Hes Big in Germany

Game musician Tommy Tallarico hopes a Grammy will make him big in the U.S.

Photo by Jeanne RiceFor those of us who grew up with the first generation of video games, game "music" often consisted of an atonal collection of blewps, bleeps and high-pitched squawks—and, if you were lucky, an occasional tinny burst of electronic music reminiscent of a carnival carousel.

No more. Today's video games offer music ranging from darn peppy techno and electronica to lush orchestral arrangements. Irvine-based Interplay's Redneck Rampage includes tuneage from the Beat Farmers, Mojo Nixon and the Reverend Horton Heat. But for all the sophistication, video-game music is still the entertainment industry's redheaded stepchild, left begging for scraps of respect like Oliver Twist.

But on May 26, the fledgling industry took its first steps toward critical acceptance when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) announced that it was adding video-game music to three categories of the Grammys: Best Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media; Best Song for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media; and Best Instrumental Composition for a Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media. This puts the soundtrack to, say, Earthworm Jim in competition with the soundtrack to, say, Titanic.No matter how much you despise Celine Dion, the odds look long.

"Yeah, we're competing with John Williams and all the great artists in the world," laughed video-game composer Tommy Tallarico. "Are we able to compete? Probably not. But here's our starting point. Hopefully, we'll eventually get our own category."

Tallarico, who heads up Tommy Tallarico Studios in San Juan Capistrano, has been nagging the NARAS about getting a Grammy category for months now. Led by Chance Thomas, a music producer at Sierra Studies (who composed the music for Quest for Glory V), among many others, Tallarico and several other composers formed a committee to help the academy determine which music would actually be eligible for a Grammy. Did game soundtracks have to be commercially released? If so, what constitutes a commercial release? What format should the music be in? Would the Grammy judges have to play through the games to hear the whole soundtrack? If so, would they wind up calling the video-game designers to find out how to get past the killer robots on Level 10?

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," Tallarico admitted. "The thing about the interactive industry is that things change all the time. It's an always-evolving industry, and it's hard to set rules."

The industry may be constantly changing, but its music might as well be broadcast on pirate radio. Tallarico hopes the Grammy awards will help change that.

"I've been in the industry for 10 years, and video-game music has always gotten a bad rap," he said. "I've always been trying to get acceptance, to legitimize what we do. What I'm hoping now is that the Grammys will open video-game publishers' eyes, open the music industry's eyes, and get people to start taking it a little more seriously."

A self-taught musician, Tallarico came to Hollywood 10 years ago to become a rock star, took one look at the decayed "glamour" of Sunset and Vine, and headed for points south. "I thought, 'Whoa—this isn't the way it looks on TV.' I was shattered," he said. "But the only other thing I knew in California was Disneyland. So I stopped some bum on the street and asked him where Mickey Mouse lived. I figured any place Mickey Mouse lived had to be cool. He pointed me to Orange County, and when I got to Huntington Beach, I saw the palm trees, the fancy cars, the beautiful girls—this is what I envisioned California to be like."

Within days, he had hooked up with a producer from Virgin Interactive; within a few years, he was heading up the Irvine game company's music division. He left the company in 1994 to start his own studio. In his 10 years in the industry, he has worked on more than 140 games, including Earthworm Jim and MDK from Laguna Beach's Shiny Entertainment and the Aladdin game Disney produced. He's scoring the upcoming James Bond game Tomorrow Never Dies. And he has released several albums of his music; his first, Tommy Tallarico's Greatest Hits Vol. 1, sold only about 5,000 copies in the U.S. His soundtrack for MDK, on the other hand, sold 50,000 copies in Germany.

"Even Europe is further ahead than North America [when it comes to acceptance of video-game music]," Tallarico said. "Video games in Japan, for example, are more socially accepted as part of the culture. Arcades over there are five stories tall. People wait in line overnight for the next game to come out. Parents, kids and grandparents all play video games in Japan."

Not coincidentally, video-game soundtracks sell through the roof in Japan. In March, the soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII, an anime game, hit fourth on the Japanese charts. Video-game composers in that country are feted, fawned over and generally worshipped as gods.

"The answer comes down to distribution and acceptance in our culture," Tallarico said, "because honestly some of the stuff that has come out over the past couple of years is just as good if not better than a lot of movie soundtracks. It's something that needs to be tapped and hasn't yet. There are millions of dollars just waiting to be made by someone. I work on 30 projects per year, so I can't dedicate days and days to it. Sometimes I stay up nights thinking about that."

Winning a Grammy would certainly help boost video-game music into the cultural mainstream, and starting in February 2000, the industry will get its shot.

"There's a song I'm writing now for the beginning of the James Bond game that has vocals, and I'm talking to a number of famous artists like Sting and Axl Rose about singing the song," Tallarico said happily. "Something like that would be great to be submitted to next year's Grammys."

Sing like canaries to Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net.
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