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.
Hit page 2 for some more excerpts from our chat.
Complex: You were responsible for the soundtracks in the Tony Hawk games starting with the second game. What do you think was special about those games?
Tim Riley: Tony Hawk was one of the first video games to have a really extensive music-driven soundtrack. It wasn't just about placing some songs; the music, I think, had an identity in the game that gave the game itself an identity. Tony is and always has been really involved in the music selection, because he's such a music guy, and I think that that genre of action sports really calls for a specific type of music. So I think it had its place as one of the first real sort of supervised soundtracks in gaming.
What was it like working at Activision back in those days?
That was PlayStation 2 days, and Activision was probably the fourth biggest game company in the world at that time. It's changed and grown so much since then. When I think about back then it seems so long ago, and it just doesn't seem like Activision could have ever been that small because it's such a massive company now. It was still big back then, but if you think about it, a really massive, successful game for us was a Tony Hawk game or at the time a True Crime. I don't want to quote sales but I want to say it was, like, 2 million copies was a massive blockbuster for the gaming world back then.
We had so many titles a year that came out. We tried to sell a million copies of each. Now the industry's shifted into everybody has sort of their big flagship brands and the games take so long to build and develop and they feed them and keep them alive through digital content and everything lasts and sustains itself longer. The business back then, you would ship a game, people would play it for a quarter of the year, and then either trade it in or give it to their friends to share and they'd go buy a new game. Then they'd beat that and they'd sort of continue that retail cycle. Now people buy one game and play it all year long.
Do you find that your job is different because of all those changes?
I think one of the more dramatic changes for the music department in particular is just how video games have been perceived in the music industry, whether by music professionals or artists themselves. When I started at Activision we would deal with record labels' film and TV departments. That's who we'd go to to license music, and when we'd call there was a lot of confusion on what exactly we were doing with the songs. Keep in mind that at that time, the early 2000s, file sharing was this beast that basically decimated the music industry. So they were terrified of anything on a silver disc. They felt like if it was digital it could be extracted, the music was going to be pirated, it was going to be stolen.
So we went through a technical communication where we had to explain to people that we were just like a movie—a creative title. Nusic plays a big part in the story—your music's going to be safe. Frankly, at that time if anybody wanted to steal a song, they could easily do it, what with the Pirate Bay of the time—Napster of course, Kazaa, Limewire.
So we went through that for a while and I'd say probably around 2007-2008 the record labels, managers, everybody became really receptive to what we were doing in gaming. They realized that what they thought was a niche that was usually driven by the band themselves, because that was who typically played the games, you know, kids on a tour bus playing Tony Hawk—we finally had the industry itself come around to saying, "Look, this is kind of like the new radio for us." We can easily place a song, you're going to pay us for it, and kids are going to be exposed to this thing 50-60 hours on a repetitive playlist.
You also work a lot with big composers, like Hans Zimmer, for example. Did you have those connections already from working in the music industry when you started at Activision?
That's something I knew very little about, but it became a passion of mine. It's actually a very similar sort of a trend of acceptance that mirrored what was happening in licensing music. There is a group of video game composers who really were early adapters to that space, but when we were starting to explore taking what we were doing in gaming and making it more about mirroring what they're doing in feature films, we wanted to use the same composers that were doing these feature films. But when I first started calling them they had no interest.
Call of Duty was really the first game at Activision that was able to crack into that film and TV, big-branded composer and get those guys involved. It took us a long time to do that as well. What I've seen happen since I started at Activision until today is sort of this massive acceptance across the board, whether it's voice over talent, composers, licensed music, branded partnerships we've done with big bands like Metallica and Aerosmith and making games around them, or Jay-Z and Eminem making a DJ Hero game—that stuff wasn't even a possibility back in the early 2000s. We had a really tough time with it.
And Call of Duty really hit its stride with Modern Warfare. Those games were popular before that, but not nearly to the unbelievable degree they are now. What was it that helped attract composers to them even then?
You're right, and really it lends itself to what the developers and the creative people behind building that brand, what they were able to do. I think the market's a bit more competitive when it comes to games being super realistic. Every company seems to have a really high end triple-A caliber title now. But in the early days Call of Duty really was sort of in a space of its own, when you looked at animation, the graphics, and the gameplay, everything—the story—it was sort of the first whole package in my opinion.
And it was sort of a sleeper hit. I don't think anyone expected this first-person shooter—and keep in mind, you're talking about World War 2 titles. They were everywhere at the time. So that title opened the door for us. It really did. We had maybe more successful games before that. You could probably say even some of the Tony Hawks may have had more success in retail. But Call of Duty was really the one that really started to change who we were able to work with.
And now you guys are doing things like helping to debut Eminem's new songs. Did you ever think it would get that huge?
No! It's been crazy. It went from 2003, and then you could almost skip up to 2008, and everything between 2008 and now has just gone so massive and the years have gone so fast and we have a hard time keeping up with ourselves. The success of what's happening in gaming makes it attractive to way more people. I came from the record industry, so I have a lot of contacts in that space, but pitching them on ideas, you know, we were always constrained by budget, or whether the artists themselves would want to do it, or why it would make sense.
But now it seems like there's so much endless possibility because of the budgets, because of the exposure, because of the awareness and the power of the brands, that you can do something like we did with Eminem. He's the biggest-selling artist in the last decade, so he's very careful about what he does with his brand. He's a very hands-on creative guy, very switched-on, bright guy. Probably gets offered stuff every week. We could probably name the ten things he's done in his career as far as brand association. There's not that many. We've done a lot with him.
He's always understood the possibilities, and we've understood the possibilities with him. And we've done so much research into what our consumer, when they play, what they listen to, what they eat, where they live—I mean, we know everything about them. The one thing about Eminem and the consumers of Call of Duty is that's the number one artist that we've ever tested. That comes up every year. There are a couple others in that top three, but it's almost number one with a bullet. That's their guy. So we see a lot of crossover. Our fan base and his fan base are a lot of the same.
You've worked with so many amazing musicians because of Guitar Hero and DJ Hero as well.
Those years of working on those games—it will never be duplicated. I got to do stuff that I would never in a million years think I would have ever been able to do. I sat in rooms—it was usually myself and one guy from the studio that would come and be the demo person—and I did hotel demos for Mick and Keith, I went to three days in Ireland with U2, to the Capitol offices in London for The Beatles and Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen at a hotel here in LA, of course Van Halen and Metallica in the games we made.
I mean just sitting in front of these crazy heroes, iconic musicians, and they were just like, "OK, show me again how does that work?" You know, having Bono tell you about his doppelganger idea for a different character—it's just crazy stuff. And the whole time you're like, "Man, is this really happening? Is this real?"
And suddenly you're really happy about the two industries you decided to get into.
That's right, yeah! Then the other headaches that you dealt with made sense.