Seventy feet from Nat King Cole’s piano, with Frank Sinatra’s microphones nearby, in Capitol Records’ historic Hollywood recording studios, a lanky guy with spiky aqua hair plays the world’s most popular video game alongside a string of musicians.
It’s a decided change from the usual reasons people load thousands of dollars worth of expensive gear into Studio A, where countless musical stars have recorded hit records for decades. This Sunday night, it’s about Capitol, a division of Universal Music Group, trying to remake itself for a tech-driven future, and about the world’s best-known gamer getting himself a new side gig as a musical tastemaker.
Just outside the building, teams of code writers are presenting projects they built over the previous 36 hours as part of a hackathon at Capitol’s Hollywood offices. The hackathon – run in concert with Spotify, Amazon-owned streaming site Twitch, Red Bull Esports and Verizon – is part of Capitol’s efforts to make sure it doesn’t get blindsided by another tech revolution like the one that has savaged the music business the last 20 years.
Inside, the gamer Ninja, real name Tyler Blevins, is a 27-year-old savant of both video games and of talking about video games while playing online before tens of thousands of fans on Twitch. A former esports athlete, Blevins crossed over to broader pop culture last spring when he played Fortnite with music superstar Drake, and more than 600,000 people watched simultaneously, a Twitch record.
Blevins is also huge on YouTube, where he has 20.1 million subscribers, and Instagram, where he has 11.7 million more. YouTube’s release this week of the site’s most popular 2018 videos gave the top two slots for gaming to Ninja: 32 Kill Solo Squads!! Fortnite Battle Royale Gameplay (37.7 million views) and Fortnite with Ninja | Overtime 3 |Dude Perfect (34.5 million views). Suffice it to say, he’s an online power.
Blevins came to Studio A to help launch Ninjawerks Vol. 1, an album released on Capitol’s Astralwerks label that features 13 tracks of electronic dance music curated by Ninja. Several tracks have already been released, but the full album hits Dec. 14. The songs are all electronic music or EDM, and help boost Blevins when he’s gaming. But he insists music is much more than gaming atmosphere. It’s really a set of soundtracks to parts of his life.
“When I travel and do amazing events, I usually pick bands and just listen to that album,” Blevins said. “I can listen to an album and it takes me back to that time. That’s the power of music.”
The project started in June, a product of a college friendship between an Astralwerks employee and one of Blevins’ management team at Loaded. Those conversations quickly turned into a Blevins wishlist of electronic and EDM artists, then the label thinned that list to a group of interested musicians willing to join the project.
“When they came back with the list of musicians that I wanted and who wanted to be on the record, I couldn’t believe it,” said Blevins, who actually contributed to one of the first tracks released, 3LAU’s Game Time.
Tycho, whose Jetty contribution to the album is one of his typically glistening, upbeat instrumentals, is among the day’s attendees. Like many of the album’s musicians, Tycho is a long-time gamer and a Ninja fan, though recently, he said he’s been playing on a virtual-reality rig instead of a PC or console. But getting the chance to be on the Ninjawerks album was something Tycho said he couldn’t resist.
“It was a huge honor to be asked to take part, this idea of having music cross over into gaming,” Tycho said. “Games were the backdrop to my childhood really. Then they became an escape when I was working really hard (on a song). They were really kind of a cure of relaxation.”
Another game-playing musician at Blevins’ side for the day is rapper Lil Yachty, who also popped up at last summer’s giant E3 games conference, playing Fortnite with notables such as Los Angeles Lakers guard Josh Hart at the booth for Subnation
, a company that connects brands to the music, street art, fashion, sneakers and other subcultures around gaming.
The relationship between music and games is long and sometimes close. One early PlayStation game, N2O: Nitrous Oxide
, featured an album’s worth of music (the disc was even playable as a CD) by electronic duo The Crystal Method. Tommy Tallarico
has made a career composing orchestral soundtracks for notable titles such as Mortal Kombat
and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
, then playing those themes live on tour. There’s even an entire genre of electronic music called 8-bit, inspired by the blip-and-bloop sounds of early games.
In this iteration of music and games, Astralwerks and Loaded had to quickly hammer out a number of important deal points, then the label set to assembling the compilation and building a global marketing plan. The label even commissioned an artist to create characters inspired by Ninja and the 13 musicians, said Astralwerks General Manager Toby Andrews. Those images will be turned into collectable items, another way to drive engagement and fan anticipation as some tracks dribble out ahead of the full release.
The result has been a formidable project that occupied not just the Astralwerks staff but Universal Music sales and marketing teams around the globe, said Andrews. And when it’s come to marketing, Blevins and his team have worked closely with the label to get the word out.
“To my knowledge, we’ve never seen anything as in-depth as this,” said Andrews. “I’ve seen people involved in the theme tune to a game. There are some games that have a music component. But I’ve never seen anyone of Tyler’s status and popularity who’s ever been up to create such an all-immersive musical experience.”
The crossover project was Andrews’ first big venture after becoming head of Astralwerks in May. More importantly, it represents a chance to connect musicians to new audiences in ways that labels really haven’t done in the past.
“Obviously, the main opportunity is to expose a new group of artists and a new group of music to audiences,” Andrews said. “We’re working them through radio, we’re working them through channels as we normally would. But we’re also able to throw one-off activations that feel unique. With Tyler’s involvement, we can do a lot of things first.”
The album is more than a vanity project. One pragmatic payoff: Blevins alone will be licensed to use the 13 tracks as backdrop for his YouTube videos, simplifying the huge headache of music licensing that dogs many online creators.
“That was something that was really important to Tyler from the beginning,” said Andrews. “He wanted to make sure the project could help backdrop the things he does every day.”
The project is already a hit online. The first three tracks – from Tycho, Alesso and 3LAU – generated 3 million streams combined, including 2 million YouTube views, and 2,000 posts on social media, within just a few days of release, according to Astralwerks. Blevins flexed his own social-media muscle, playing Fortnite on Twitch with all three musicians the night the first tracks were released. The webcast drew a steady audience of about 50,000 fans. He also helped drive 5,500 follows of a Spotify playlist in the first 24 hours, an extremely high number, the label said.
“It’s very interesting stuff but not surprising at all,” said Michelle Merino of Trending All Day
, an influencer-marketing consultancy and news site. “It was only a matter of time before the music business would want to connect with these social-media icons. We see more and more cross-promotional and cross-platform ventures that leverage an influencer’s online popularity and connected fan base.”
Merino said the deal was reminiscent of efforts by film and TV studios to use YouTube stars to entice younger audiences to watch their movies and TV shows. The difference here is that younger audiences still listen to lots of music, including the electronic and EDM artists on Ninjawerks. Another area of opportunity will be podcasts, such as the Ear Biscuits show from YouTube stalwarts Rhett & Link.
“As the platforms change and audiences grow, the partnership opportunities to work with creators are endless,” Merino said.