Keeno's "Nocturne" was released in December, 2013 to the sort of muted appreciation that an entry-level drum & bass artist who's signed to relatively small label can expect. This isn't to say the track and label it was released on don't represent quality, more the fact that it's not the type of release that brings in hundreds of thousands of plays on YouTube. Except in this case, within months of its release, that is exactly what "Nocturne" did.
The secret behind this exponential growth is the rising use of electronic music, particularly drum & bass, in the world of video games. Experiencing electronic music through video games is nothing new. Since the earliest 8-bit inceptions of gaming, we've experienced soundtracks that weren't forced to tell a story, but rather build an all-encompassing universe for the consumer. With this scope, the video game soundtrack has become a musical form, or rather platform, in its own right. FACT have counted down their 100 favorites, and we regularly speak to artists who have been influenced by the medium. But, beyond the realms of critical appreciation, what are the real world effects on an artist whose music is featured in a video game?
"Nocturne" was released on Med School, the smaller sister label of the esteemed drum & bass label Hospital Records, which was founded in 1996, and has long been releasing everything from peaktime big room rollers to eclectically informed ambience. With such versatility in tone, as well as the label's reputation for high quality signings, Hospital have also long operated a successful publishing and sync service, acting as a catalogue for music supervisors. Effectively this means that the label can negotiate publishing deals for their artists in-house, allowing their music to be used in film, television and video games, without outsourcing to other agencies. This is where "Nocturne" comes into play.
Ashley Howard, the head of publishing and sync at Hospital, speaks on the label's relationship with the outside world, as well as the unexpected symbiosis that's emerged between the world drum & bass and the world of gaming. Particularly, Howard references the transformative effects a track can experience when being featured in the virtual world. "The visibility computer games give you can be massive." In the case of "Nocturne", the track benefited from its placement on a very high-profile game – Microsoft's Forza Horizon 2," Howard tells THUMP. "This one was particularly great as it was the 'press start' track, so it was the first thing people heard when they put the game in the console."
"Nocturne" was released on Med School, a label with a smaller reach than Hospital's. "You can roughly expect on a track uploaded on the Med School Youtube channel to get 20-30,000 plays. That would be doing quite well for an unknown artist. That track has now gone way beyond 100,000. You can see by the analytics that this has purely happened since the game came out."
In the post-Shazam age, we're all now able to hear a track in the background of a film or TV show and discover its identity straightaway, only the tendency to only watch an episode of something, or a movie, once means our interaction with the music is fleeting. If we do track it down, it can be forgotten as soon as it's sourced. This isn't the case with video games. Repeat gameplay means the soundtrack is a fixed presence for however long the gamer plays.
Not only do video games offer a more sustained interaction with a track, but they are also far more open to the idea of D&B than film or television. Howard largely puts this down to misconceptions as to the versatility of the label and D&B as a whole. "A lot of people hear 'Hospital Records' and think about D&B, parties, that kind of high energy music. We've actually got a bunch of artists who are working with different tempos, making electronic, ambient stuff, which in my opinion could fit the world of film, but it's trying to make people aware of that."
It is true, that it's hard to imagine the next Grown Ups sequel featuring a sequence where Adam Sandler takes his family on holiday, being soundtracked by a High Contrast track. But D&B doesn't just have one setting, which is something that seemingly video games are more open to and aware of than other platforms. As Hospital have continued to soundtrack games, a healthy and nurturing trend has emerged. "When it comes to high energy drum n bass, games, and particularly driving games, it's a natural fit. We've got good relationships with a lot of the major game companies and music supervisors."
In the last few years Hospital records have contributed to the soundtracks of a whole host of major titles. "We've got a history with the Forza brand, but we've also done Gran Turismo for Playstation, Wipeout for Playstation, World of Speed, SSX Snowboarding with EA, Sims on EA, Fifa Street. We've never had a track on the actual FIFA — that's a bit of a dream."
This might not sound like much, but for smaller D&B artists, whose audiences usually stretch only as far as Youtube loyalists and basement club-dwellers, these collaborations can mean big things. The opportunity suddenly arises for their music to reach an international audience, what's more this audience will then continually hear their music with every session spent sweating under the low-lit hum of their widescreen TVs. The results have been made clear, computer-generated cars are driving record sales.
The next step in this evolution will be if film and television can further open their palates to the possibility of electronic music fitting more than just club scenes. "I can only really talk from a D&B point of view, but I think the challenge it faces, not just in films but in the wider world, is the tempo. It's fast music and a lot of people struggle to get their heads around that." However, and possibly following the lead of racing games, one area of television that is beginning to embrace D&B is sport. "We've played stuff on Fox Sport in the US recently, and in the UK Sky and BT Sport. BT Sport are actually really ahead of the curve, they are trying to curate a little bit more and really like new music for certain slots."
The key going forward then, is for labels like Hospital and Med School to maintain regular communication with music supervisors, playing them new music and proving the depth of their artists. "It all comes down to relationships. Obviously you've got to have the right music, but keeping the relationships going with the supervisors is key. Keeping them updated, making sure you take them out for dinner when they are in London!"
Yet even more important than this, Howard stressed, is the music itself. "One of the biggest errors you can make is trying to A&R the music on the label, trying to steer it in a direction specifically for sync. Invariably, you will get it wrong, you won't get the sync you wanted, and you've compromised your musical integrity and probably not sold any records either. Sync is the icing on the cake, and you've got to have a nice cake."