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Video Games Edge Out Radio for New Music

Music scout Tim Riley hopes to discover the next Fat Joe — but has no intention of giving him a record deal.

If Riley finds the right Latino hip-hop sound — something close to the platinum-selling rap star himself — he'll sign the act straight away, for the third video game in the hit "True Crime" series.

"If everything lines up it's an amazing opportunity for an artist," he said.

Riley has already helped launch several new groups in his job as worldwide music executive for U.S.-based game maker Activision Inc.

As consoles become ever more sophisticated, game budgets swell and record companies cut back their artist and repertoire departments, video gaming increasingly offers big breaks for musicians and, potentially, new revenue for labels.

Chicago band Fall Out Boy sold 70,000 copies of their new album in one week after the music was featured on "Tony Hawk's American Wasteland," a skateboarding game, Riley said.

"They weren't on the radio," he said. "The only thing you can attribute the sales to is the game."

Activision has doubled its music spending in the last five years, Riley added.

When Electronic Arts Inc. bought Selasee's single "Run" for its "FIFA 2006" soccer game, the Ghanian reggae singer had yet to sell a song.

Sales of his first album have taken off since the game's October launch; iTunes and Napster now stock it. Now based in the United States, Selasee regularly plays large venues.

"We're getting album orders from Australia, Turkey, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and of course the U.S. and Canada," said Louis Rodrigue, the singer's PR manager. "His career is rocketing because of the FIFA game."

Video games may account for only a tiny share of the music industry's $21 billion global revenue, but record companies are watching closely.

"It's a very small but very interesting growth area," said Adrian Strain, spokesman for IFPI, the industry's global trade body.

The impact of games on music sales will increase sharply if — some say when — consoles let players buy tracks or albums directly online.

"We'll have massive uptake when we have one-click purchasing from games, and from TV shows," said John Booth, business development associate at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, at the Midem music business gathering in Cannes this week. "And that's coming."

Microsoft Corp.'s latest console, the Xbox 360, is not currently configured to allow music to be bought online or transferred to another device. But sales through the company's own MSN site have taught the U.S. software giant to respect game music's potential.

"We're selling lots of Xbox music on the downloads site," said Jon Kertzer, business development manager for MSN Music. "There's lots of interest."

Video games increasingly carry tracks by well-known artists alongside songs by promising unknowns. Rapper Snoop Dogg and Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong have been featured in earlier "True Crime" and "Tony Hawk" versions — both on the soundtracks and as characters within the action.

Other games need their own music, and their makers are devoting more attention and resources than ever to its composition and production.

Film composers such as Harry Gregson-Williams, who wrote the music for "Shrek," and Howard Shore of "Lord of the Rings" fame have been enlisted to write elaborate scores — often with full orchestras and choirs at their disposal.

"The days of the so-called bedroom musician, the game producer with a mate down the pub who has a synth and a knocked-off copy of Cubase [software], are largely gone," said John Broomhall, a British game audio producer with more than 50 titles to his credit.

In Japan, the soundtracks are routinely sold as audio CDs and downloads, independently of the games themselves.

But games scores have struggled harder to be taken seriously in Europe and the United States — where a series of orchestral concerts organized by game composer Tommy Tallarico ended early last year, following poor ticket sales.

"There's still a bit of a stigma overhang from the bad old days," said Alastair Nicholson, a music consultant who worked on "The Getaway: Black Monday," released last year. "In time, there's no reason why a video game soundtrack shouldn't stand next to a film soundtrack in terms of artistic integrity."

For the bands and their labels, though, licensing their music for video game soundtracks can only be good news.

Grant Gaze, the manager of a hitherto unsigned London girl band, Tinks, said he was "interested in video games" but would think twice about any other kind of corporate sponsorship.

"We want people to understand that it's about the music," he said.

Video games generally pay less than TV commercials, and typically do not offer royalties on sales. But that's because they are effectively advertising the musicians, games makers explain.

"We're selling something that the kids tend to label as a cool product," Activision's Riley said. "We're not selling toothpaste — it's not that risky."