From rock to rap, artists are doubling down on videogames to reach new listeners

A performance in ‘Fortnite’ last year by The Kid Laroi included three unreleased tracks. (Epic Games)
A performance in ‘Fortnite’ last year by The Kid Laroi included three unreleased tracks. (Epic Games)

Summary

Musicians are releasing new songs in games, in some cases before anywhere else.

A few hours before the up-and-coming rapper Odetari released his latest album on the major streaming platforms, fans got a chance to hear it first in an unlikely venue: a videogame.

Music has long been a part of games, but artists—from Gen X stalwart Metallica and pop star Lady Gaga to rapper Big Sean and indie act Weyes Blood—have been doubling down on the medium in recent years, taking advantage of modern tactics for reaching the industry’s massive youth-oriented user base.

Artists are signing deals with game companies to debut new songs through interactive events and as background music for games themselves, in some cases weeks before those tracks are released on the likes of Spotify.

Artists are also selling virtual goods featuring their likenesses and music for players’ avatars, and they are hiring developers to build persistent in-game worlds where their tunes—new and old—can be heard around the clock. Many are gamers themselves, parents of gamers or both.

“Videogames are a huge priority" for today’s artists, said Joe Khoury, a licensing executive at Atlantic Records. “They’re not only revenue drivers in terms of strong licensing income, but they’re huge marketing drivers as well."

For in-game events, financial terms vary by performer and the scope of the promotions. Artists typically collect a licensing fee when their music is played in games and a cut of revenue from sales of virtual items.

While listening to Odetari’s tracks in “Mega Noob Simulator," a free fighting game on Roblox, attendees could join the rapper in a virtual scavenger hunt for “Odecoins." Tens of thousands of people jumped into the December event.

“I was looking for those pieces with the fans," said Odetari, whose real name is Taha Ahmad. “It really connected us."

Nineteen-year-old Audrey Verespy hadn’t heard of the artist before the event but decided to attend because she is a longtime “Mega" player and has struggled to find new music she likes. “I don’t listen to the radio, and YouTube can be a bit of an echo chamber," she said.

Since then Verespy, who lives in Connecticut, has added many of Odetari’s songs to her digital library.

Standing out

One reason why artists are focusing more on games nowadays is that it has become harder to stand out from the competition. The rise of music streaming has led to a flood of new content being uploaded every day, while the tastemaking days of MTV and pop radio DJs are over.

As growth from subscription streaming services such as Spotify begins to slow, industry leaders are betting the market’s next wave of revenue comes from licensing music in three key areas: social media, fitness apps such as Peloton and videogames.

“We’re trying to meet fans where fans are at," said Dennis Kooker, president of Sony Music’s global digital business. “When we look at Gen Z and Gen Alpha, what we’re seeing is that gaming is the No. 1 entertainment choice over video."

Games are popular among young folks, and record executives have long operated under the assumption that most people’s musical tastes are solidified during their teenage years. About three-quarters of Americans under the age of 18 play videogames, according to a 2023 report from the Entertainment Software Association.

Twenty-year-old Taylor Morehead of Fort Smith, Ark., became a fan of The Kid Laroi after seeing a performance by the Australian rapper in “Fortnite" last year. The show included three unreleased tracks and The Kid Laroi’s avatar teleported with the audience to various virtual settings, including a recording studio resembling a science lab.

Several months later, when The Kid Laroi released his album “The First Time," Morehead added it to his Spotify library. “I knew some of those songs would be on it," he said.

A TikTok alternative

While many young people also spend their free time engaging with short-form video on social media, TikTok, one of the most powerful music promotion tools, is experiencing an exodus of popular music from every major music company and independent labels, since failing to reach a new licensing agreement with Universal Music Group.

Unlike social media, where virality of a song snippet can be happenstance, a videogame player is likely to hear entire tracks or even albums as they compete in matches, go on quests and explore virtual worlds with their friends.

“We have a captive audience," said David Kelley, director of music partnerships and licensing at videogame development studio 2K, a unit of Take-Two Interactive Software. Last year an estimated 3.31 billion people played videogames worldwide, according to industry tracker Newzoo.

Every Friday, the studio’s popular basketball videogame series, NBA 2K, puts out a mix of new and older tunes from a range of mostly hip-hop, rap and R&B artists that play in the background across many parts of the game. Songs from rappers Sheck Wes and Big Sean made their debuts in the latest installment of NBA 2K, which came out in September, along with tracks from several artists on the record labels Def Jam and 88rising.

Less than a decade ago, when people still mostly purchased games printed on discs, artists had to strike deals to have their music included in a new release several months before its launch date. Today, new tracks can be added to a game at any time with a simple software update.Technological advancements in recent years also explain why games can now host interactive concerts, listening parties and other events with millions of players simultaneously. And the improvements have made it possible for developers to turn artists into playable characters and add them to a game post-release.

Bad Bunny, Lil Wayne, Jack Harlow and The Game were made into playable characters for a limited time in NBA 2K’s card-collecting mode, while J. Cole, Bas and Elite were featured in its career mode. The games released annually in the franchise are packed with so much music, “you almost have no choice but to listen," Kelley said.

Old tunes, new fans

Videogames are also helping older songs find new fans. A radio friendly version of Eminem’s 2020 hit “Godzilla" was played at a “Fortnite" event in December, and it re-entered Spotify’s top songs charts the next day, jumping to No. 63 in the U.S.

“When we bring artists into Fortnite, we see an effect outside of Fortnite," said Nate Nanzer, vice president of global partnerships at Epic Games, maker of the franchise. Currently Lady Gaga is headlining the second season of the game’s new Festival mode, with songs, avatar outfits and a virtual stage inspired by her 2020 album “Chromatica."

Ten-year-old Peter Tripi of Ladera Ranch, Calif., watched the Eminem event on “Fortnite" with a group of friends on a large TV screen. The fifth-grader is now a fan.

“I never really thought of him as anything before I saw the concert," said Peter of Eminem. “But then I was like, ‘Oh, this is a good artist.’ "

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