When you talk about transmedia, you usually hear about films, TV, digital media, games, comics. Increasingly, books make the list. But it’s not nearly as often you hear about music.
And yet, as Nick Braccia, Haley Moore, and Campfire’s Mike Monello discussed in the latest Transmedia Talk podcast, the music industry has been doing “transmedia” for decades. From The Who to Madonna, from Lady Gaga to Kiss, musicians construct stage personas that tell a coherent narrative over time, building a brand and a story to engage with audiences beyond the medium of the music alone, evolving what is essentially IP to stage, to video, to a kind of personal alternate reality, partly in order to take advantage of multiple revenue streams (and if you’re playing the transmedia buzzword drinking game, you are now drunk).
Nick, Haley and Mike voiced a lot of really insightful things in the podcast that resonated with me, including describing a number of what I would call the pillars of transmedia — it’s the building of a mythology across platforms, it’s the level of direct engagement with audiences, etc., and how it’s thosethings that really make a property (in this case, an artist and their music) resonate with an audience. Good music is good music, but a real connection and loyalty to an artist comes with being able to relate to a narrative.
Nick also put into words why I still think Bad Romance was the apex of Lady Gaga’s output so far — there was a coherence in her established vision that seems to have been diluted somewhat, more recently. It’s like the different between a coherent transmedia property overseen by one producer, and a licensed franchise that contradicts canon.
As Mike Monello said, we communicate in story, as humans, so it’s when we can connect to a narrative that we find the most engagement with a property. I think the ideals of transmedia can (continue to) do a lot for the music industry.
Transmedia in Music –> Music in Transmedia
What interests me perhaps moreso is how music can be used in a transmedia property otherwise unconnected to the music industry.
It first occurred to me as a good enhancement to a driving platform like a novel — the novel includes a scene in which a character sings/performs a song, perhaps including the lyrics in the text of the novel, and then the actual music is available through the transmedia extension for download or purchase (or included as part of an enhanced e-book).
And then I started thinking about soundtracks. I’m a huge fan of soundtracks overall — from the sweeping orchestral scores of The Lord of the Rings movies and Pirates of Caribbean, to the for-me-iconic music of Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. I often listen to such soundtracks while I’m writing, and have over three dozen themed playlists from “Ancient Ruins” to “Pirates” to “Epic Battle” to set the tone for my writing (or my D&D games). I have almost 400 OC Remixes in my itunes, some of which are among the most-played tracks I own.
Needless to say, it was a natural progression to thinking about soundtracks for transmedia projects, and how that could work. And those thoughts come in several threads.
Simon Pulman wrote a few weeks ago about establishing and maintaining a coherent tone for a transmedia property, and music can be one of the most effective ways of doing so. A well-written background score can do more work establishing a broad tone than any amount of verbal description or visuals. From the first few notes, the chosen instrumentation, key, tempo, dynamics, a piece of music can immediately make a listener understand the tone of a scene or property, whether it’s dark, thrilling, sad, or epic.
Seeding music throughout a transmedia project — as soundtrack in video or games, as promotion, even as a separately-available entity meant to be downloaded and listened to — can go miles towards establishing the tone of a property.
When thinking about soundtracks in light of the podcast’s discussions, I realized that the soundtracks I enjoy the most are the ones I have a connection to through story. I’m always far more interested in the music from a movie I’ve seen or a game I’ve played over one I haven’t, even if I’ve been told the soundtrack is amazing. I have a deeper relationship to them, and so a deeper appreciation. The music means something to me, it elicits an emotional response.
Music when connected with story has tremendous power over our emotions.
But I think what interested me most about the concept of using music in transmedia was its potential to bring a project together into a coherent whole. In the same way that tone or theme might remain constant across all aspects of a transmedia property, so can a soundtrack — and it can do this using leitmotifs.
A leitmotif is basically a fragment of music attached to a particular character, setting, or concept. It has been used in classical music for centuries, especially in opera and ballet, but perhaps the most obvious example is in the soundtrack for Star Wars — when you hear the Imperial March, you know that Darth Vader isn’t far behind.
The Lord of the Rings did this to great effect as well. Basically, each character and setting had a small musical theme, and these themes would come back in the soundtrack over and over again. We hear the Rohan theme when we first encounter the Rohirim in The Two Towers; when the cavalry charge into battle in Return of the King, we hear the theme again, but in variation. The Helm’s Deep scene when the elves arrive to assist might be a melding of the Helm’s Deep music and the Lothlorien music. We may begin to recognize themes, but their use even subconsciously cements those ideas in our heads.
Perhaps my favourite example for its sheer mindblowingness is that Augie’s Great Municiple Band, the song that plays in the final celebration of The Phantom Menace, is an up-tempo, major-key variation of Emperor Palpatine’s theme from Return of the Jedi (starts around 1:10). Props, John Williams. Props.
Now, let’s take that idea out of a movie, or even a series of movies, and put it into transmedia. What if you establish musical themes for characters in a film, and have those same themes appear in a video game? What if the video game is a prequel to the movie, and as you play through it, you suddenly realize that the unnamed character you just interacted with is destined to become the main villain of the movie — because you recognized a variation on his theme.
Having leitmotifs come back over and over across multiple media, across multiple stories, across multiple projectsthat take place in the same storyworld would lend the project a whole new kind of coherence. And I think that potential is really cool.
It’s for that reason I decided to bring music into the fold of what Silverstring Media specializes in. The potential is endless.