A still from Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Picture: The Chinese Room
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Why classical purists should start taking video game music seriously

The best music stays with you long after you finish playing.

Ask anyone who works in classical music what the biggest challenge of their job is, and they will unfailingly reply: getting young people to listen to it. Studies from around the world routinely find that audiences skew towards those aged over 60, and sales of recordings and concert tickets are declining. The image of the repertoire as elitist and contemporary compositions as inaccessible lingers despite diversity and access initiatives. It’s no surprise that headlines regularly surface asking the depressing question “is classical music dead?”.

Yet millions of people are listening to hours of contemporary classical music every week, and they might not even know it. They do it while they play video games.

In the past two decades, as video game production has become yet more sophisticated, the games industry has increasingly looked to contemporary composers to write its soundtracks. Just as Hollywood film studio executives turned to established composers like Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich in the early twentieth century, today’s games designers are using the best composition talent to augment the experience of playing their titles. There is plenty of crossover between the film and games music worlds, too – Hans Zimmer, who wrote the music for Gladiator and Dunkirk, also works for games like Modern Warfare, for instance.

The best games music stays with you long after you finish playing. I still find myself humming the theme from Civilisation III at moments of distraction, even though I binned the game with a load of other defunct CD-ROMs about ten years ago. Whether it’s a strategy, world building game like that, or a first person shooter like Doom, music is integral to drawing the player into the atmosphere of a game. Take the huge hit from 1997, GoldenEye 007, which modified the original musical themes from the Bond film it was pegged to for its soundtrack. The music is complex, clever, and surprising – a lot like the game, which incidentally was much better than the 1995 Pierce Brosnan film it was based on.

As independent games studios have grown in prominence over the past few years, more and more experimental music has been commissioned for video games. For the 2008 game Dear Esther, a ghost story exploration game set in the Hebrides, composer Jessica Curry used an eerie blend of strings, voice and synths to help move the player through different narrated and quest elements. Curry is a co-founder of The Chinese Room, a Brighton-based game development studio, and also composed the music for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, a pastoral apocalyptic adventure game. Her themes are stunningly beautiful, often with melancholy vocal melodies, and add immeasurably to the player’s experience of searching a small English village for friends and relations. Her music is also unapologetically “classical” in its tone – she uses lots of traditional conventions and performance techniques to get her effects.

Live performances of video game music have a long history, too. The Japanese conductor Koichi Sugiyama pioneered the format with his Orchestral Game Music Concerts in Tokyo in the mid-1990s, which featured, among other things, the music he composed for the Dragon Quest series. Inspired by Sugiyama, in the early 2000s the German conductor Thomas Böcker created the award-winning Games Concerts series. He has since worked on similar programmes around the world, including with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Increasingly, video game music has been recognised as a major cultural product. The BAFTA Games Awards were first held in 2004, and include a category for original music. Classic FM now routinely plays video game music as part of its general playlist, and several games pieces – such as Nobuo Uematsu’s theme for Final Fantasy, Jeremy Soule’s work for The Elder Scrolls and Grant Kirkhope’s pieces for Banjo Kazooie – have appeared in its annual “Hall of Fame” listener poll.

In order to reflect the status and popularity of video game music, in April this year the station launched the first programme on British radio dedicated to it, titled High Score. Hosted by Jessica Curry, it explores particular themes within games music (such as romantic scenes and adventurous quests) and plays listener requests. The first series became the most downloaded in Classic FM’s history, so unsurprisingly Curry returned on 4 November with another run of six episodes.

In the US, the interview-focused podcast Level does something similar, with host Emily Reese interviewing games music composers about their work and inspiration. The range of subjects it (and Reese’s previous show, Top Score) encompasses is huge: from the music for Candy Crush to the baroque influences of the soundtrack for Assassins Creed.

Classical music purists might turn their noses up at video game music (I can’t imagine BBC Radio 3 being broadminded enough to start playing it any time soon) but they do so at their peril. Games music is as diverse, innovative and exciting as the composers who write it, and the games industry is providing the resources for plenty of talented young people to develop sustainable careers in composition. Above all, they have a vast global audience listening to their music. An art form that is so widely consumed deserves to be taken seriously.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.