then there is no reason an original soundtrack included with limited edition versions of shouldn’t be considered for inclusion in a game music Grammy category.

If the sheer number of releases isn’t a convincing reason, then consider what the music industry considers its bread and butter. Sales. According to SoundScan, the HALO soundtracks released by the Sumthing Else Music Works label are approaching 500,000 units sold in the US. There are mainstream music acts who can’t claim those numbers.

Or perhaps it should be a question of quality over quantity. Much like this year’s Grammy awards eschewed big selling/virally popular artists like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber to bestow awards upon Arcade Fire and Esperanza Spalding, it is very easy justify the quality, originality and care that goes into the composing of game soundtracks. All you have to do is listen. Whereas film and TV scores are created for linear purposes, game soundtracks have a dual purpose. They not only have to support the story in a linear fashion, but much of it needs to be interactive, evolving with the players actions. And for the lucky games that do receive a game soundtrack release, the music then needs to be put into a logical, listenable order by its creator.

But why do we care? Really, at the end of the day, why should it even matter if video game music has its own Grammy category? Because it is an affirmation, an acknowledgment that what a composer created deserved to be singled out for recognition. Naysayers of awards shows have their own opinions about the legitimacy of such events. More than a few of you probably even felt Ricky Gervais was right in taking comedic shots at a few celebrities at the Golden Globes last month. But, for those in any part of the entertainment industry who are on the receiving end of a golden statue, it comes down to recognition of a job well done, in most cases by their peers. And who doesn’t like that? Who here got worked up when the phrase “video games cannot be art” got thrown around by a famous film reviewer? More than most of you we’d wager. A dedicated award for game music at the Grammys would be a pretty big step towards reversing that sort of thinking.

If you want further proof, just look how excited the game world got when Christopher Tin won his award. There wasn’t a video game blog worth its bandwidth that didn’t pick up the story and countless gamers added their own congratulations in comments sections. Gamers, maybe even more so than hardcore fans of other entertainment forms, truly feel camaraderie with the people who create all aspects of the worlds they play in, so really, WE care about that recognition.

There are currently 109 categories in the Grammy awards, only a fraction of which make the actual telecast. That’s fine. Game music fans and the artists who create the sounds those fans love aren’t asking for air time. Just a category. Besides 110 is a much nicer total number of awards. Wouldn’t you agree? It took a dozen years before a piece of music originally created for a video game, would get the honor of a Grammy. Let’s hope that is doesn’t take another decade-plus for NARAS to carve out a single niche in their long list of awards to recognize the efforts of the talented men and women who breathe musical life into the games we all enjoy so much.

Why Video Game Music Deserves A Dedicated Grammy Award


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