“I’ve always maintained people in the music industry are the best hustlers in any industry”Jon Vlassopulos, Roblox

Video may have killed the radio star, but video games are proving crucial lifelines for the current generation of musicians.

Of course, from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to FIFA and beyond, music has long played a key role in soundtracking gaming. But – as anyone who’s tried to prise a teenager away from their Xbox during the lock, hard weeks of lockdown can tell you – the two media are converging, as games and music contrive to build ever more immersive experiences.

As with most things in life, you can blame Fortnite. When Marshmello staged the battle royale game’s first virtual concert in 2019, 10.7 million people watched and it quite literally changed the game. Not to mention the music biz.

Since then, many others have followed. Travis Scott’s Astronomical Fortnite show was even bigger, with 12.3m tuning in; Disclosure built a virtual Minecraft world for their Energy album; and Lil Nas X, Ava Max and Royal Blood have all staged events – from album launch parties to full-on virtual concerts – on burgeoning online gaming and social community platform, Roblox.

Such collaborations are also big business. Apart from the obvious knock-on effect on streams and sales, gaming’s booming virtual merch business allows artists to tap into a new revenue stream. And gaming’s revenue stream is a lucrative one: according to the Entertainment Retailers Association, the gaming sector was worth £4.432 billion in 2020, up a huge 17.7% as the sector boomed during the pandemic. That’s almost three times music’s £1.552 billion contribution.

Of course, with most of the planet on lockdown and touring on hiatus, it’s no surprise that the worlds of live and virtual entertainment have moved closer together. But experts say the trend was already happening before the pandemic – and are confident it will continue long after Covid-19 has finally been vanquished.

“Music is the greatest carrier for emotion there is and therefore all entertainment products, shows and games will sooner or later make use of its power,” says Jannis Wenderholm, a former Universal Music exec and now co-founder and head of label at Offmeta, a new independent record label that is looking to forge closer links between music, gaming and esports (where spectators watch professional gamers compete). “With digital entertainment engagement at an all-time high, it’s only natural that game developers, publishers, streaming services and esports companies are actively growing the intersection of music and games.”

Jannis Wenderholm, Offmeta

The big fish are also paying attention. Sony Corp – owners of course of Sony Music – took a stake in Fortnite makers Epic Games last year. And, at the start of this year, Warner Music Group joined a $520 million investment round in Roblox, which has been around since 2006 but became a true phenomenon under lockdown. It attracts an average of over 30 million daily users, mostly teenagers; has eight million creators on the platform; and The Bloxys, the virtual awards ceremony space where Royal Blood played live as avatars, has attracted over 30 million visits. It would take a lot of arena gigs for even the biggest band to get anywhere near that sort of audience…

“We can gather millions of people for you on a Friday launch,” says Jon Vlassopulos, VP and global head of music at Roblox. “It’s like a Super Bowl. And you can also monetise it by selling things like merch, so it’s almost marketing that pays for itself. And the more we experiment, the smarter we get.”

Vlassopulos, another former music biz exec who worked at BMG in the ‘90s, hopes artists and managers will soon view his platform as being as essential as TikTok or Instagram for engaging with fans.

“I’ve always maintained people in the music industry are the best hustlers in any industry,” he laughs. “Artists have been somewhat limited by DSPs, their creativity has to be expressed via a bio, a picture and a play button, which is not that exciting. Roblox is this virtual canvas for an artist, it’s a much more exciting way to express yourself as an artist and to get closer to your fans.”

With huge current demand for music experiences within the gaming and esports world, and turnaround times for even the more ambitious projects getting shorter, many in the biz might be tempted to rush in. But Jannis Wenderholm urges caution.

“The key to delivering a successful project for sure is authenticity,” he says. “Online communities detect sell-outs and purely promotional placements from miles away and will literally roast you if they don’t like what they see.”

Vlassopulos, meanwhile, says the key to any good partnership is “understanding what the ambitions and KPIs are for both sides”, but that the right virtual project at the right time can make a very real impact.

“I will always remember my first concert, but for a lot of these kids, their first ever concert was Lil Nas X [in Roblox], full stop,” he says. “It’s trippy to imagine they don’t see any delineation between the real world and the virtual world where they’re spending so much time with their friends. It’s a seminal moment in their music life.”

Vlassopulos says his phone is “hot” with offers at the moment, and he and others see the virtual ‘metaverse’ eventually co-existing alongside real world events. That would mean you could buy a ticket to a gig at a traditional venue but, with a virtual VIP ticket upsell, enjoy additional content from the artist before, during and after the gig itself.

“Music has become a bit more background over the last few years,” says Vlassopulos. “But now we can actually create that visceral connection between artist and fan and build the social side of the business. We really want to extend the notion of a sustainable ecosystem for people who want to express themselves on the platform, where hopefully we can provide a living wage to millions of artists in the future. This is just the beginning…”

Ready, player one? Let the games begin…