"Video Games Usher Orchestras Into Pop Culture: A Q+A With Pioneer Jason Michael Paul" 1893 words · 9 minute read

Video game music is a young, yet powerful industry. In a handful of short years, music from video games has evolved from 8-bit blips into a billion-dollar business with online and real-life activations. Along this journey, many pioneers have entered into the labyrinth of music in games.

Among them is Jason Michael Paul, concert producer and founder of Jason Michael Paul Productions. Jason has changed the way gamers experience music beyond the console, delivering music both iconic and emotive into the real, physical world for all to experience hands-on. Most famously, Jason has produced “Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy,” “Play! A Video Game Music Concert,” and “The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses,” among others.

While rehearsing for a show in Phoenix, Jason took the time to chat with Music Dealers about his journey to the forefront of this industry and the growing prominence of music in video games. Here’s an edited sample of our conversation.

Music Dealers: So, to start off, can you walk us through the start of your journey?

Jason Michael Paul: My first interests in [music] was when I was in junior high. […] In my sophomore year in college, I started getting into production, […] and never really looked back. When I finished college, I already had a job secured in production, working with clients such as Sony PlayStation and Sun Microsystems and other Fortune 500 clients, but the biggest client was Sony PlayStation.

I started to aspire to be a video game producer, handling a lot of the corporate entertainment for PlayStation. So we did everything from their E3 trade show booth to their sales meetings, and a variety of other things. For example, [we produced] the first totally interactive PlayStation store at the Metreon, which at the time was very cutting-edge. Basically I was the project manager on that project, so I was in charge of everything that went into that store, from actually building it off-site in a warehouse, deconstructing it, and then installing it into the store. So as you can imagine there were a lot of firsts. We were the first ever to implement a software bar, which enabled customers to basically play the game before they purchased it, and that was something that we conceptualized and came up with.

I was working my tail off, working any job that I could as a Production Assistant, and then ultimately I got hired in the corporation as an Associate Producer. And that was my first job out of college. It gave me more responsibilities, and with those responsibilities came a lot more face-time with potential clients that I actually took away with me [when] I started my own company at 25-years-old in Los Angeles. My first client was Square Enix, the makers of Final Fantasy.

I was […] taking care of a lot of their events, such as the Kingdom Hearts launch, working with Tetsuya Nomura, the illustrator for Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy, and also Hashimoto, who is a pretty famous producer and the producer for Kingdom Hearts, and then of course further establishing my relationship with the then-president of the U.S. operation, Jun Iwasaki, who was very instrumental in helping me along my way and pretty much paved the way or the first-ever stateside “Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy” video game music concert.

I had an epiphany when I was dreaming up the idea of taking video game music and performing it live. I was in Costa Rica and I had a CD from Final Fantasy, put it into this massive sound system that we had set up for a stadium show that I was doing the sound for in Costa Rica, and we played that music through the PA and a lightbulb went off in my head. I was like, ‘I want to do this exact same thing, except the artist is going to be the video game. And I’m going to use the visual accompaniment, along with the music, to really tell the story.’ And that’s where it all really began to crystallize.

MD: That’s awesome. Obviously that first show, “Dear Friends,” was very successful for you because you continued doing it and made more iterations of it. I’m curious, what kind of kickback or exposure did Square Enix or the brand see from these shows and tours?

JMP: They saw a lot. This was during a time when Jun and Kyoko were at the helm, so we obviously made headlines for being the first-ever video game music concert, let alone the first-ever video game music concert stateside. And also performing a show with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the LA Master Chorale, so we had headlines in the New York Times, the LA Times, all the major papers. What was once thought of as muzak is now thought of as contemporary music, [and it] should be regarded as such, as phenomenal, and now see how it works. It definitely was an experience that put video game music on the map. What was once typically shunned by orchestras or not even looked at now has become something that was seen as a way of getting a new, younger audience into these venues that were struggling. That was over ten years ago, so we’ve come quite a long way since then to where we are now.

I stopped touring “Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy” in 2005, I believe. I also did a show with “More Friends: Music from Final Fantasy” in 2004 and 2005. And then I kind of jumped ship and decided I wasn’t going to just work on Final Fantasy anymore. The whole regime that I had worked so closely with – Kyoko and Jun Iwasaki – were no longer with Square, and I felt like that was my time to move on and let Final Fantasy assume its own course. That was when I took the decision to work with Thomas Böcker, who was very instrumental in the first-ever video game music concerts in Europe. He was responsible for game music concerts that were taking place in Europe, and they of course were just the music, not with visuals. So it was a natural collaboration for him and me to work together on “Play! A Video Game Symphony.”

We premiered “Play! A Video Game Symphony” at the Rosemont Theater in Chicago in 2006, which was kind of a who’s-who of video game composers. I think I had everyone there, from Mitsuda-san to Uematsu-san to Kondo-san, Jason Hayes, Jeremy Soule, Martin O’Donnell, Michael Salvatori. That was a very phenomenal experience that kind of spoke volumes on where video game music is going and where we’re headed.

MD: Can you walk us through how the Nintendo “Zelda Symphony of Goddesses” started? What was the process for that versus the Final Fantasy one?

JMP: I had been working with Nintendo since 2005. When I started producing “Play! A Video Game Symphony,” I was featuring not only The Legend of Zelda music, but also Mario and Metroid music from Nintendo’s catalog. Mr. Kondo had attended my concert in Chicago in the 2006 premiere of “Play!” and he also performed in part of that concert on piano. So that was really where my relationship with Nintendo had developed, and I had been nurturing it along and working with them very closely. And then of course in 2011 at the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, they had some big plans for the game that would involve some music. That was when I came in.

I produced the opening for the E3 press event, and it was at that point that they announced that my company was going to do three concerts – the 25th anniversary concerts in London, LA, and Tokyo – and that we were also going to do an orchestral CD recording that would be released as part of the bundle as the Skyward Sword release, which was also a first for Nintendo. So my company worked on all of those, and we followed the response from the 25th anniversary concerts. It was really overwhelming, and it was at the point that I had pitched to them the idea of doing a touring show with The Legend of Zelda. And we’ve been doing it ever since. Of course we’ve been doing different iterations. So, we did the 25th anniversary concerts, then we did “The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses,” then it was “The Second Quest,” and now we’re on “The Master Quest.” And then of course next year we have the 30th anniversary coming up, so hopefully we’ll have something that will be in that same kind of mode, where it’s a further celebration of this wonderful franchise.

MD: How do you think that music affects the legacy of the Zelda franchise and the entire brand of Nintendo?

JMP: Well, if you’re familiar with The Legend of Zelda, you know the music has always been an integral part of the game itself. Everything from some of the more iconic imagery, such as the harp, the ocarina, which are all key and very symbolic elements of the Zelda games. So I think the music and the game go hand-in-hand. Mr. Kondo’s music has always been very deserving of symphonic treatment and it was way past due. Not only did we give it the symphonic treatment, but we also gave it a full-movement symphony. So for the first time ever in video game music history, we actually created a full-movement symphony devoted to The Legend of Zelda. So that is something I’m very proud of. The voice of The Legend of Zelda has always been the music.

MD: You said a really interesting thing one time in another interview: “Video game music is all about branding. We all know and love the sound effects and scores that come with each game, and when we hear them we are instantly transported back to that point of gameplay.” Could you talk to us a little about that idea?

JMP: My background is in branding and marketing. Part of that was making branded experiences, such as for Disney Innoventions. Everything that I do is with the brand and the environment in mind. So obviously, when you’re making these branded experiences and these environments, the music is really important. When you walk into that room, you can immediately recognize some of those orchestral arrangements that we have as part of the walk-in. When you hear the drop of, for example in Majora’s Mask, “The Song of Time,” if you hear just the first couple notes, you’re immediately transported back to the game.

MD: Anything else you want to add, Jason?

JMP: This hasn’t been an easy road, I can tell you. My goal and my objective has always been to bring video game music to the masses. And hopefully I will continue to do that, but it’s definitely been a long road. I just hope to continue burning the trail.

A big MD thanks to Jason Michael Paul for taking the time to speak with us, and for pushing the boundaries of video game music from the screen to the stage. Stay up-to-date on his next video game music concert series and more at http://www.jmppresents.com, or follow him on Twitter and/or Facebook.

Photo credits: Jason Michael Paul Productions on Facebook