Two objects sit next to each other on a table. An odd couple, they couldn't be more different if they tried. On the left is a disc, opaque and crimson - made of polyvinyl chloride, grooves cut in circles. On the right, a black plastic box with a raised circular section on top on which an immortal phrase is embossed in gold: "16-BIT". A vinyl record and a video games console appear as polar opposites, emblematic of different generations; the record was invented in 1888, the Sega Mega Drive was released a hundred years later. Yet the pair are now intrinsically linked thanks to a small record label in West London.
"We aren't interested in producing souvenirs," says Jamie Crook, founder of Data Discs who pride themselves as, in their own words, the first record label solely dedicated to releasing video game soundtracks on vinyl. With the film soundtrack vinyl market exploding in recent years, the opportunity has opened up for all kinds of ventures, something which Crook has gleefully taken advantage of - Data Discs has just released their first two records, both iconic Sega titles: RPG Shenmue and Streets of Rage. This isn't the first time this has been done; Sega themselves have released compilations previously of music from Out Run and Space Harrier, Invada Records have pressed LPs of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Far Cry 4 (by Hollywood composer Cliff Martinez), and even this year Sony put out a gold vinyl edition of Jason Graves' score to The Order 1886.
"I've always been a fan of obscure and under-appreciated music and game soundtracks, for one reason or another, have always tended to fall into this category," Crook says, "which is strange considering how ingrained they are in people's subconscious." He's not wrong; within seconds of putting the needle down on Streets of Rage I was immediately transported back to my thirteen-year old self kicking pixellated ass on the, well, streets of rage. It's not surprising this is the company's inaguraul release, it has instant name recognition amongst hardcore fans and nostalgic thirtysomethings, but really it's because the music is really, really good. Aiming at the UK and US markets due to the Mega Drive's huge success there, composer Yuzo Koshiro took inspiration from dance music, namedropping Enigma and Technotronic as two of the primary influences.
"Club music was growing in popularity overseas at the time," said Koshiro in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy last year. "Especially in North America, where the Mega Drive was selling, club songs were playing constantly on MTV and such." Using custom software for the NEC PC-88, Koshiro played with the limitations of the technology and created a revolutionary sound for video games. Listening back to Streets of Rage now having not played the game for decades, it's amazing to hear just how great Koshiro's composition is, especially for a medium that more often than not is treated with scorn. Crook explains that "by releasing them on vinyl, these soundtracks are, to a certain extent, freed from the context of the games for which they were created, which will hopefully encourage people to experience them as standalone pieces."
"We worked directly with Yuzo on Streets of Rage," continues Crook, "so it was important to us that he was closely involved throughout, particularly with the remastering process. He also supplied much of the source audio [from the PC-88], and what he managed to achieve with such limited hardware is nothing short of astounding. He also loves vinyl, which helps!" Data Discs have picked the perfect time for the release, the infectious synth melodies and breakbeats not dissimilar to much of the electronic work being produced today, and look to follow the pattern set by the soundtrack LP market, which broke out with work from John Carpenter, Goblin, and Fabio Frizzi, all hugely influential electronic composers.
Koshiro also worked on the soundtrack for Data Discs' second release, the groundbreaking Shenmue, which favours an orchestral sound more befitting the game's expanded narrative qualities. Composed by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, Ryuji Iuchi, and Osama Murata (alongside Koshiro), Shenmue is a more romantic and effervescent experience, with a coherent and realised sense of musical storytelling. The key thing with Shenmue is emotion - the expanded palette of the orchestra allows for a heightened atmosphere, with the use of piano in particular contributing to a colour and texture that would easily fit with a large Hollywood movie. It's a sensational work, one that can't really be compared with its labelmate - while Streets of Rage feels like the prelude to a messy night out, Shenmue is relaxing on the following afternoon with a brew, reflecting and reminiscing.
In fact, while Streets of Rage is the headline-grabber Shenmue is undoubtedly the dark horse release - showing that Data Discs are not only providing great music but also variety, especially considering the schism that often appears in the music world between acoustic and electronic creations. It's a shrewd move to not limit the genre of the scores, as it allows for a cross-section of fans to market to, as well as expanding hugely the kind of titles to pick from for future projects. It's also important that Data Discs are working with the game manufacturers themselves; Sega have given the label their blessing. "They're a pleasure to work with," says Crook, "and they're really open to what we're doing." Having an official Sega stamp also marks the records out as not being bootlegs, something the burgeoning market for game soundtracks on vinyl has seen flowering.
Data Discs' releases are typical of the treatment soundtracks on vinyl currently receive: vibrant reproductions of the key art from the original game packaging, free extras such as lithographs, and the all important obi. A mainstay in Japan, these are the paper bands that wrap vertically around the cardboard sleeve, carrying information about the music in large blocks of Kanji - the obi is like catnip to vinyl collectors. The records themselves sound beautiful, taken direct from the master recordings, and in Streets of Rage's case, the PC-88 files. The presentation is immaculate.
But beyond the packaging, the marketing, and the vinyl zeitgeist, the records provide exposure for the composers and musican producing the music. To compare them to film scores for blockbuster films is not particularly outlandish given the sheer distribution video games have had, especially at the height of the console wars when the Mega Drive was thriving. These composers were reaching millions upon millions in their living rooms - and had a reach, as Crook has pointed out, that surpasses many of their contemporary composers. They're now getting their due through labels like Data Discs, whose wave is just beginning to crest. Joining them is New York City's Ship To Shore Phono Co., who crowdfunded the release of the soundtrack to the 1989 NES game Mother, and Brave Wave, who are debuting on vinyl with a true heavyweight title, Yoko Shimomura's soundtrack to Street Fighter 2.
While the snobbier types may turn their nose up at the hipsters and their vinyl, the emergence of labels like Data Discs can only be good news for fans of video game music. Just imagine the kind of soundtracks you could see appear on vinyl - Everything from Hirokazu Tanaka's Tetris with the infamous theme based on the Russian folk song 'Korobeiniki' (we'll try and ignore Doctor Spin) to the pop masterpiece that is Katamari Damacy. I've already submitted my dream suggestion to the label - the uber-aggressive synth-metal music from space shooter Thunder Force 4 - but who knows what dreams may come. Data Discs' mission is clear: "we aim to promote the work of game composers," states Crook, "and introduce their soundtracks to new and unexpected audiences." With Streets of Rage and Shenmue, they already have a pretty high score.