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Q&A: Activision's music man, Tim Riley

On the cusp of the South by Southwest music festival, we catch up with the toe-tapping executive behind the tunes in Tony Hawk.


One of the key personalities driving the increasingly cozy relationship between the game and music industries is Activision music boss Tim Riley.

Sure, he gets all the good junkets--earlier in the year he could have been found attending the MIDEM music summit, a five-day conference, marketplace, performance program, and schmooze fest held in Cannes, France, and today he is jetting from his home in Los Angeles to Austin, Texas, for a nearly weeklong South by Southwest music conference--but Riley comes to the party with a specific agenda in mind.

As Activision's worldwide executive of music, his portfolio is vast, and the good times come with a complete set of responsibilities. It's his group at Activision that guides the game publisher's forward march toward the integration of music into the company's lineup of games.

Riley came to the task with street cred built up at some of the industry's most accomplished labels, including Jive, Giant/Revolution, Warner Bros., and Geffen. He remains a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, and he gets his buttoned-down game face on as well: He sits on the nominations panel for the music committee of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, the organization that hands out the annual Achievement Awards at the DICE Summit held each spring in Las Vegas.

We spoke with Riley on the eve of his departure to the South by Southwest music festival. What goes into your prepping for South by Southwest?

Tim Riley: This will be my 11th South by Southwest. I've attended most of the previous as an A&R executive, so needless to say, now that I'm working in the gaming world, my entire approach is different. How is it different now?

TR: I used to go to Austin in search of unsigned acts, but now I mostly go to take meetings with label reps, managers, agents, attorneys, and bands, as well as take in as much live music as possible, both signed and unsigned. So, most of my prepping revolves around making a show schedule and setting up meetings. How do you make your time in Austin pay off for the music initiative at Activision? What I mean is, do you listen to music differently knowing that ultimately it's going to be paired with a game?

TR: Totally. I go to each show with a few games in mind. Most of the time I've actually already heard music from the bands, so I'm really just checking out the live show and gauging the band's energy to see if it matches that game. I also pick my A&R friends' minds to see what the next big buzz band is. I like to stay as current and as much on the curve as possible, and Austin is the best place to get that done. Is the festival only about seeing and listening to bands or are schmoozing and socializing a big part of the scene at SXSW?

TR: It used to be more about the shows and the bands; now it's pretty much a mix since almost everyone for the industry attends SXSW. The schmoozing is definitely a huge part of it. In a perfect world, how many new bands do you discover for Activision? And do deals actually get done at the show?

TR: I really don't have a preset number of bands I'm looking for. What I do is make a schedule of bands I want to see and try to stick to it. After doing A&R for so many years, I really don't need to take notes of any kind. I've got a pretty good memory, and I know what I'm looking for once I see it. Regarding the deals, we get those done once I get back to the office. Take me back to when you were hired on at Activision. Back then, how would you have characterized Activision's awareness of music as something that could drive sales and awareness of a game?

TR: There was no music department at Activision before I arrived. With the Tony Hawk games, sure, they had music in their titles, although in 1999, I think there were maybe 12 songs in a game. Now we get close to 90 songs in some of our titles. It's changed dramatically. What's your view of a game's soundtrack insofar as how it can add to a game's impact?

TR: We take a similar approach to something like Pulp Fiction and what Quentin Tarantino did with music in that movie--we're concerned with, is that song the right song for that part of the game?

And we don't necessarily care if it's a new artist, if it's a front-line artist, or upcoming artist. We're more concerned with: Is that the right song? For instance?

TR: For instance, in True Crime: Streets of New York City, we kept all the music specific to New York artists. We worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, and all the way to Green Day and Jay Z. We just try and pair up the game with whatever music can make it the best. Ultimately, who decides what music makes the cut?

TR: It depends on the title. On some titles, there's a couple more people involved as far as producers go. In the Tony Hawk games, Tony himself gets involved.

When you're starting to talk about in-game characters and things of that nature, we want to make sure it's something that's relevant, something we'll get as much mileage out of it as we can. So, I work very closely with retail. And I work with our business development people here. I work closely with the marketing people here too. It's really title-specific, but for the most part, it's spearheaded through this department, but it's a collective process. Is there data that you refer to, or does it come down to your ability to read the game, read the band, and read the market for the game?

TR: Yeah, there's research. Sure. I mean, we get all the charts. We look at SoundScan. We look at Billboard. And [in the case of a Tony Hawk game] I'll use feedback from a previous Tony Hawk game before working on a new game. We obviously add music to the game and play them as we go along--put in music to see if it works. You kind of go by your gut a little bit too.

You also go by what you think the kids are looking for, so it's a process that entails everything you mentioned, everything from charts to research to feedback. And what's the pitch to the artist, the pitch to the label?

TR: It's different each time. When you've got a game like Tony Hawk, something that's been around for a while, and it's a game that's labeled as "cool"--a skating game, for example, that's a cool area to be in as a band.

But that has changed a lot in the last three years.

Keep in mind, when we first got here, some of the labels and artists were a little bit hesitant. At that point in time, with [the old] Napster and file sharing, everyone was a little wary about putting music in games. It's changed drastically since then, and the pitch to the artist has gotten a lot easier, if you want to call it a pitch. Everyone's informed now, and everyone's aware of the numbers that these games reach. The demographics are collected. You can pretty much tell who's going to buy a Tony Hawk game. You know who's going to buy Shark Tale. So, if you're an artist, you can tell the demographics you want to get to. Is the average deal a lump-sum payment or are there royalties involved?

TR: We don't do a royalty here. I don't think anyone I know does. We do a lump sum, normally a nonexclusive, limited-term license. Can you tell me about the ability you have to leverage ownership of the song and to sell it again through a different channel, say an iTunes?

TR: Well, we recently put out a CD for the American Wasteland game where we had different songs done exclusively for the game. So the CD just made sense. We'll put together some gifts with purchase, some promotional CDs, things like that, but we rarely get into a separate SKU CD for sale. Relative to Electronic Arts, a publisher who's also committed to music, it's a little bit different because they actually monetize ownership by moving tracks into the subscription services.

TR: That's right. Not for Activision?

TR: We're waiting for something a little bit bigger than that. What would signal that opportunity?

TR: I think the next-gen consoles are going to offer some very interesting opportunities for us, the record labels, and the artists. It remains to be seen how, but we know the technology exists, so a year from now [we may] have this conversation and maybe we can talk about a Fall Out Boy song being in a Tony Hawk game and people clicking from that song to the Web site and buying the whole record or something like that.

Those things are a little more interesting than ringtones. It's just not really on our radar right now. You're just not there yet when it comes to a one-click purchase solution for the music catalog Activision owns?

TR: We're not there. We are preparing; we're having conversations with people--players in that field and the labels. I just don't want to get into what we're doing or have a conversation about what our plans are. But we are preparing for it. Who's leading that conversation? Is it the game side or the music side, publishers or labels?

TR: Both, I think. Everybody's [excited]. The labels are really excited about video games, and the artists are as well. Activision is very excited about the new consoles and the space we'll have from a music standpoint. There are opportunities we'll be able to enjoy that we haven't been able to so far. I think the excitement is on both sides, definitely. Are artists beginning to view games with the level of interest and respect that they've viewed movies, as a legitimate medium to work with?

TR: Just by virtue of being on a tour bus, I think the artists themselves happen to be gamers. They play a lot of games. A&R people tell me that the response they're getting from artists now is the same response they were getting years ago about hearing the song on a radio the first time. There's genuine excitement about it. But do you think it's comparable to movies and the like?

TR: Maybe it's not safe to compare all movies and all games, but from a composer's standpoint, I know that a lot of film composers are getting into video games. When you talk about freedom and space and being able to do interesting scores that aren't so linear--like in a film, you watch the film 20 times and it's the same score every time. In a video game, you know, you can have an adaptive score, a score that changes as you play the game. I think that's an interesting [opportunity] for a composer.

Yeah, I think it's come a long way. What works best in the game space--licensed songs, original songs, buzz bands, unknowns?

TR: A new fad right now seems to be the exclusive--songs written specifically for games. That might be the most interesting thing happening right now.

[It's something] I enjoy doing. Coming from A&R, it gives us a chance to be creative and go back in the studio. But I think all of the ways can work well. What's your preferred approach?

TR: I personally like using older catalog artists. There's a couple that I still have on my list that I haven't had the chance to work with, that I want to. Who's on top of that list?

TR: Well, Elvis Presley is definitely on our list. We've gotten Bob Dylan. We've gotten Johnny Cash. We've gotten Frank Sinatra. There are a couple others out there--the Stones and Led Zeppelin. They would be fun to work with. But your absolute top five artists you'd love to hear in an Activision game would be who?

TR: That would be Miles Davis, Willie Nelson, Led Zeppelin, Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley. Who's on your hit list from the lineup of current, touring bands--the Green Days or Death Cab for Cuties?

TR: Yeah, we've worked with them. On True Crime: Streets of New York, we worked with Jay Z, and on American Wasteland we had Billie Joe of Green Day as a character. Ideal soundtrack: Originally scored? Licensed?

TR: I like a game that has a large soundtrack. So as far as the style or as far as an approach, I think mixing a score with licensed music seems to be my favorite type of soundtrack. I know you have a big week ahead in Austin, but on those other weekends, when you're not in Austin, do you stay plugged into the scene?

TR: Well, on weekends, we see shows. I've got a Sirius Radio in my car, my iPod's hooked up in my car, we've got about 50,000 songs in our computer here, and every day we get mail from all the labels--from the majors to the indies.

We try and stay as current as we can. We're constantly listening to music. And it goes back to the charts, staying up on the trades and reading the various music publications. It's our job to know what's going on. Earlier this year in Cannes I hear you picked a band to place in a game.

TR: I had 70-something submissions, and yes, we picked a winner to put into a game. Who did you decide on?

TR: Living Legends is who won. And you're going to put one of their tracks in what game?

TR: Can't say quite yet, but stay in touch. I'll let you know soon. What's the funniest SXSW story you have up your sleeve? It's OK, our site's readers are all above the age of 18.

TR: Well to be honest, I've got a million, but the one that comes to mind is about a friend of mine (who will remain nameless) was leaving one company to take a job at another company. He had a huge going-away party on Friday night, which was, needless to say, a lot of fun. The problem was this friend of mine had a golf game set for Saturday morning with his new boss. Without getting too graphic, my friend ended up loosing control and vomiting all over his new boss the next morning. music guys know how to live large. Have fun in Austin, Tim. Thanks for your time.

TR: You're welcome.

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