A Talk with Activision VP of Music Affairs Tim Riley

Anthony Bruno/ Billboard  06/17/11

The music-videogame genre imploded. The “Guitar Hero” franchise on “indefinite hiatus.” But is Activision VP of music affairs Tim Riley slowing down? No. The former A&R executive says he’s busier than ever, licensing music for various Activision games, both for in-game and promotional trailers and ads.


Riley was a key component in the deal that put the Rolling Stones’ music in the blockbuster “Call of Duty: Black Ops” game, as well in the ads for the title, which he says is a template for how Activision wants to integrate music with its videogame development and promotional plans to come.


On the eve of the recent E3 conference, Riley had lots to say about the Stones ad, how he discovers music and the relationship between the music and game industries.


Now that “Guitar Hero” is no longer a franchise, what’s been the impact on your life?

Had you asked me that in February-when everyone went from a very aggressive music-game release schedule to pretty much nothing-I wouldn’t have had an answer. But it’s pretty interesting what’s happened. Outside of a lot of staff getting laid off, I’ve never been more busy. I thought my day-to-day interaction with the music industry and all my contacts with the labels, publishers, managers and artists would decline since we’re not making music games. But no. It’s sort of like a reset.


How, exactly?

When music games came in beyond anyone’s expectations, it got so massive so quick and there was so much work involved. I stepped up times five. I didn’t have enough time in my day to do anything other than music games. I had to hire more people to make sure we weren’t leaving anything unattended to. I handed off the composer responsibilities to an audio department that’s now shifted back to my group. In addition to scores, we’re still putting music in all our games. It can be anything from a song in a TV commercial to a theme for an existing game. It could be just tons of licensed songs within games.


What lasting impact did the guitar-game craze have on the videogame world?

I’ve watched the music industry go from saying “Call the guy in film and TV” back in 2003 to staffing real videogame folks. All the labels and publishers have people that play games, go to E3, want to see release schedules, they want to see demos. I’ve had two or three different people from Warner come into my office in the last couple of months just to see a new build of “Skyliners.”


They’re very involved and very proactive. The people we deal with are the gamers. The marketing and promotions department at the labels put us in their plans for releasing records. Probably once a month somebody will call about launching this record from this band and this time and want to be associated with a game coming out at the same time.


You’re licensing music more for trailers and ads.

About a year ago, Erich Hirshberg came over from [ad agency] Deutsch-he’s the CEO of Activision Publishing. This guy knows so much about the ad and marketing space that it’s interesting for me in a beneficial way. I’ve worked on over 125 games for Activision, and for about half of those I had to sit down with different marketing people to try to convince them to do stuff with music that Eric already thinks about doing.He understands pop culture.


He understands what licensing a Rolling Stones song and working it closely with a “Call of Duty” brand brings to the table, and what those brands can do for one another. Now that we have a more limited slate, all the games are so big that when we are talking about working with artists, you can imagine the caliber of the artists that are considered.


How do you decide when to use a superstar versus an unknown band?

One of the more fun things we have to do-and a privilege and almost an obligation as music people-is to make sure we’re turning on music to fans. It’s almost a blown opportunity to just tell them about something they’re already listening to on the radio just because it matches what we think is the same target audience. So we try to pepper in the new stuff. Since February, without the music games, the opportunities are fewer and far between than they used to be. We’re still looking for those opportunities.


How does music get on your radar?

I know it sounds crazy, but I don’t like it when people send me digital files. We take unsolicited material, and it doesn’t have to come from a label.


We do a pretty good job listening to everything we get. We are constantly in contact. We probably have five meetings a week with managers or labels. We go to all the shows. We go to all the major conferences. But do your homework. You don’t have to play a videogame, but if you think there’s a great song for a game, do us a favor and go on YouTube or our website or any of the variety of blogs and learn a little about the game first.


What do you think about some labels and publishers consolidating their licensing divisions into one-stop shops, like EMI?

It’s relatively new, and it’s really great when you’re trying to get something done quickly. Marketing for trailers gets done with a very limited time frame. If something clears faster than something else, it stands a better chance of being used. But even those who don’t have one-stop shops, their divisions are all talking to each other. So the communication within labels and publishing groups has improved.


What are your goals for this year?

If you can imagine trying to follow up the biggest-selling videogame in the history of videogames [“Call of Duty: Black Ops”], and all the positive feedback of the Rolling Stones campaign for that . . . we’ve challenged ourselves to raise that bar. We’re going to try to improve on it. It’s about how you improve on partnerships. How do two like-sized brands benefit each other? That’s the thing we’re looking at.


Is the music industry ready for that level of engagement?

When I first came here, I felt like I had to explain the benefits of putting new music in a videogame. I had people saying stuff like, “Oh, it’s an MP3, they’ll just steal our song.” I had to deal with that kind of mentality in the early days. Now, I think people get it. They’re gamers, and if they’re not, their sons or daughters are. So now that we know what this does, let’s do something big. All the big brands out there, whether it’s a Coke or whatever-when they work with artists they work on big partnerships. It’s not just a song. That’s where the big opportunities lie.


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