I I’d like to tell you that I was introduced to dance music in underground clubs in Berlin, where mysterious resident DJs blew my teenage mind by performing indescribable magic with beats and synth lines. But that would be a lie. My first introduction to dance music came in the form of a futuristic 90s racing game called WipEout. Obsessively playing at a friend’s house, I was introduced to the Chemical Brothers and Orbital, who both graced the soundtrack; shortly after, the admirably chaotic sim Crazy Taxi introduced me to the Offspring, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater had me rubbing shoulders with Bad Religion. I first heard Garbage on the soundtrack of an obscure PlayStation 2 DJ game, Amplitude from 2003, created by a Boston developer called Harmonix – the same developer who would later create the incredibly popular Guitar Hero series. Those games sold 25 million copies, and I know I wasn’t the only college student who discovered a previously unknown love for the nerdy rock-dad while tilting a plastic guitar skyward during More Than a Feeling in Boston.
While I may be showing my age with these searing cultural references, video games remain a primary outlet for discovering music, especially among kids and teens, 90% of whom play regularly. In many ways, we are in the golden age of gaming as a tool of discovery. You might find a new favorite band in CHVRCHES after hearing their moody theme for the expensive arthouse game Death Stranding, or discover Lil Nas X from his anthem for the League of Legends 2022 World Championships.
Artists create music through Minecraft and Roblox, and DJs play sets in Grand Theft Auto Online. It’s hard to imagine anyone discovering Ariana Grande through her Fortnite concert series last year, given that she was already one of the biggest pop stars in the world – but given that more than 27 million people attended, it’s certainly not impossible that some of them were new to music. The influence of video games on music discovery is only growing; Depending on the study you’re looking at, between 25% and 30% of people now discover new music through games – and the proportion is higher among Gen Z.
Most video game soundtracks are composed specifically for the game in question. In the 1980s and 1990s, this involved talented musicians trying to extract characterful and evocative music from machines with three or four sound channels and negligible memory, a creative challenge that resulted in some of the earworms most enduring in pop culture history: think Pac-Man. , the first Mario or the Game Boy themes of Pokémon.
Nowadays, game scores are more like film scores, performed by full orchestras and without technical constraints. (Video game soundtracks are some of the most streamed albums on Spotify and have had their own vinyl boom.) the artists on them.
EA, the developer behind Fifa, likes to think of itself as a career builder for musicians. Soundtracks usually feature both established stars such as Bad Bunny and Gorillaz, both featured on the Fifa 2023 soundtrack, and newer artists such as Peggy Gou, who featured on Fifa 2019. Often these new artists are the ones you might expect to hear in ads a few years down the line.
Steve Schnur, head of music at EA, is optimistic about the influence the soundtrack is having on the music industry: “We knew video games could become what MTV and commercial radio had been in the 80s. and 90. Any song given in Fifa – whether it’s a new track by an established band or a debut by an unknown artist – will be heard around the world nearly a billion times,” a he told the Guardian in 2018. “Clearly no medium in the history of recorded music can deliver such massive and instantaneous global exposure.
Fifa’s soundtrack has morphed as tastes have changed – although it featured mostly mainstream rock in the mid-2000s, it now also includes grime, EDM and pop – but it also shapes tastes. This gave rise to the concept of “Fifa songs” – the kind of tunes you heard on repeat when you were an 11-year-old child obsessed with football, the musical background of your generation. This indicates why video games are a particularly powerful avenue of musical discovery: because game soundtracks find their audience at the exact age when music has the most profound impact on the development of taste, and forever link that music to indelible and iconic images.
I first heard Flying Lotus in GTA5; a few summers later, I saw it live and felt eerily transported to those fictional California streets. Streaming music can feel disposable – Spotify gives you so many new tracks all the time that few of them really sink in. When you play a game, the music you hear settles deep into your emotional memory. That’s why, every time I catch the lasers on a Chemical Brothers set, I remember being 10 years old – hearing their music for the first time as I rambled wide-eyed down the track in a game racing game.