Tim Riley is not the first person who comes to mind when you think of Call of Duty and Guitar Hero developer Activision. But the music and video game industry veteran was responsible for many of the decisions that shaped exactly who the public does associate with Activision.
People like Eminem, whose music videos now feature Call of Duty footage, and bands like Metallica, whose 2008 album "Death Magnetic" debuted as DLC in Guitar Hero 3 the same day it was released in actual record stores. These and many other triple-A musical acts are now inseparably tied to Activision and its gaming franchises, and that's thanks to Riley.
He was in charge of Activision's music department for over a decade, and before that he worked at Activision subsidiary Neversoft on the iconic, punk-filled Tony Hawk video game soundtracks. Activision didn't have a music department back then, but when two of Riley's employees at Neversoft quit to go work at rival publisher Electronic Arts' music department, Riley pitched the same idea to Activision. He was in charge of it for ten years after that.
Before the Tony Hawk days, Riley was a record industry talent scout, traveling the country finding and signing up-and-coming bands. He used the same skills in his former position at Activision-Blizzard, signing musicians, bands and composers up to work with him on the company's games. With Activision's franchises breaking sales records on a yearly basis these days, it wasn't hard to get artists on board. But it wasn't always that way, and it was Riley's contacts from his days working as a music industry scout in LA and New York that helped build Activision's music business to the point it's at today.
He got the job as a scout when a friend who had recently signed a record contract introduced Riley to the scout who had approached him. Riley did it for more than the decade, and it was a thrilling space in which to work. But when piracy started to chip away at the music industry he sensed the ship sinking and bailed—"the first guy in a life raft before this whole thing goes down," as he put it.
"I was sitting in a meeting, and I won't say who said it, because I still hold this person in high regard—but this is my boss at the time—the solution was, 'We'll sue them!'" Riley said. "I don't even think I asked the question, but the question was asked, 'Well who are we suing?' And the answer was the consumer who's stealing the music. That seemed to me like a really bad business philosophy." He had always been a gamer, and it wasn't so long after that that he approached Activision about creating a music department. His life has been a magnet for awesome ever since.
Will the real Donkey Kong please stand up?
Riley knew Tony Hawk through a side business he was running at the same time he was scouting. It involved supervising and licensing the music for BMX, skateboarding, surfing, and other action sports DVDs (not unlike what he did later for Activision-Blizzard). The same athletes that were making the DVDs—Hawk, snowboarder Shawn Palmer, BMX rider Matt Hoffman, surfer Kelly Slater—started making games in the late 90s and early 2000s, and that provided the connection for him to branch off into the games industry and eventually start at Activision.
In his career at Activision he demoed games for musicians ranging from Eddie Van Halen and U2 to The Rolling Stones and Metallica. He got Jay-Z and Eminem involved in DJ Hero and Call of Duty (Riley says Marshall is a genius to work with—not to mention a "world class" Donkey Kong expert). In encouraging record labels to digitize their master recordings so they could be used in the Guitar Hero series, he's contributed significantly to the preservation of thousands of priceless songs.
Riley even takes credit for the Sex Pistols reunion tour that took place around 2007. In lieu of having the master recording of "Anarchy in the U.K.," notoriously missing for decades, Riley says he convinced the band's agent to get them back into the studio to record a new version of the classic punk song. Activision even covered the cost. "They hadn't been in a recording studio in thirty years," Riley said. "They hadn't seen each other in 15 years. So they went in, we recorded two songs, and they got along so famously that they went out and played live shows after that."
Riley's time at Activision ended recently. He's left the game publisher to form his own music and branding company with a colleague. No doubt Activision will barrel onward with the partnerships that Riley helped forge, but you have to wonder whether things will be the same.
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