Forget Radio: Video Games, TV Ads Are Where You’ll Hear New Music

More and more, artists are getting their big breaks not from radio or video outlets, but from video games and car ads.

You, as L.A. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, drive the lane for a jam to bring your team atop rivals the Sacramento Kings. As the Staples Center erupts and a smile spreads across your face, Joe Budden’s “Drop Drop” bangs from your TV’s speakers. “When that record comes out next year,” you think to yourself, “I’ve gotta have it.”

There’s nothing that would make Steve Schnur happier than if the above scenario happened every time “NBA Live 2003″ was played. As Vice President, Worldwide Executive of Music for leading game manufacturer Electronic Arts (EA), Schnur has become an unlikely but vital player in the music industry’s high-stakes game of breaking new music.

“I don’t think a lot of people realized the impact of the video-game industry,” Schnur said. “I really believe that the gaming industry has the reach, the buzz and the cultural impact to do for this generation of music fans what MTV did for the last.”

With competition for the limited hours — not to mention dollars — a person spends on entertainment at an all-time high, record labels are focusing on unconventional avenues to expose new music to the masses. And video games and TV ads are at the forefront of using the proverb, “If you can’t take Mohammad to the mountain, take the mountain to Mohammad” as a marketing philosophy.

Employing a pop-music soundtrack in video games is nothing new — “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” was one of the first to do so in 1999 — but Electronic Arts is making the greatest strides toward introducing new music to gamers with their move to offer artist, song and album information while the game is being played.

The first EA game to offer such information was “Madden NFL 2003,” which featured new music by Bon Jovi, Good Charlotte and newcomers OK Go, whose single “Get Over It” owes much of its success to the popular football game. Since the game’s release in late August, song info will be listed in all EA games, including “NHL 2003,” “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2″ and “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2003.”

Record companies agree that video games have become a crucial way to get new music out there. Where once game companies dealt with a label’s licensing department if they wanted to use its music, these days Schnur’s office deals directly with the big wigs.

“This is a direct relationship to the labels from the top down,” Schnur said. “The presidents and general managers of each and every label are involved in deciding what songs we use.”

While EA’s commitment to music is just beginning to show signs of success, Mitsubishi’s “Are You In” advertising campaign has a proven track record, and labels have certainly taken notice. The Wiseguys’ “Start the Commotion,” which had only marginal success when Mammoth Records chose conventional routes to break the song, was given new life thanks to the flashy spots reminiscent of a music video. A few weeks after the ads began running, radio stations were flooded with requests for “that Mitsubishi song.”

“We knew that it was an interesting idea, but we had no idea that this campaign was going to take off as it did, almost as pop culture,” said Vinny Picardi, Senior Vice President, Associate Creative Director for Deutsch, the advertising firm that created the spots. “People refer to it. People are doing the dance moves.”

Soon after the ads proved potent for both the automaker and artists, Picardi’s office was inundated with calls asking him to give a new band a shot in the company’s next spot, as if Deutsch were a radio station or magazine.

“This really became prevalent with the last hit ["Days Go By"] from Dirty Vegas,” Picardi said. “[The labels] see the potential. They see that the commercial and the brand can make a hit.”

Mitsubishi’s latest spot, featuring “Breathe” by electronic artists Telepopmusik, is following suit and gaining acceptance from a wider audience, and Capitol Records has taken note. On the “Breathe” CD-single, a sticker taking up nearly a quarter of the disc’s cover and featuring the car company’s logo reads, “… as featured in the Mitsubishi Motors Outlander SUV commercial.”

The campaign for Pepsi Blue is making similar synergy with the rock band Sev. In those spots, the band’s performance of “Same Old Song” is spliced with images of chanting monks. Geffen Records estimates nearly 3.5 million people will see the spot by the end of the year, and 90 percent of the teen audience (12-17) will have been exposed to it an average of 17 times — all without knowing who the band in the ad is. It’s no wonder the rousing rap-rocker has become something of an enigma to that demographic, and the connection was strengthened for both Pepsi and Sev by the song’s video, shot simultaneously with the ad’s production and employing the same set.

“It has been an important initiative for [Sev's label] Interscope Geffen A&M to blend brand marketing with current music and artists,” said Steve Berman, head of Sales and Marketing for Interscope Geffen A&M, in a statement. “Pepsi Blue presented us with the perfect opportunity to expose our band’s music to a wider audience.”

Just how effective the cross promotion is will become evident when “Same Old Song” looks to be added to radio playlists November 19. As an early indicator of the campaign’s success, influential stations such as New York’s Z100, Washington, D.C.’s WHFS and L.A.’s KROQ are already spinning the tune, and weekly sales of the single have nearly doubled since its release, according to SoundScan.

The focus on exposing new music through unlikely outlets comes at a time when conventional means are drying up. Radio playlists are becoming increasingly uniform as a result of consolidation, and getting added to a playlist has grown quite expensive thanks to the fishy, arguably extortive practices of independent radio promoters. Both factors leave the airwaves less friendly for emerging artists than ever. The arena to see videos by new artists has also diminished in recent years, shifting from cable channels to the Internet, so labels are reluctant to splurge for a top-dollar clip for a newcomer without any guarantee it will receive a large-scale audience.

“Four or five years ago, I began to see the value of placing music in other areas of media,” said Kevin Weaver, VP of Soundtracks and New Business Development for Lava Records. “That’s when I started going after these opportunities in a very substantial way … With the climate being what it is, I started looking for ways to place our artists on other people’s soundtracks, other people’s films, other people’s television shows, and it just started to broaden from there.”

Weaver’s strategies arose in the promotional spots for NBC’s fall season, which used “Come Along,” the title track off Swedish pop/soul singer Titiyo’s domestic debut, as the music bed. A similar coupling proved successful two years ago when Coldplay’s “Yellow” was used in ABC promos, and exposed the already moderately popular British band to a much broader audience. Only with Titiyo, there was no fanbase to build upon, and the strike was far more calculated.

The spots began airing at nearly the same time as radio stations were serviced with the single. Hearing “Come Along” on your way home from work and then again when you turned on the TV forged a double-impact exposure. Four weeks later, the album was released to an audience of millions who, like it or not, had at least heard a snippet of the single.

The push to expose new artists via unconventional means shows no signs of slowing. Schnur is currently selecting 10 to 12 songs for “Triple Play 2003,” attempting to capture “the sound of baseball” next spring by predicting “what rock, pop and hip-hop radio is going to sound like six months from now.”

“And we do it for the right reasons,” he concluded. “We do it for the game, we do it for the artist, and we do it for the consumer.”