I’m elated to write about a project that I’ve been working on since April.
When I first formed The Hard Modes two(!) years ago, I was unaware of other video game music cover artists that played jazz, and in particular, unaware of ones that made improvisation a focus of their craft. Since then, I’ve slowly come across more and more of these groups, some who have been on the scene for years.
Along with my growing awareness, I kept thinking how awesome it would be to meet up with another such group and do a show together. This year I realized that, while nothing would beat performing with these groups in the same physical space, it wasn’t our only option—instead, for the time being, we could utilize modern streaming services to perform together. And thus, FREE PLAY was born.
FREE PLAY is a free, online, international jazz festival of video game music that will take place on August 31, 2019 (September 1st in the Eastern Hemisphere). It will feature five back-to-back 55-minute sets from five VGM/jazz artists who all approach this music in distinct ways. Alongside The Hard Modes, the festival will showcase:
The Consouls (Sydney, AUS)
VGM Collective (New York, USA)
N!ESS / Nice! Edmond js Super Sumo-wrestler (Tokyo, JPN)
8-Bit Jazz Heroes (California, USA)
Coupled with having distinct playing styles, each group has a distinct composition. Namely, the groups range from a guitar trio (8-Bit Jazz Heroes) to a pair of sextets, both with sax, trumpet, keys, bass, and drums, but one with percussion (VGM Collective) and the other with vibes (us).
While all of the artists’ playing speaks for itself, out of all of our groups, the Consouls are by far and away the most well-known, with around 32.5k followers and 197 videos on YouTube, the first dating back to four years ago. The other groups may not hold nearly as much clout in the community as the Consouls do, but they’re comprised of some of the most talented jazz musicians on the VGM scene today. For instance, Max Boiko - leader of VGM Collective - also plays with the 8-Bit Big Band and the J-Music Ensemble; plus, he recently did a collaboration with insaneintherain.
I’m very honored that all of these guys are participating. I thought it was a long shot, especially since all I did was play the old “cold call” e-mail game with them, sending some rough ideas of my vision and hoping that I’d get a response. They made that part of organizing way easier than it should have been, and I continue to be thankful that they’re on board.
An important component to FREE PLAY is its coinciding GoFundMe. I encourage you to watch the video and then check out the webpage for all of the details, but in short, we’ve created this fundraising campaign for two reasons:
To support the artists. FREE PLAY is, true to its namesake, a free event, and all of the artists involved committed to participate without expectation of payment. That said, I believe strongly that artists should be paid for their work and the time and effort that goes into that work. Food on the table means that they can focus on their art and create more of it. The first part of the proceeds go directly to them.
To support the AbleGamers charity. I first learned of the AbleGamers at an IGDA (Internal Game Developers Association) meetup in D.C. a number of years ago, where I became inspired by their mission (#SoEveryoneCanGame). We want to give back to the community, and donating proceeds towards the AbleGamers is a great way in which we can make a lasting impact on the lives of gamers with disabilities.
Please consider donating to and sharing our campaign! The minimum donation amount on GoFundMe is $5 and our goal is $3,000. The way we’re going to meet that goal is if people that are excited about what we’re doing spread the word. Furthermore, if this campaign and event go as planned, it means that we’ll be able to have more like it in future, and those future events would hopefully include even more talented artists in the lineup.
Another reason to get excited about checking out and supporting FREE PLAY is that, to my knowledge - and please correct me if you know otherwise! - it’s a festival of firsts:
First video game music jazz festival. Yeah, that’s niche! But it’s especially fun to pioneer this type of event now because of how jazz has been gaining traction among gaming fans. This became most evident to me after last year’s MAGFest, which featured large crowds of gamers going nuts over insaneintherain, the 8-Bit Big Band, the music of Cuphead as played live by ConSoul (not to be confused with the Consouls), and 8-Bit Music Theory.
First jazz festival where the stage is the streaming platform. Plenty of music festivals are streamed, but it is when the performances are held in the same general physical vicinity. What makes FREE PLAY different is that we’re all performing from our individual locations around the world and still sharing a stage: the stream.
First VGM event where the stage is the stream. I’m less confident about this one because I feel like there must have been some festival-like event where VGM remixers performed live together. But, I did some quick searching and couldn’t come up with anything, so it’s possible that this will be the first such event.
First international music festival where the stage is the stream. Again, did a search and couldn’t find anything, so until I hear otherwise I’ll lay claim to this, as well! : P
On that last point, one of the things that gets me most amped for this festival is having groups from other countries play. There is so much cohesion in the diversity this brings that’s really inspiring. What I mean by that is this:
When one creates art - and especially when plays improvised music -, the artist pulls from the breadth of their life experiences to create something that is unique to themselves and is full of individuality. When improvising, the musician is speaking in a way that only they can and will speak in that given moment of time (which is beautiful!). Having musicians from different countries allows us to showcase our own histories, and those histories heavily draw from our culture and the different parts of our nations’ cultures from which we draw. For example, when we talk about jazz, west coast jazz has a different vibe from east coast jazz, which has a different feel from New Orleans jazz, which is distinct from Chicago blues, etc., and all of these are, more broadly, different from jazz in Europe are different from jazz in Japan.
Alongside the musical component, I think it’s interesting to think about how where we grew up affects our setlists. What’s most popular in Japan at any given time may not be what’s most popular in the United States. Plus, some games that were popular in Japan may have never - or may have just recently - gotten a release in United States (e.g., Seiken Densetsu 3 was just released in the US after 2.5 decades!). Of course, some games - Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros., etc. - are smash hits no matter where you’re from. There are more ties that bind than there are loose ends, which brings me to my next point:
This event is about celebrating two things that brings us together: music and gaming. As individualistic as our preferences and influences are, our overarching love for these art forms transcends borders, nationalities, etc. Both our shared love and the diversity that exists within each individual’s love of these things are worthy of cherishing, and I hope this event will be a vehicle for that.