VGCultureHQ had a unique opportunity to interview industry icon, Tommy Tallarico. Tommy has currently launched a Kickstarter to fund his sixth album, LEVEL 6, and he took the time out to speak with us about the album, why he’s so successful with his Kickstarter campaigns, and his take on music in the video game industry and why it’s so important and influential in so many people’s lives. As of now LEVEL 6 has surpassed its goal and has raised roughly $165,000 with 13 days left to raise additional funds.

Morgan: Tommy, thank you for taking the time out to speak with us today, I really appreciate it.

Tommy: Yeah thanks for having me.

Morgan: It’s our pleasure.

For those who don’t know you, Tommy, can you introduce yourself and your affiliation with the gaming industry and some of the projects that you’ve undertaken?

Tommy: Sure. I’ve been a video game composer for almost 30 years now, and I’ve worked on over 350 video games, which is in the Guinness World Records as the person who’s worked on the most video games in a lifetime; they actually have a record for that! And then about 16 years ago, I started the Game Audio Network Guild, which is a nonprofit organization for people looking to get into the video game industry to do audio, or for professionals in there already. We have over 2,500 members now, we put on a big award show at the Game Developers Conference, we have apprenticeship programs and scholarship stuff and a whole bunch of things like that.

I also hosted a television show about video games for over 12 years starting in 1995 and hosted that until 2007. It was called The Electric Playground and then we did a second show called Judgement Day, and then when Video Games Live started 16 years ago as well, the same year I started GANG, the Game Audio Network Guild, when I started that I couldn’t really — I had to drop the TV show, I had to drop composing for games; I put all my focus into the tour, so I created Video Games Live in 2002 and we were the very first touring video game concert ever. Of course there are about five or six shows out there, but we were the first to tour, we were the first to use a video screen, and when we did our first show at the Hollywood Bowl, that first show was the very first time that music from Halo and Warcraft and Metal Gear Solid and Kingdom Hearts and Sonic had ever been played live anywhere, including Japan.

So that was quite a trip because when I first started the show everybody thought that I was crazy. Everybody thought I was nuts, they were like, “look, people who play video games don’t go to symphonies, and people who go to symphonies don’t play video games, so you’re totally screwed and no one’s going to show up to your dumb idea” — and that was the game companies telling me that and everybody else; the symphonies and the promoters and the agents and everything, everyone thought I was nuts. So I did the Hollywood Bowl show and they’re like, “you’re lucky if 500 people show up”. And I had risked everything I had made my entire life, I put all my money Into the show and 11,000 people ended up showing up, so all of a sudden I wasn’t so crazy and we’ve been doing it ever since — you know, since then, 16 years now we hold two other Guinness World Records.

The first is, it was the — it’s the longest-running Symphony show. We’ve done more live symphony performances than any other traveling symphony show ever, so we’re up to about 450 shows now, so that’s cool. And then the other Guinness World Record was a couple years ago in Beijing, China we hold the record for the most people to ever view a symphony show live. We had 752,000 people show up live in China, so we played at the Bird’s Nest, the big National Olympic Stadium In Beijing; we did two big sold out shows there. We’ve played all over the world. In fact, we just got back from the Middle East. We played in Doha, Qatar with the National Symphony Orchestra there. We’re on our way to Fort Wayne, Indiana this weekend and then two shows in Denver and then Phoenix, and then we do three shows in Florida and then 14 shows all across Canada, so yeah, always doing it, and of course running the Kickstarter, so a little busy, you know [laughter].

Morgan: Speaking of the Kickstarter I know you just launched your LEVEL 6 Kickstarter for your sixth album that you’ve run through crowdfunding on the Kickstarter platform. Can you tell us a little bit about how it came about?

Tommy: Yeah. So the first album I did on Video Games Live was with EMI Classics, that was back in — because they were one of the biggest orchestral record companies back then. So that was early on, that was Like 2006 or 2007 and then our second album LEVEL 2 was part of our big video game show –  national television show — that we did on PBS. So we did a big PBS special. And so that was associated with PBS and that record company. Then record companies kind of went away for the most part in regards to — because it’s so expensive to create a big professional orchestral recording. Just ask any film composer. The film companies will literally spend a million dollars just to record the music to a film, right. So I wanted to stay on that level, I wanted to record that kind of stuff because you know that’s what differentiates us from just somebody on YouTube on a midi keyboard synthesizer putting out their orchestral arrangement of Mega Man or whatever. So we wanted to keep it that high-level quality but no record company was willing to give us $300,000 or $400,000 in advance to create game music when their feelings were that all of the gamers are just going to steal the music and download it illegally. So I had meetings with everybody and everybody said no, and then this Kickstarter thing started to get popular and I’m like, you know, this is really my only option at this point, so let me put it out there. It’s going to be expensive to make but I’m going to be very honest with everyone, and I’m going to put up the budget, and I’ll be very transparent; here’s where all the money’s going, here’s what we need, here’s what we’re going to pay in taxes — I mean I put everything on there, and this was LEVEL 3, and I gave it a whirl and I was asking for $250,000, and even that wasn’t going to cover the full production, but it would give me a really great head start and I was willing to put my own money in after that.

And so the project raised over $280,000 that first time, it was mind-blowing, again everybody thought I was crazy, they’re like look, most albums on Kickstarter will raise $10,000 or $15,000 because it doesn’t cost that much to put a four-piece band into a studio for a week. But we were talking about 200 world-class musicians and a choir and I was mixing it at Skywalker Ranch and mastering it in Bernie Grunman’s mastering studio in Hollywood. You walk in that studio and you see Michael Jackson’s Thriller on the wall, you see Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s where every John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Danny Elfman scores get mastered. So that’s the level of quality. And low and behold the people came out and they supported it, and they said, “hell yeah, we want you to keep on doing what you’re doing”.

And that was LEVEL 3. Two years later we did LEVEL 4, successful again, two years after that, which was two years ago, we did LEVEL 5 and raised, I think, another $260,000 for that. And here we are at LEVEL 6 and we raised $100,000 on the first day. I always think, you never know, when you hit that button to go live with your project, you never know if the people are going to come out again, but each and every time they have and it allows us to create new content. I mean, it’s kind of like taking pre-orders for an album, but the amazing thing I think that really differentiates video games — because I knew I needed a hook, I knew people weren’t going to just give me all this money just to do an album.

Tommy Tallarico Interview About LEVEL 6

And one of the things you’ll notice, and I think that’s really unique with any Kickstarter that you see, is that I always make sure that each reward tier, that the reward value is at least three and sometimes up to seven times the amount that you pledge. So for example, if you pledge $10 I’m going to give you $30 in content. If you pledge $25 I’m going to make sure that it’s over $100 of content. So even at $25 I’ll give you three, four different albums so it’s not only the album of orchestral music that we create but, for example in LEVEL 6, we’re doing a Donkey Kong Country piano album with a world-class award-winning pianist who’s going to — I’m going to produce it, he’ll arrange it, and we’ll make it together, and so it’s that kind of stuff. And then we create other albums around the project as well and then we do things like vinyl and then I get my friends in the industry to pitch in. For example, this year is a big Pokemon anniversary — and today’s Pokemon day, by the way, that’s right, February 27.

So I brought in the original singer, Jason Page, of the original Pokemon TV show ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’. We’re redoing that with a rock band and an orchestra and Jason singing. Undertale is a big deal now, we get so many requests, so I called up Toby Fox, the creator of Undertale, so me and him are working together on putting this thing together. Marty O’Donnell, the composer of Halo, he works with Paul McCartney from the Beatles, they worked together on the music together for Destiny. Some of it was never released. We’re going to be the first to release it and record it. Tomb Raider, we’re working with Nathan McCree, the original composer of Tomb Raider — we’re putting together a special new Video Games Live Tomb Raider suite that no one’s ever heard.

Earthbound and Mother is another big, huge one that we get a lot of requests for and I’m doing something totally different with that, where I’m going to take a — just to be kind of fun and different, we’re going to take a Moulin Rouge or greatest-show approach to this particular piece. So we’re going to make it like Broadway-ish but with singing, but big orchestral sound and opera singers, and it’s going to be kind of neat doing something a little different in a fun way. We’re also doing a video, a documentary as well, which was really popular for LEVEL 5. We did a behind-the-scenes documentary where I talked about all of the different songs, and we interviewed the original composers and how we completed the album, and we brought the cameras into the recording studios and into the mixing at Skyward Ranch, into the mixing house and the mastering, and just laid it out and went through every song and this is how we made it and these were the soloists that were on it and this was my approach to it. So that was really cool too. So not only do you get the album but you also get this hour-long documentary with it.

Morgan: That sounds great. Are there any other tracks that you plan to have on the album if you go above what the pledge amount is and reach any stretch goals?

Tommy: So basically, the minimum album is 10 songs, but I’ve just mentioned six that we’re definitely putting on the album. Now, so we’re going to have the last four tracks, those are going to be chosen by the backers. And so what I’ve done is I’ve put together a list of all of the top things that people want to hear, you know over the years that we haven’t done yet, anywhere from Suikoden II to Kirby to Mario, and you know so many, Cuphead and Nier and Breath of the Wild, so many things that people ask for, so what we’re going to do is I’ve kept the list of all those things, and then at the end of the project we’re going to do a poll and we’re going to have the people decide what they want to hear. So the backers are going to ultimately decide the final set list for the album, and then as you’ve mentioned every stretch goal that we hit will be another track on the album.

So it’s going to a minimum of 10, but all of the previous albums have been anywhere from between 12-15 tracks. So usually we hit two or three of the stretch goals and we’re on par to do the same with this where we’re going to hit a couple more stretch goals and extend the album. So it’s kind of a combination of what I know people are looking for but also to let the backers be a part of the process for real, not like most Kickstarter projects where they’re like “ Oh yeah, you’ll be a part of the process”, but then they’re not really, you know? But with this we literally let you decide on what you want. 

Morgan: That’s what I love, is how you’re so about the fans. It’s all about that for you.

Tommy: Yeah, it’s not about me. I’ll tell you a really kind of cool, interesting story that I read about one of my heroes, the man Walt Disney, and this is a great story and this always resonated with me is Walt Disney, they opened Disneyland on July 17, 1955 and he had all his Imagineers, as you can imagine, all the people who created the park with him and they had a  meeting the following day after the first day it opened. And the lead Imagineer went up to Walt Disney and he said, “look, okay, you know when you get to the end of Main Street you’ve got to take that right to get to Tomorrowland. Well, remember how we spent all that money on all those Japanese rose bushes that we had created in Japan because we wanted thornless rose bushes and we spent $20,000 and to line the row, and we didn’t want them to have thorns”, and blah blah blah. Yeah, he goes, “well, so what was happening is people were cutting right through the rose bushes to get to Tomorrowland like a shortcut and they’re like ruining these super expensive plants. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to put some fencing and a pole around all of the hedge, all around that whole area so that no one can get through there and we keep our rose bushes intact”. And Walt Disney looks at him and he says “look, you’re not going to build a fence, you’re going to build a path”. So take them out, put a path there; the people are telling you what they want, it’s not about you and what you want it’s about the show, it’s about the people paying there, and that’s the approach I’ve always taken.

And of course I have my thoughts and talents and opinions and arrangements on how I like to see things, right, and people either like that and they keep going to our show or they don’t like that and they stop. Well, you know, I must be doing something right 16 years later we’re still — and the Guinness World Records later we’re still touring the show, so that’s cool. So people obviously like what we’re providing. But, I want to listen to what are their favorite parts, what do they want to hear next; help me to keep this train rolling. And if you don’t want it to roll any more than it will stop, but that hasn’t been the case, and it keeps rolling on.

Morgan: So what are you most excited for for the LEVEL 6 album?

Tommy: The Undertale arrangement, what I have cooked up for that, It’s going to be really kind of cool, and I’m making — it’s going to be like symphony meets EDM meets rock and roll, all mixed together. Mostly orchestral, but there’s going to be some EDM elements and some guitar elements in there as well. That’s really fun. The ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ thing, I’m really excited about, because again, we’re going to take it up a notch. So many people know that song, and we’re not going to change it entirely, but think of the song that you know, except with a lot more rock and roll balls, more guitar, more drums, more harmonies on the vocals, and then add a 200 hundred piece orchestra and choir on top of that. So I mean the energy level is just going to be through the roof on that one so I’m really excited about that one as well.

And I think this Earthbound thing is going to be interesting. It’s going to be very different. I don’t know if everyone’s going to love it; some people love Moulin Rouge-style stuff, other people hate it. Some people love greatest show stuff and Disney-type of stuff, some people hate it. So it may not be for everybody but it’s something that’s just keeping me up at night thinking oh man, I want to to do — I’ll be honest, the first time I saw Moulin Rouge in the theatre I frieking hated it. I was like “it sucks, it’s weird”, because I’m a big rock and roll guy, and I was like, “what are they doing to all this music”, and they’re turning it into Broadway, like Sting and the Police, and Elton John, and Madonna; they’re taking their music and ruining it, and the Beatles, and then I saw it and I was leaving the movie theatre and I said “that sucked!”

And then the following the day I couldn’t stop thinking about it and it’s the visuals and the way they did the music, and I’m like, “what’s going on here?” This transformation happened, and it was just because I wasn’t really used to hearing that kind of music, or hearing the music that I loved growing up as a kid — hearing it in such a different way, it’s just kind of like, my first reaction was negative. But then I just kept thinking about it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’m just like, f***, I want to go back and see this again. And then I got the soundtrack album and then I just got kind of obsessed with it. I was like, “what the hell’s going on?” So that was interesting. So I want to take that approach to this and see what comes out of it. But who knows, it could suck. I don’t know.

Morgan: Going by your track record, it should turn out alright. You’ve already alluded to this a little bit, but why do you think you’ve been so successful on Kickstarter with these albums?

Tommy: You know, I think that people truly — and I’ll say this about any Kickstarter project. Some Kickstarter projects, I don’t know, I watch some of the videos, and I’m like, oh, they’re just doing this for the money. It’s a way to get money, you know? And sometimes you don’t even see the creator or the person there, and it’s just a voiceover in a very professionally done video. And I’m not saying those are bad, but in my opinion, and you asked me a question about why ours is so successful, and I think because there’s this human element to it, and people see the passion. People share in that passion, they see the sparkle in my eye, and they see how excited I get talking about this stuff. And it’s true; it comes from the heart. And I think that resonates with people. They’ll watch my videos or whatever and they see how I respond to every question, and I’m in the updates, and I’m doing videos, and we’re doing live streams, and people see that and they appreciate it and they go, “You know what, he’s just like me. He loves these games and video game music and everything the way I do.”

It’s not some producer coming in and trying to say “oh it’s the so and so’s symphony of Skyrim because all the kids are listening to that these days, we better cash in on that”. So it comes from the heart, and you can’t fool people, especially gamers. They know when you’re full of shit or not. I remember a time 10 years ago when the hot thing on everyone’s mind was, “oh, girl gamers, and let’s show all these hot girl gamers, girls play games too!” And they’d post half naked with controllers and shit like that. And there were a lot of girls who came out who weren’t even really even into gaming but were just trying to get likes on Myspace or Facebook, or whatever at the time. And people could see through that. But it was the real gamers, the girls who really knew their stuff, who were catapulted higher because they were legitimately passionate about it. They weren’t being fake or phony about it. So, I don’t know, I think people see that.

It’s like G4. When my shows were on G4, and there were a lot of shows and hosts and things on G4 that you could tell were phony and they were actors. There was that ugh factor. Whereas when you turned on whether it was our show — it was just two friends talking about video games, and we didn’t have cue cards and a script, and we weren’t told what to say. And there were a bunch of shows like that too — was a great show, the Adam Sessler one, X-Play, they had a good show, they would always talk about games. So people responded and those were the highest-rated shows, the ones you could tell the people were passionate about. So you can’t fool gamers.

Morgan: So you think about how games have progressed over the last 30 years, and as games have progressed, music has progressed as well. So what do you think the future of video game music is as the industry continues to mature and progress, because it’s still a relatively new medium?

Tommy: Yeah, I mean I always like to compare to the film industry. Back in the early teens and 1920s, when films started first coming out they were black and white, they didn’t have any sound, and a lot of people didn’t like movies because they’re like, well vaudeville’s where it’s at with live actors on stage, what’s this crap? Black and white, no storyline, no acting, couldn’t hear anything, and then as it progressed and people started growing up on films then it got sound, and then it got color, and then it got storylines, and then it got real acting, and then the 50s with Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, colors start to come in and more intricate storylines. And then by the late 60s and early 70s you had films like The Graduate and The Godfather, where the acting went to a different level entirely that no one had ever seen before. And then in ’77, you had the blockbuster Star Wars, now the technology starts to come in, right? And all of that took — even from the time film started until you get to Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz, that took 40 years to get there, right? To even get to that point.

Well, let’s compare the video game industry because isn’t it interesting? In 1972 Pong’s released, it’s black and white, doesn’t have any storyline and there’s no sound, there’s no music anyway, a couple bleeps and bloops, right? And then color came in and then audio came in and then in the late 90s we started getting more storylines and acting, things like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid and storylines started to come in; Kingdom Hearts, and Halo, and characters, and all these things. So really we’re kind of where the film industry was in the 50s and 60s and early 70s. I still don’t think we’ve hit our Star Wars yet. So we’re getting close but I think the industry is still — and again, we’re only 40-years-old, right? Almost 50 years old when pong came out in ’72, right? So in the year 2022, the video game industry will be 50-years-old. Imagine that! Look how far we’ve come in that time compared to where the film industry went in 50 years from 1920 to the 1970s. So if you compare those It’s like, huh, we’re kind of like where the film industry was in the early 70s. So it’s going to be interesting what our Star Wars brings, what that will be. it’s coming, exciting.

Morgan: What’s the most rewarding thing about the success that you’ve enjoyed in the gaming industry?

Tommy: I think being allowed to do something that I love and that I’m passionate about, and to survive, to be able to pay bills, to be able to travel around the world doing something I love, that’s the thing for me. My grandfather always told me, my career, always find something that you love so you never feel like you have a job. it’s just you wake up and you do what you love. and that’s to me the greatest part about all of this. I wake up every morning and I’m never like, “oh I gotta go to work”, or “ugh, it sucks today”, or “ugh, I just want to sleep another hour”. It’s the exact opposite of that. I can’t sleep. I can only sleep for like four, five hours a day. I’m up at 4:30, 5 o’clock in the morning and I can’t wait to start the day because I’ve got a bunch of exciting stuff to do or whatever, so that to me is the best part for me personally is the fact that for the last 30 years I don’t feel like I’ve ever had a job. I’ve worked, but it’s fun, it doesn’t seem like a job at all and that’s the best part.

Morgan: Going on from that what’s the most gratifying moment that you’ve had with your experience working in the industry?

Tommy: Working with Miyamoto on Metroid was big. The Earthworm Jim team was amazing because we’d worked on four games previous to Earthworm Jim so we were kind of like a brotherhood almost, and to see that launch something that we created from scratch to see it launch — because all the games we’d done previously like Disney’s Aladdin and the 7 Up Character Coolspot and the McDonalds game, Global Gladiators, and The Terminator, you know all of those were like licensed games, but to create something ourselves and see it be global and huge and win all of the awards was a kind of amazing thing. Tony Hawk Pro Skater, you know watching that, but Video Games Live I think is still probably my biggest accomplishment I think to the gaming world because I’m continuing to prove to the world how culturally significant and artistic video games have become, all while helping to usher in a whole new generation of young people to appreciate orchestral music and appreciate the arts. So that’s a big deal.

Morgan: And I’m actually very thankful for that because it’s something that actually I’m very passionate about.

So to kind of finish this up, what makes you most excited moving forward both with your work with LEVEL 6 and with the future of video game music?

Tommy: Yeah, I mean I love all these Indie guys, like a guy like Toby Fox, who just starts a Kickstarter project, reaches his goal, Raises $50,000, $60,000, whatever, does the game, does the music for it all by himself and the thing blows up. I think his music has like 30 million views on Spotify or whatever. It’s crazy. So it’s that kind of, seeing that happen is pretty darn cool.

But also just performing in front of people. See the one thing that really is different about video game music than any other form of music is that when you play a video game you become that character, and the music becomes the soundtrack of your life. You’re the one who named the character, you choose what color boots they’re going to wear and their armor and their name and the color of their eyes and the color of their hair; that’s an extension of you and the music that’s played becomes a part of you. And when you perform music live to 2,000 people plus in a room and they then feel that connection, it’s like, “hey that’s my music being played”, but wait a second, that’s your music too. And it becomes like everybody in the audience becomes connected in a special way that no other music can really do or provide, and to feel that energy and excitement and people remembering their childhood, and it’s all this great emotion that pours out that you can feel from the stage and the audience and the way they’re cheering and clapping and whatever.

That’s Irreplaceable. That’s the thing that I most look forward to. It’s sometimes hard to leave your family and I’m about to go on a tour for about 2 months and I won’t be home. And that’s hard to do. But knowing what’s waiting there in each of the cities and knowing that we’re bringing this joy to so many people around the world, it makes the sacrifice worth it and that’s the fun part.

Morgan: Well Tommy, we want to thank you for taking the time out to speak with us. We wish you the best of luck with LEVEL 6. If your previous albums and Kickstarter’s are any indication it’s going to be fantastic. We’re really looking forward to it. We will post the links to the Kickstarter and all your social media below, and thank you very much for your time and as always we wish you the best of luck.

Tommy: Awesome. Thank you!

Once again, there are 13 days left to contribute to the LEVEL 6 Kickstarter. You can make a pledge by going to the Kickstarter site here. You can also visit Tommy on Facebook and Twitter, as well as find Video Games Live on social media here and here.

Once again, a huge thank you to Tommy Tallarico for taking the time out to speak with us and we wish you the best of luck!

About The Author


Morgan Lewis is a Video Game Journalist and is the Founder, Owner, and Editor-in-Chief of VGCultureHQ. He has been writing about games for over five years and has written over 1,500 articles during that timespan. He first fell in love with gaming when he received A Link to the Past for Christmas when he was six and is the guywazeldatatt. He also loves anime and anything that has to do with gaming culture and Tetsuya Takahashi games. He is also a huge anime and Star Wars fan.

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