[Featurama] Why aren’t older game soundtracks available in the United States?

Oh, there's symbolism here - don't you worry.

Even if you don’t appreciate the finer points of a game’s soundtrack, there’s no doubt that it can make or break a title. While Fez does evoke a certain new-age, chilled-out vibe, a score composed by Yanni or John Tesh would simply have clashed (and sucked). That game needed the subtleties of a tweaked chip soundtrack to appropriately convey the broken complexities of that world, and conversely, the serenity of a game like Journey would have been ruined by the lo-fi nature of chiptunes.

Appreciating the music in games isn’t an art – it either “clicks” or it doesn’t. But those who do appreciate it will want to make it their own; they’ll hunger to own that music and hear in other contexts, like midnight drives during the hottest part of the summer. Modern companies (especially independent developers and composers) have, as of late, been exceptional about making their music soundtracks available for purchase.

Classic game soundtracks, though? Well, those are another story entirely.

There is no shortage of love for older, now classic game soundtracks, and to many people they have proven to be just as memorable as the games that inspired them. However, acquiring these gems – either digitally or on CD – often proves to be a challenge that would make even the most hardcore gamer cringe with fear.

For instance, a CD version of Kow Otani’s soundtrack to Shadow of the Colossus is available in the United States, but it’s an import and thus costly. And no, there’s no digital version. The story is the same with the beloved Final Fantasy soundtracks, as well Chrono Cross and several others. If you really want to lose some sleep on this issue, go ahead and check Amazon for the Metroid Prime Soundtrack.

If modern game companies have it largely figured out, what’s preventing some of these older soundtracks from seeing release on American and Canadian soil? Hell, forget the soil – with no manufacturing or distribution overhead to recoup, what’s preventing even the digital distribution of these soundtracks?

To help decode the ruse and answer those questions we reached out to Patrick Gann, the Managing Editor at Original Sound Version, a site that caters to video game music enthusiasts.

“The same reason game soundtracks (and film soundtracks) by American and Canadian composers aren’t as easily found in Japan,” Gann said. “We’ve asked plenty of Japanese composers why they don’t just release stuff on iTunes so we can get it, and for those who have pursued the option, even (in Japan) they find out: ‘Oh, there’s a difference between Japanese iTunes and American iTunes.’

“So even with digital distribution, country of origin creates a barrier.”

Nobuo Uematsu - Man, Myth, Legend

Other issues more traditional in nature are hindering the process as well. Shakira was a massive star long before she was a known name in the United States, and as much as we don’t want to believe it the same problem is preventing some of these revered soundtracks from being released internationally.

Gann continues by saying, “In terms of ‘star power,’ certain composers hold a lot more sway in one country over another. Sure, we all know who Nubuo Uematsu is and appropriately greet him at conventions and concerts in the United States. But would everyone know to do that with someone else of equal importance, like Yoko Kanno or Koichi Sugiyama? And, to turn the tables, would a Japanese audience know that in America, Marty O’Donnell is as big of a name as, say, Hitoshi Sakimoto?”

Alright, so the problems are established. If we aren’t talking about composers who would sell out concerts in the United States, we aren’t talking about anyone companies would bother cutting through all the red tape for in order to secure even digital releases. If you’re a fan, this is a problem — but is this just the end of the discussion, or are there other avenues to explore?

Remember those independent composers cited earlier? Most of these musicians have discovered the simple brilliance of the digital music distribution site Bandcamp. Nearly any soundtrack to any independently produced game you could want can be found on Bandcamp, including soundtracks by Darren Korb (Bastion), C418 (Minecraft), Lifeformed (Dustforce), and Danny Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy).

For the artists, the site offers absolute control over layout and pricing, and it’s clearly become the go-to destination for distribution of these soundtracks. So why haven’t more Japanese composers been able to find a home on Bandcamp as well? As Gann recalled a conversation with Masashi Hamauzu, it became clear that music distribution and intellectual property (IP) rights were again to blame.

Hamauzu composed the music for Final Fantasy XIII

“He informed us that, regretfully, everything he’d written for Square Enix belongs to them,” Gann said. “Starting now, with his own label (MONOMUSIK), he wants any future work he does to be his property, but even then some game studios won’t be willing to negotiate on those terms.”

Sounding equal parts concerned and excited, Gann concludes by saying, “It is very difficult to bring that sort of paradigm shift, and it’s a problem for American composers almost as much as Japanese composers. We’re not sure how it will all play out in the future.”

For his part, Hamauzu’s attitude seems to reflect that of Nubuo Uematsu. Forming his own record label in 2006, Dog Ear Records, Uematsu has since been able to release several of his more recent works internationally. Seemingly dismissive of the befuddling nature of IP rights, the site is offered in both Japanese and in English, and along with providing purchase links each post clearly lists what territories each release is available in.

There’s hope that this trend is the future. There’s hope that with each day one more artist discovers that the Internet has broken down the traditional barriers of distribution. As game music continues to chart on iTunes and Bandcamp and fans become more vocal about their love of video game music, there’s hope that these companies will realize this too, bringing us all one step closer to the release of our favorite classic soundtracks.

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