The love of music is deeply human, appreciated on an intrinsic, almost molecular level. We all have our preferences and tastes, but we seem hard-wired to respond positively to music we enjoy and appreciate.
And as any music aficionado will tell you, live music is on another level. Well, it's on another level when we're talking about extraordinarily talented musicians who have something to offer besides a glossy, PR-driven, often fabricated image. There's nothing like the latter when it comes to Video Games Live, the ongoing, live concert series that is unabashedly passionate, unbelievably powerful and unique, and of extraordinarily high quality. Creator and veteran musician Tommy Tallarico leads the charge and whatever you do, don't turn away and say, "meh, I'm not into video games so I wouldn't be interested."
In point of fact, you are just the person Tommy and Co. want to snag. They want you to come and see their heady and emotional blend of orchestral beauty and rock-and-roll power. They want you to emerge shocked and appreciative, with a newfound respect for anything related to video games, and a smile on your face that will remain for days. It's happening, everywhere they go, and the result is unbelievably positive; people of all ages, in all walks of life, suddenly wanting to learn instruments, becoming more appreciative of real musicians, etc.
In brief, VGL is actually managing to do what schools are not: Instill a fresh passion into the minds of everyone, especially younger individuals. It's one of the most impressive and uplifting success stories you'll read about anywhere, so listen up:
GaG: For those who aren’t familiar, talk a little about VGL’s origins and how the project got started.
Tommy: “Okay, Video Games Live is the greatest game music of all time played by a full symphony and choir. It’s special and unique because we’ve got a massive video screen, rock-and-roll lighting, interactive elements with the crowd; it’s really a huge stage show production.
It has all the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert, and then we mix that with cutting-edge tech and the fun that video games provide.
The reason I created this show is to prove to the world just how culturally significant and artistic games have become over the years, and I also wanted to usher in a whole new generation of young people, so they can better appreciate the arts, the symphony and orchestral music. I really set out to make the show for everyone. You don’t have to know a darn thing about video games to have a greater appreciation of this music, and how far the industry has come. Some of the best emails and Facebook messages we get are from non-gamers. They say things like, “Okay, now I get it; now I know why my kids are into video games. The music is just incredible and the visuals and storylines are so amazing.”
GaG: What’s your take on how video game music has evolved over the years?
Tommy: “When I first started in game music over 25 years ago, it was just a bunch of bleeps and bloops; we were so limited by the technology. But then after we got past the cartridges and got into the mid-‘90s with the CD-ROMs as a storage medium, we could really start creating music with live recordings and better productions. Even then, it still took a few years before the industry really got the budgets up. That’s the thing; we just didn’t have the budgets all those years ago, so it was the biggest issue we had to deal with.
It wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that we started hearing great soundtracks, like we hear in The Elder Scrolls, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, etc. We finally had real budgets, you know?”
GaG: Considering the popularity and undeniable mainstream appeal of games today, do you think original game compositions and musicians should be more popular?
Tommy: “Well, they are household names to gamers, right? And besides, if you walk down the street and pass Danny Elfman or John Williams, would you really recognize them? I would argue that video game music is actually more popular than film music and let me explain why:
From a sales standpoint, the average game soundtrack outsells the average film soundtrack by about 3-to-1.
Take for example OCRemix.org, a website where tens of thousands of people from around the world are mixing video game music and uploading it for free, in whatever style they want. The site has been running a good 15, 16 years and there have been thousands and thousands of downloads. If film scores are so popular, how come people aren’t remixing, uploading and downloading them with such frequency?
And how about this— Did you know there are thousands of video game cover bands all over the world? There’s even a festival every year – it’s going into its 13th year – and it’s called MAGfest. This sees 50-60 thousand people a year; it’s a convention where video game cover bands from all over the world come and play. It’s basically like a gamer Woodstock, if you will. And again I have to ask: Where are all the movie soundtrack cover bands? Last time I checked, there wasn’t an 'Avatar' or 'Inception' cover band. And where is the festival all the movie fans go to that’s designed exclusively for film scores?”
GaG: Speaking of popularity, just how popular has VGL become?
Tommy: “Last week in London, we got two Guinness World Records; one was for the most shows ever done by a live symphony that tours the world: 367 shows. And we’ve actually done five more since so it’s 372 now.
No other show has done as many performances as we have, period.
So a video game music show beats ‘em all! The other Guiness Record was for the most number of people to ever watch a live show: 752,000. This was in Beijing, China, where we had 50,000 actually at the venue watching, and another 700,000 watching it as a live stream. No one has ever come close to that; we actually smashed our own record of 350,000. This just shows you how powerful video games are."
GaG: What would you say to someone who has never seen VGL live, assuming they’re just not into video games at all?
Tommy: “I would say the reason VGL is so popular, and why it has broken so many records, is because the core music is unbelievable. That’s really the thing. And I’ll tell you what VGL isn’t: It’s not a symphony on stage with everyone dressed up in tuxedos playing old music. Not only do we present this incredible new music in such a unique way, with the video screens and rock-and-roll lighting and humor, we also prove just how culturally significant gaming has become.
Like I said, I always wanted to create a show that non-gamers would love and appreciate so really, VGL was made for THEM. I would never want people to be intimidated and say, ‘oh, I don’t play games so that wouldn’t interest me.’
Let me tell you a story that proves my point: We were playing a show with the Pittsburgh Symphony; they’ve been around over a hundred years; Richard Strauss conducted them in the 1800s. So just before the show, this woman who plays in the symphony comes up to me with tears in her eyes. She wanted to thank me for creating this show, and to let me know how happy she was because she’d been playing in the symphony for over 20 years, and her 17-year-old son had never come to see her play. She’d always wanted him to but he never was very interested. She said to me, ‘I wanted him to come see me do something I’ve dedicated my life to.’ And he’d never come, until that night. In fact, he brought five friends with him and was bragging to them about how his mom was going to be playing songs from Halo and Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft.
That gives you an insight into just how powerful this stuff really is; it’s a great way for families to connect and understand why their kids are into it. Or, if you have a girlfriend who doesn’t play video games, what a great time for her to come out. She’ll love it.”
GaG: Wow, it really seems like VGL is having an overwhelmingly positive impact on music in general, huh?
Tommy: “Absolutely. We always see emails from parents about how they came to our show and were totally amazed. The messages say things like, ‘I couldn’t believe it; games have come so far from the time I was playing Pac-Man in the arcades.’ I saw one where the mother said her 8-year-old daughter asked her if she could take violin lessons so she could ‘learn the music from Zelda and Kingdom Hearts and stuff like that.’ So yes, VGL is inspiring people to create, to learn an instrument, or even just to listen to classical music. What a positive, cool thing!
It’s also rare these days to see games portrayed in such a positive light. It’s kind of a rare thing because the mainstream media are always talking about how games cause violence, or they imply that gamers are just losers, and ‘why don’t you get out of your mom’s basement’ and all that. VGL shows the positive side of the industry.”
GaG: Do you still have time to play games these days and if so, what have been some of your recent favorites?
Tommy: “Well, I’m on the road about 275 days a year so I have my 3DS with me a lot. I’m a huge Formula One fan so I’ve been playing the F1 game from 2015. And I’m also a big backgammon player so I play that on my phone when I’m traveling, probably every day. But when I’m home, I’m definitely more of a PlayStation guy; my favorite games in the past have been Shadow of the Colossus, God of War, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid and all those games have one thing in common: They’re only available on PlayStation (with the exception of the last MGS, which was on other platforms as well). But I also love playing on Xbox Live as well, though I’m not really into the Wii U. Nintendo has kind of lost me over the years; I think I’ve probably played Wii U a total of 20 hours or something.
I’m actually still waiting for that one game on the PS4 that really has that massive wow factor. I haven’t seen it yet.”
GaG: What is your latest Kickstarter project and what’s your ultimate goal?
Tommy: “Okay, so when I was creating VGL, I wanted to do albums for it but no record company believed in it. They said, ‘we’re not going to give you a couple hundred thousand dollars because gamers are just going to steal the music, anyway.’ And you know, they were probably right.
But what they didn’t understand is that gamers appreciate and love what we do, and if they love you, they will absolutely support you. And I’ve proven that.
I said ‘screw you’ to the record companies and tried to raise $250K on Kickstarter. Everyone thought I was crazy and insane because most bands only ask for 10 or 15K; they’ve only got a few guys to jump into the studio.
But I was asking for a 100-piece orchestra, the best artists and industry people in the world, the best studios, etc. It’s an expensive venture. But it worked out and for the third album, we raised $285K and it was the third highest-grossing music-based Kickstarter of all time. So we totally proved that gamers will pay for great music. We did it again with the fourth album (Lv. 4), beating our goal by over $25K and this year, with Lv. 5, we raised over $100K on the very first day. I also should say that I put my own money in to these projects because it really costs a lot to do this, and I will add that every Kickstarter I’ve ever done has been on time and on budget. The album comes out on the exact day I say it comes out, and I put the budget up there for everyone to see, right down to every item cost and even taxes.
The key to our success is that we offer SO MUCH for the reward tiers. You go on there and look at our rewards; you’ll be blown away. People say they’ve never seen anything like this on Kickstarter; every reward is at least 4-8 times the reward value, so if you pledge $100, you’re actually getting $800 worth of stuff. We offer such an incredibly high reward value and as I said, we’re always on time and on budget, so people respond to that. And you know, this is a fantastic excuse to give back to the people who support us."
I want to give back as much as I can; I want everyone to have all this stuff. So, if you’re willing to support VGL with a couple bucks, I’m going to give you as much as I possibly can. I’m not doing a Kickstarter to make money; I’m doing it to give back to the fans.
And for those of you who love music, who appreciate unique and compelling live shows like VGL, I strongly urge you to consider donating to their latest Kickstarter project for the Lv. 5 album and movie. You really do get a ridiculous amount for your pledge and again, in my mind, this is less about supporting an individual endeavor than simply supporting the arts. VGL isn't merely about video games, as Tommy so clearly illustrated several times during this interview; it's about a much larger goal.
Thankfully, people are responding. And really, if you get the chance, don't miss VGL live. It will be a night out you won't soon forget.