Brave New World
The World Of CD-i
Indie label Rhythm King are now packaging their artists on CD-i. Simon Trask uncovers the growing links between music marketing and computer games.
As independent label Rhythm King prepare to release The Worlds Of..., an interactive multimedia CD-i featuring five of their acts, Simon Trask speaks to label boss Martin Heath and Worlds Of... designer Denise Proctor.
These days many of us are accustomed to sticking a small, shiny silver disc into a CD player and listening to music coming from our hi-fi speakers or headphones. But the standard music CD format, which is known as CD-DA (Compact Disc-Digital Audio), is only one of a number of formats available on the compact disc medium; others have been developed which allow a mix of music, video, text and graphics.
One such format is CD-i (Compact Disc-Interactive), which has been championed by consumer electronics giant Philips. Plug a Philips CD-i player into your hi-fi and it will play your standard music CDs like any dedicated CD player. Plug it into your TV set, however, and a new interactive audio-visual world opens up for your entertainment and edification. But is this what people want or is it simply another marketing ploy designed to part punters from yet more of their hard-earned cash?
With its digital video capability, CD-i is already becoming a new playback medium for music videos - cue: Bryan Adams, Andrew Lloyd Webber and a host of other mainstream artists. Rhythm King, however, have set out to accomplish something more ambitious with their first CD-i release, The Worlds Of.... Billed as the first CD-i music disc to incorporate interactivity and video, it is essentially a compilation disc acting as a showcase for five of the record company's acts: The Sultans Of Ping, CNN, Ugly, Heaven West XI and ©. But rather than simply provide a video of each act, The Worlds Of... lets you delve into five individual interactive Worlds designed by the artists themselves in conjunction with Rhythm King affiliate Perfect World Programs and software development company Epic.
Each of these Worlds, which is entered by clicking on one of five satellite planets revolving around the Earth on a main menu screen, has its own unique character reflecting the diversity of the acts involved. Thus, for instance, with the Sultans Of Ping you play a game which involves travelling around the Tokyo underground system in search of the various band members. Once you've located them all you progress to a segment where Radio 1's Mark Goodier interviews the band on a radio phone-in show and they answer questions from fans.
With Ugly (the band fronted by former Heaven 17er Glen Gregory) the mood is altogether more sombre as you get to put Glen through a literally torturous inquisition. Enter CNN's world, on the other hand, and you get the chance to remix one of their tracks via an onscreen mixing desk — while Heaven West XI have opted for an interactive documentary format. However, it is poetess © who makes the most convincing artistic use of the new medium, skilfully weaving together music, video, text, stills and graphics in a-way which shows that interactive multimedia does indeed offer new possibilities for the creative artist.
Each of the Worlds allows you to watch a promo video of its act and to listen to audio-only tracks; in fact, you can play the music-only tracks in an ordinary CD player, in which case The Worlds Of... becomes an 8-track compilation CD.
For Rhythm King MD Martin Heath, the move into interactive audio-visual entertainment has been a natural progression. Back in the late '80s he saw the possibilities of the digital sampler and went on to release dance hits by the likes of Bomb The Bass, S'Express and the Beatmasters. In 1990 he was approached by Eric Matthews of programming team The Bitmap Brothers, who wanted Bomb The Bass to provide the music for a game they were working on; the result was Xenon II, a pioneering collaboration between the music and computer games industries. Martin, a long-time games fan, subsequently formed a games software company with the Bitmaps. That company, Renegade, has now produced eight games for the Amiga and PC, some of which have included music from other Rhythm King acts; their best-selling game to date, Sensible Soccer, has sold almost a quarter of a million copies.
"What people forget is that a lot of programmers are big music fans," says Martin. "They look at the record industry with awe - for them it's more glamorous than being a computer technician. The record industry looks on the computer business as being a threat, and yet they have more things in common than not. The creative people in games software companies think that music is an important part of games, and that it's getting more and more important - but the way that the music business has treated them has caused them to rely on their own resources and build up their own catalogues of musicians and programmers."
The newest company in the Rhythm King group, Perfect World Programs, was formed last Spring to develop music titles for the new interactive CD formats, and The Worlds Of... (which is due out in March) is their first offering.
"I always felt that our record, publishing and games companies were leading towards an interactive company, because I saw that in a sense, digital technology was the one thing that was holding us together," Martin explains.
"Worlds Of... is really the result of a feeling about where things were going, it's a tentative first step. What we're trying to do is be the catalyst for discussion. The first idea is to get people going 'Wow! You can combine all this stuff on one disc!' Secondly, you don't have to invent anything new; what this is about is allowing bands to express their personalities in a new way, with things that people know about. MTV is here and it's highly influential.
"The more that you can put an artist into, context, and engage people's attention, the more likely you are to get their sustained interest. That's what really interests me: competing with the computer business on its own terms by using all its technology but using it towards an artist and towards ideas. It doesn't have to be about goals, it doesn't have to be about getting to the end of something and beating it, proving that you're clever, which is largely how computer games work.
"This medium is about involving people. What you want to do is get them involved in what the act of creating music is all about. Music still moves people, it still has an emotional effect, but how do they feel connected with it? Most people watch TV, so it struck me, when I first came across CD-i two and a half years ago, that at last someone had figured out what the public really want is TV they can manipulate themselves."
This TV-centric view is echoed by Perfect World's Creative Director, Denise Proctor, who was responsible for designing, producing and coordinating The Worlds Of....
"What I said to each of the bands when we set about designing Worlds Of... was 'You can capture someone's TV for a few minutes, what do you want to do?'" she explains. "And they could relate to that. I think bands are thinking about far more than just music, these days, they're getting involved in the video side, too. This medium is about personalities; it's not about facelessness, which is something we've had for so long with rave. This is a way of getting personalities across."
In fact, 'personality' is a key ingredient of The Worlds Of... The new interactive CD technologies can be celebrated and exploited by any type of artist, not only those who are perceived as being pro-technology and techno-literate in a musical sense. For instance, the Sultans aren't exactly a band you would associate with the latest trappings of technology, yet it's obvious from their World that they have been able to find a voice within this new medium.
"A lot of the Sultans' fans are university students, people who've probably got computers that they work on but also play games on a lot," says Denise. "They are the games generation, yet they also like that music. So I can see how the two will combine in that way, and have done with this."
The acts on The Worlds Of... make for strange bedfellows, though this odd mix is part of the disc's charm. Denise's explanation of the choice of artists brings us back to the commercial nature of the venture - and in particular the suitability of CD-i as a showcase medium.
"We were looking at what was going to be released in the coming year, and those bands which were going to be promoted at the same time that this would be coming out," she says. The acts on Worlds Of... are the latest Rhythm King roster, and at the same time as this is coming out they'll all have albums, singles or tours being promoted."
So, for the artists involved, has CD-i been a mere diversion from the more traditional means of getting their music out to the public? Denise again: "I think Glen Gregory will think a lot harder about it before he will go into it again, until he can really command the size of budget to do the most amazing graphics and everything. CNN will definitely do it again, the Sultans want to do it again, and Leslie (©) wants to release her albums on CD-i from now on. She sees herself as an all-round CD interactive artist - she's got the visual side, the music side and also the text, and the graphics will come."
And what is the next step for Perfect World?
"We will publish on any interactive CD format," replies Denise. "We've got plenty to choose from: people have approached us to do Worlds Of... on 3DO, CD32 and CD-ROM. Beyond Worlds Of... the plan is to do similar discs but each based on a single act, then get into games, probably work with Renegade on a few things, and then develop the company beyond music. The directors would like the company to go into the area of education, because there's so much you can do there with these formats."
For a retail price of £15.99, The Worlds Of... gives you a lot more content than a music-only CD for not much more cost. Yet, as Martin points out, the extra layers of information which The Worlds Of... provides aren't necessarily intended to have the durability of the music.
"With this technology it's possible for people to find out a lot of information about an artist," he says. "Now, when you've seen that information once you might never want to see it again, you might just want to listen to the music tracks. There again, sometime you might be interested in coming back to it. People think that just because they've got something they have to watch it."
As an accumulation of media, multimedia is inherently about added value: you don't just get music, you get all this other stuff, too. That, of course, is the quantitative view, and it has its role to play in giving added value. Ultimately, however, multimedia will have to justify itself on qualitative grounds - the depth of idea and feeling which Martin mentioned earlier. And here we come back to personality and the artist's ability to communicate something of value. It is this ability which engages people and engenders a sense of involvement.
"All that artists are trying to do is find new metaphors to describe the same things," claims Martin. "I don't think that you can invent reality, because reality just goes on and on and on. But what you can do is take reality and give people your version of it, as truthfully as you can. That doesn't mean you have to do anything new. You have to say to people: This feeling that we all have, this is how I feel about it.' It's not about newness, it's about what is relevant to you at that particular point in time, so everyone else goes 'Oh yeah, I understand that.' I think actually that that's the history of successful artists, that they go 'This is the world we're in.'"
Or, perhaps, these are the Worlds we're in...
Feature by Simon Trask
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