A misconception exists among nongamers that video game music is trivial by design — amorphous, synthetic jingles that are suitable as ringtones, maybe, but certainly not for playback on a hi-fi home stereo.
It’s a myth that the game-centric production company and record label iam8bit is committed to beating.
“We get a lot of questions about game music being ‘real’ music,” says iam8bit founder Jon Gibson, sitting in the attic space behind iam8bit's Echo Park gallery. “They’ll ask, ‘Why do you like game music?’ Well, why do you like a film soundtrack? Why do you like a song?”
Since forming in 2005, iam8bit has played a significant role in gamer culture’s trendy facelift. What began as an art exhibit celebrating the culture has since grown into a marketing and merchandising behemoth, shepherded by Gibson and his business partner Amanda White’s hip, perspicacious instincts. “We even have trouble defining what the core of the company is,” Gibson admits.
These aren’t just slabs of plastic that play music — they’re expansions of the games’ mythology.
But a common thread running through all of the team’s endeavors is the desire to legitimize video games as a serious art form. And to Gibson and White, releasing game music on high-quality, well-packaged vinyl is merely an extension of that ethos. “It’s a greater battle that we’ve been fighting for a long time,” White says.
The first records iam8bit produced were essentially promo giveaways, intended for “industry tastemakers,” as Gibson puts it. In 2010, the company pressed a few hundred copies of composer Sascha Dikiciyan’s soundtrack for the game Tron Evolution — copies that now can fetch more than $1,000 on Discogs. Then, in 2014, the company gave out a series of 7-inch records (under the pseudonym “Neumond Records”) that contained German parodies of ’60s pop songs and coincided with the release of Wolfenstein: The New Order, a game that takes place in a frightening alternate reality where the Axis powers won World War II.
While the Wolfenstein 7-inch series was never made available to the broader public, it established iam8bit’s signature of designing heady “theme” records. These aren’t just slabs of plastic that play music — they’re expansions of the games’ mythology.
This is maybe best exemplified by the company’s upcoming vinyl soundtrack for Cuphead, a heavily stylized, side-scrolling game modeled after classic Disney and Fleischer cartoons. Naturally, Cuphead’s soundtrack is a mixture of jazz and ragtime. The soundtrack, of which Gibson proudly shows off an advance copy, comes in a massive, 4xLP package with a folio design reminiscent of vintage 78 RPM vinyl box sets. It’s bulky as hell, and that’s exactly what they’re going for.
“With something like Cuphead, you’re thinking about it being an artifact from that era, and designing and producing it with techniques that would only be available to people in that era,” Gibson explains. “There are a couple of shortcuts — like we can use cellphones and email to communicate with people about the project — but it’s meant to exist as that thing. Even when it sits on the shelf, it will poke out more than standard vinyl; it will exist as a more gargantuan thing on purpose, because things back then took up more space.”
The Cuphead soundtrack also demonstrates just how much time and effort the label pours into its design process. The bulk of iam8bit’s vinyl releases are multi-LP sets, and the packaging is appropriately ornate. At the end of 2017, the label will top the Cuphead set with the ultimate tome in video game vinyl: a $175, 110-track, 6xLP deluxe edition of the Persona 5 soundtrack. Preorders have already sold out.
The company’s hyper-limited, Criterion-esque approach to vinyl hasn’t been embraced by everyone in the gamer community. Some have criticized what they see as “collectors first” prices and product delays. (iam8bit seem to be responding to the latter complaint by keeping things vague on future releases; the current shipping date for the Persona 5 set, for example, is currently listed on the label’s site as “Q4 2017.”)
“Since we do a lot of preorders, people do have to wait for their product, and that’s hard for people,” White says. “We have to say, ‘Listen, it really takes this long to produce vinyl and here are all of the steps, and anything can go wrong at any point, and then you have to start over, at least at that step.’”
“People [sometimes don’t] realize that things are made in an analog way,” Gibson adds. “It’s like, melting a bunch of waxy, plastic goo into a thing that makes music … through grooves … when a needle touches it? It’s kind of mystical. We see how vinyl’s made all the time, and we still don’t fucking get it.”
From the perspective of an audiophile, owning a video game soundtrack on vinyl almost seems like a weird contradiction. With the exception of that soothing surface noise, the MIDI romps on the Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack, for example, probably don't benefit much from the analog treatment. (Not all of iam8bit’s releases, however, are directly sourced from the game. The label’s upcoming Pokemon Gold and Silver and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time soundtracks, for example, feature new, orchestral performances of the material.)
But vinyl also recontextualizes video game music in a big way. It’s an affirmation of its value and a reminder of its realness. “We’ve found that composers especially are so excited to hold their music on vinyl, because it tends to be the only actual tangible artifact,” Gibson says.
The negotiations that lead to that tangible artifact aren’t always seamless. “Vinyl soundtrack album” is pretty much dead last on the merchandising division of a massive video game company’s priority list, even if it is becoming a hot commodity among fans.
“It’s not going to make a blip, so it has to be kind of a champion product,” Gibson says. “It has to be something that someone [at the company] feels passionate about. It takes a while to find that person who really wants it to happen, and we’re lucky enough to have found those people.”