How Rockstar Games Soundtracked Its Way To People’s Hearts In GTA
Grand Theft Auto‘s legacy is one of violence, provocation and aural excellence. Then, now and always, ‘it’s a platform for the discovery of music’.
It began as forbidden fruit: a portal to a world of drug, sex and wanted levels where murdering pedestrians is good sport. As a grown-up, in new releases, it’s escapist therapy. Looking back on the old-gen classics, it’s a nostalgia trap for nutty cheats, pulp fiction and bangers blaring through your car radio.
Westminster Wireless, Flashback 95.6, Emotion 98.3, Radio Los Santos, The Vibe 98.8, Channel X: whatever your flavour of tune, GTA has always catered to our tastes while striving to unlock their full potential.
First launched on GTA V, GTA Online has been Rockstar’s moneymaker, with more than 135 million players engaging in regular free-roam mayhem, deathmatches, races and heists.
Following After Hours, the multiplayer universe has received it’s ‘biggest and most exciting’ addition: The Cayo Perico Heist, equipped with a brand-new island location, 250 new tracks and three new stations in Still Slipping Los Santos hosted by Joy Orbison, Kult FM 99.1 hosted by Julian Casablancas, and the Music Locker featuring mixes from Moodymann, Palms Trax, and Berlin-collective Keinemusik.
With its launch, we spoke to the franchise’s earworm and culture-shifting maestro: Ivan Pavlovich, the director of music at Rockstar Games. GTA V was a mammoth undertaking, with a swathe of stations, tracks – both licensed hits, obscure crackers and original commissions – and literal game-changing score from Woody Jackson, Tangerine Dream, The Alchemist and Oh No.
With Cayo Perico, while always beginning with founder Sam Houser, the process was slightly different. It’s more than ‘let’s add the music!’, it’s a matter of ‘how do we support people out there, how do we support our fans, how do we support the artists?’
‘We wanted to make a big musical event… we were talking about making this venue. We’ve always been playing around with the idea that we could experiment with social aspects of gaming,’ Ivan explained.
He continued, ‘Especially with COVID and people staying home, focusing on a new nightclub and adding new DJs was a huge priority for us. We felt it was kind of a duty in some ways to give people a safe space to go, party, hang out, have fun. I mean, when I walk into a club, it literally made me feel like I was going out. It felt like a responsibility, almost.’
The game’s mo-cap ventures, earlier seen with The Black Madonna, continue with the likes of Keinemusik. ‘These are the best shows they’ve done… we’re [motion-capturing] these DJs and literally creating an experience that’s like no other. When they touch a knob, they’re actually affecting the music you’re hearing. The light shows, the dancing is way more reactive.’
He added, ‘Without doing DJ mixes in GTA IV, we wouldn’t be doing the nightclubs… it’s something we’ve been working on for a long time, and we’ve learned from every experience, and we keep trying to learn for our fans.’
Even during the pandemic, the production crew and artists crafted a tailor-made nightlife experience. ‘It’s a testament to those guys and the artists willing to come through, travel, and actually be there during these uncertain, scary times. It’s a testament to all of them,’ he added.
Ivan joined Rockstar back in 2004, bringing a raw passion and wealth of experience from working with Cajual Records and Relief Records. Prior to taking up residence with the studio, he’d worked on music for Smuggler’s Run and GTA III – his ‘main entry points’ to working in gaming.
As for what he’s brought to the table, it’s a different perspective. ‘If you look at the score we created and the people we reached out to, these aren’t obvious choices. Because we didn’t know better, it freed us to go after people we were fans of. That’s what makes our approach in what we do for music more special. We’re not video game composers, so to speak,’ he said.
When it comes to the artists’ enthusiasm, the ubiquity of the series isn’t lost. ‘It’s part of their lives, part of their upbringing, part of their gaming education. It’s where they made friends. It becomes uniquely special when someone does something for GTA,’ Ivan noted. Flying Lotus – only the second artist to return to GTA, next to Gilles Peterson – grew up playing the game, experiencing its impact.
Ivan explained, ‘When he does a station for us, he goes above and beyond: the amount of unreleased and exclusive songs; the way he has an understanding of the game and how it works; his delivery of [voice-over] and how he gets guests to jump in to his station. I don’t think any other game has that, that respect for the game and us respecting the artists is so mutual, it yields a fantastic result.’
As Ivan said, right back to the days of Game FM and Head Radio, GTA ‘has always been a platform for music, the discovery of music… if you go back to the early GTAs, like GTA III, and look at the cool indie labels associated with it, the underground New York hip-hop, the Moving Shadow radio – that is the origin of these radio stations.’
With nostalgia-tinted glasses, it’s tempting to claim they were all hits back then. Regardless, the director knows the value of his position: ‘It’s an opportunity for us to educate on all levels.’
He said, ‘You have Tyler, the Creator, to the YBN crew, to yourself, who are all finding music in the game. Joy Orbison – big name in the UK, people in the US know him, but there’s a lot of people who might not know him. I mean, the music is incredible, right? But it’s not mainstream in anyway, and for us to turn people onto that style of music is great.’
When asked to choose a favourite radio station across the games, Ivan can’t. ‘It’s like having lots of children. You can’t really pick a favourite. All of them have a special moment in them. Even for these stations, we’ve done eight new shows overall. Each one of them carries such a real connection for me over these months we were there,’ he said.
He even asked for my personal choices, which were quickly delivered: synthpop and retrowave galore on Vice City’s Flash FM and Wave 103; and the cosy familiarity of Non-Stop Pop on GTA V. With the latter, Ivan described it as ‘comfort food… it’s mac ‘n’ cheese. We’d never done a pop station before that time, and we consciously considered it’.
He added, ‘Those are a lot of our favourites [laughs], they’re the ones we talk about in the office. We approach the structure of the station slightly differently because of the nature of the music itself. Not every one is an obvious pop choice. There’s some cool remixes, or it’s the second or third most popular single, or it’s a song from an album you’ve never heard.’
Ivan continued, ‘Then you can have the big songs, you can have Britney Spears in there – but we love that! It doesn’t detract from anything. Our approach to the curation of it, and the way that they’re put together overall that makes the difference. I don’t think it changes that much, we’re always digging a little bit under the surface.’
That last sentiment is key. Ivan wants to turn people to fall in love with music, whether it be the tracks they know and love, or melodies hitting their ears for the first time. With Cayo Perico, he knows everyone will have their favourites, but he urged, ‘Move around! Every time you go to the club, you’ll here something different, each one as exciting as the other. There’s something there for everybody.’
He was tight-lipped on any musical direction for GTA VI, whenever it may arrive (rumours say it’ll be 2022). However, he assured, ‘We’re always exploring. We’re always trying to push what we’ve done in the past. The way music evolves in GTA is very natural. Starting with Sam up top, we’re all fans of music. All the choices we make in the game are very personal choices for us.’
The ethos is everlasting. Ivan wants to educate, entertain and inspire. He wants to give players the ‘beautiful, accidental moment’ where the combination of music and gameplay makes you go, ‘Sh*t! That’s incredible’.’
Whether we return to the coast of Vice City, the metropolis of Liberty City or somewhere new entirely, GTA will always be a jukebox hero.
GTA Online’s Cayo Perico Heist is available to play now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.
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