Alt.Gaming #4: JULIE WEIR, VISIBLE NOISE
Visible Noise head Julie Weir on her experiences of working with companies like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, the importance of making the most of each side's potential, and what happens at 3 in the morning with Singstar and a few of bottles of wine
With the upcoming release of the video game tie-in God Of War 3: Blood & Metal EP (out now), we've spoken to some of rock and alternative music's most infamous gamers about their favourite games, what makes a great soundtrack, and the relationship between alternative music and gaming since Guitar Hero. In Part Four...
Lostprophets. Bullet For My Valentine. Bring Me The Horizon. Three of the biggest names in Metal, all discovered by Julie Weir. Going from a small independent label created as a side-imprint to Cacophonous, her label Visible Noise has grown to one of the genre's foremost independents, not just because of Weir's incredible ear for potential, or her thirst for getting involved in new experimental ventures, but her willingness to listen to the kids who buy her label's records. It's an approach that's still serving her well, with the likes of Your Demise, The Dead Formats and Outcry Collective still gathering the plaudits, while others in her stable have gone on to license albums through the likes of Sony, Columbia and more.
We last spoke to Weir back in 2007, when Visible Noise were among the sponsors of Ubisoft's ambitious Fuse 07 music and gaming festival [Click here for the interview]. A long-time gamer herself, Weir was the perfect choice to get involved. Of course, Visible Noise have often licensed their tracks to the likes of Visible Noise, experiencing first hand the difficulties of working with companies often operating to not just a different schedule, but used to working to quite different time frames to release their products.
In the fourth part of our Alt.Gaming series, Julie Weir talks to us about her experiences of working with companies like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, the importance of making the most of each side's potential, and what happens at 3 in the morning with Singstar and a couple of bottle of Pinot Grigio.
Do you play a lot of video games?
"I do, yeah, I do. I'm more of a Wii player, cos I'm a bit rubbish at computer games these days. I used to have Xbox 360 but I ended up giving it to my nephews, cos all of the games got a bit too shoot 'em up for me, so they're now amazing at James Bond, and Assassin's Creed and all that kind of thing. I do follow the games quite a bit 'cause obviously we work with people like Electronic Arts and Microsoft as well. A lot of our bands are really massive gamers, 'Prophets and Bring Me The Horizon especially.
"My personal favourites - this is going to sound really sad, 'cause I have my Nintendo DS in my bag behind me now. I absolutely, I got really into Professor Leyton, which is a bit sad, but I also got really into things like Zoo Keeper. I like puzzle, games, but that's on my DS. On my Wii console, I love sports, I love Rampant Rabbids, which I think is hilarious, and I also obviously have Rock Band and Guitar Hero both at home, which my neighbours hate me for I'm sure."
What's the first game you played with a rock soundtrack that really stood out for you?
"I think it would have been either Tony Hawk or Grand Theft Auto I think. Tony Hawk was always really good cos it was always thing like Pennywise. There's something about Tony Hawk as a game probably, the music's integral to the gameplay as well. Because skating and music's always been particularly close, I think it makes complete sense. But me personally, I don't think I've ever gone out and bought a record cos it was on a game soundtrack. But that's because I already know the music to start with, I think.
You partnered up with Ubisoft as part of the Fuse 07 Music & Gaming Festival, but was there anything you'd done as a label before Fuse that connects with video games?
"Yeah, we'd licensed a lot of tracks of Lostprophets to Electronic Arts for FIFA and stuff like that, and I've always been fascinated by that fact that computer games companies always seem to have so much money as a budget for the music licensing as well. Not so much these days, but years ago I remember there was a deal done for a band called Cubanate to go on, I can't remember what game it was on" [Gran Turismo - Ed.] "but they got paid a silly amount of money. The budget now is about a tenth of what it was then, but that's the same for most of the stuff in the music industry right now, to be honest."
So you got involved because of that connection?
"Yeah, I did. Actually, it was Ubisoft, actually, it was Phil Brannelly at Ubisoft... Phil's a really good ideas man for things like that, and he's a bit of a maverick in that department. He wants to bring music and gaming closer and closer together, I mean I think he's the first person that's ever actually thrown it out there and went, 'look, this stuff happens all the time, you know, and we all need to do something about it'. Although gamers and music fans are two separate beasts, really, I mean having been to Fuse, and having walked round the hall where people set up on their computers and do their the LAN parties in a hall of 2000 people is just bizarre."
Why didn't it continue after that year?
"Budgets, really. I mean the games world, it exists around sales, really. I think Phil was trying to make something a bit more fun, and try to build a community, but it was one person against an entire genre, I suppose, and he really wanted to make things work, and it's harder I suppose as one person as opposed to 3000. Obviously the first of anything is always a little bit shaky and it's baby giraffe legs, but I think if we'd have done it a second year or even a third year it would have been a completely different beast now."
How did you think it went?
"I thought it was brilliant, I really did, and it was almost building a little community for Ubisoft and its gamers really, I thought it was very clever and I still stand by the fact I wish it'd gone further, I really do."
If it had come out a year later, when all that buzz around Rock Band and Guitar Hero had started, do you think it would have been more successful?
"I don't know. Guitar Hero and Rock Band is a game for people who don't play computer games, really, I think. It's an experience, not a game. So I don't know if it would have changed the perception of the games world the way Ubisoft's done. I mean if Ubisoft were to bring out some kind of rock band type of game, maybe that would have changed their complete lie of the land as well, I don't know. "
Have you played games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero?
"Sadly too much. A friend of mine had it and I think it was just a drunken night, it all started with Singstar with me, which is obviously two bottles of Pinot Grigio on a Saturday night and I'm singing ABBA until 3 o'clock in the morning. But that's where it all started and I mean everybody can use their voice, regardless of whether they're good, bad or indifferent. But Guitar Hero, you do turn into some kind of cartoon monster, where you will sit there and play that Dragonforce track 300 times and only get as far as the first bar. I think it's fantastically entertaining, cos it means that you can actually experience playing an instrument and be just totally non musical I think it's fun and I think that kidn of thing sort of exacerbated the fact that kids go out and buy real guitars more now than turntables."
Do you think games like these have affected the number of kids getting into music, and learning to play themselves?
"I really do yeah. I honestly really really do. Rock Band in general I think has been absolutely amazing, of course now there's Band Hero as well. It gives people that little bit of extra confidence, 'cause I mean I can't read music - well I can a little bit now - but I can sit there and quite happily noodle my way through 'Sweet Child Of Mine' or something on Guitar Hero, and I'd never be able to do that on a real guitar."
Have you ever met anyone who's been introduced to one of your bands or to Metal through one of these games?
"We manage a band called Evile who have got 200,000 downloads of a song of theirs called 'Thrasher' on Rock Band and I know a lot of people who got introduced to the band through that specific game, yeah. 200,000, I mean, that's crazy."
Have you ever had a similar number of downloads of a track?
"What you mean actually downloading it from an album? Yeah, not 200,000! That's what I mean, it's just a completely different way of engaging with a track. I mean, it's a really, really hard track to play, so it is one of those that people'll download just to prove themselves either absolutely terrible or just prove they're the Herman Lee of the estate!"
I've been trying to work out whether it's because it's a more immersive way of getting involved in music or whether its simpy karaoke.
"Well yeah, I totally understand. Rock Band is basically karaoke for lads. Karaoke for metallers cos not everybody wants to get up there and sing Hours Of The Rising Sun, or Beat It when they've had a drink. But lads will quite happily get up and noodle around, whether they're good bad or terrible.
"I think it is a totally different way of engaging with the music, It's not as portable obviously, cos you can't like walk around with your rock band kit or your guitar hero controller over your shoulder all of the time, but I do think, I'm sure they must be teaching it in schools, or letting kids in music class experience tracks like that. 'Cause it also means that you can actually break down, in Rock Band or Band Hero, you can actually break down the different tracks - which does change the way you appreciate the song as well, because you appreciate it by the different instruments, not just as one particular noise."
Do you find yourself listening to tracks differently since you started playing?
Yeah. I prefer 'Bulls On Parade' by Rage Against The Machine, and I do listen to it considerably differently now, yeah! Yeah I do now, but because of my job, I do that with my own bands anyway regardless, but I do tend to listen to stuf as a whole rather than split down into tracks."
Do you think there's been a Guitar Hero effect, that it's made it more acceptable for bands to get involved in gaming?
"Yeah, I think it is, but I don't think it's ever been unacceptable, cos I mean everyone always thinks it's cool to be involved in computer games, bands always do, and I don't think I've ever turned round and worked with a band who'd say no to being put on a computer game ever. It's almost like a pat on the back."
How about from the side of the video games companies you deal with?
"Again, I've never found it unacceptable. I mean I've always worked with people on a partnership level for things like that anyway. As you know, our involvement with Fuse ages ago, and then we worked quite closely with Electronic Arts, and we know the marketing people there very well, we did with Bullet [For My Valentine] and we did with Lostprophets, and we're working with Sony Playstation now on basically putting all Lostprophets tracks up on Singstar. I mean a lot of our artists are too heavy for those particular games, you understand, but 'Prophets cross over quite well."
So it's got limited application for the music industry, because certain genres only suit certain games?
"Yeah I mean for things like Singstar, Singstar is basically the commercial end of it all, we've Guitar Hero and Rock Band, you can have heavier artists, but with Singstar you need to have the singalong vocal, effectively, hence we haven't had Bring Me The Horizon on Singstar just yet. I'm working on it, but you know!"
If not just Guitar Hero and Rock Band, what games do you think have been pivotal in this relationship between the music industry and gaming?
"Definitely the ones I mentioned before, with Tony Hawk, but then Grand Theft Auto as well. Was it Vice City? Actually released a double CD compilation of the soundtrack, which I thought was quite interesting. And I mean people now are competing with each other to get on things like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. As I say, 200,000 downloads of one particular song, when they haven't actually done that many downloads or actual album sales, is crazy."
If it's never been unacceptable, why is it more visible now?
"I think revenue streams are becoming a lot more homogenised, do you know what I mean? I think the video games industry needs the music industry, the music industry need the video games industry as a revenue stream, so that's more the point. I wouldn't say it's necessarily more visible. I just think it's more games out there for new platforms and everything as well.
"The Wii for instance, I mean Wii's not massive on music from what I can remember, I mean Wii just goes down the Nintendocore route of bleeps and tweets really. Xbox live has a lot of music videos and everything up there on their social network. And obviously Playstation now is also doing the Singstar social network, where people upload their own videos and everything too. So it's crossing over into everything - not just music, not just video games - it's a community."
Nowadays there's news about a band licensing songs to Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Do you think we could one day see them becoming the Fourth Format for the industry?
"Yeah quite possibly. Certain bands have released singles on that before they've released it on a physical format. Was it Metallica actually did one?" [Own edition of Guitar Hero] "It's almost like releasing a box set, if you look at it that way."
What do you make of the God Of War: Blood & Metal EP of original Metal inspired by the God Of War III release?
"I think it's genius, I think it's really good, and I think any crossover that can help a brand expand and bands expand, I think it's genius. The computer games industry will be putting a lot of money into, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, all those kinds of people will be putting on like Fuse. It'll actually get to the stage where they're sponsoring band tours. You know like bands do the Warped tour? I think at some point there'll be like the Guitar Hero World Tour, literally. I know that the PR agencies that were looking after them, they actually, I remember when the new version of Guitar Hero came out, there was a big party in East London and all our bands got invited as well. So it's like an event, it's like a gig that's used to publicise the actual release of the game."
"I really do sincerely hope it works out like that. I'd be interested to see the way that everything's working, I mean I'm really interested in getting more and more involved in this stuff as well."
You mentioned that Lostprophets are going to be releasing a bundle through the Singstar Singstore. When can we expect to get that?
"Well, it's bizarre, cos I mean with Singstar, it takes so long to ingest into the Sony system, cos it's just a tripping up at every single hurdle. It'll be out the first half of the year, but it does take quite a while to get it sorted out. It does indeed, yeah. The games industry aren't used to doing things at high speed, whereas the music industry has to."
Do you think that could be an obstacle to future collaborations between the two? Has that ever been an issue for you?
"I think it could potentially be, cos the lead times that they need for computer games is insane. Not yet, but then we haven't been involved in it as heavily as we'd like to be, really, so watch this space on that!"
Lostprophets will be releasing a SongPack to the Singstar SingStore shortly, including 'Burn Burn', 'Fake Sound Of Progress' and the majority of their past single releases. For more info, head to http://www.singstargame.com
Extracts from this interview originally appeared in The Escapist.