Imagine, at the start of each day, if your favorite song dropped the moment you stepped through your office door. Heads would turn, keyboards would stop clacking and your boss would finally get around to approving your vacation days.
Unfortunately for us, the privilege of walk-up music is reserved for professional wrestlers, brides and baseball players, the latter of whom draw inspiration from pre-selected tunes played during their (now brisker, given baseball’s new rules) walk to home plate. But Royce Clayton, an ex-player who had grown tired of baseball – and who once played another player, Miguel Tejada, in the movie version of Moneyball – isn’t content to hear the same recycled arena rock on his visits to the ballpark. He worries that the game is getting stale. Boring, even.
“We’re losing kids to other sports,” the former All-Star says.
His solution: customized walk-up songs, produced through his company MUSIQ Locker.
While walk-up music may seem like mere fluff – little more than added musical entertainment for the audience – many players take their song selections very seriously.
“A lot of it is preparation – there are certain things that inspire you, that can trigger focus, whether it’s the rhythm or lyrics,” says Clayton, who used songs like LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” and 2Pac’s “California Love” as at-bat music during his 17-year career. “Music moves people in all different ways, and it doesn’t change when it comes to baseball walk-up songs.”
As his playing career wound down in 2007, Clayton started considering his options. Recognizing the potential to merge baseball with other forms of entertainment, he began mulling how he might combine the game he loved with his passion for music. During celebrity softball games and appearances with buddies Snoop Dogg and LL Cool J, the wheels started spinning.
“I struck up conversations with LL and Snoop and talked about how I’d used their songs in the past, and they were aware of the walk-up song situation,” Clayton says. “They were pumped that their songs were being used.”
Although Clayton had put a lot of thought into his choice of songs as a player, he knew little about the logistics of song rights and licensing.
“I was curious, how does a guy like Trevor Hoffman use ‘Hells Bells‘ for 20 years?” he says.
Clayton set out to better understand the way the music industry works, learning how artists earn payment through contracts with publishers tasked with distributing their clients’ music. MLB players could choose their song from the massive libraries licensed by the publishers to the league, but Clayton wanted to find a way to change the equation.
“As long as we’re marketing and promoting this music, it’d be cool if, first off, we had more involvement with the song and if it was more branded towards us,” he says. “And secondly, it would be cool if we could figure out a way to monetize it for the players.”
In 2013, this brainstorm led to the formation of MUSIQ Locker, which inked an exclusive deal with the MLB Players Association to produce custom walk-up songs for every interested major leaguer. Clayton’s company recently finished producing songs for Chris Carter and Jimmy Rollins, and has tunes for David Ortiz, George Springer, Mike Trout and Michael Brantley in the pipeline.
“I think,” Clayton says, “we can be a key influence in making the game cool again.”
While professional wrestling has long relied on “entrance music,” with openings from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and “Macho Man” Randy Savage reaching iconic status, the walk-up song is just the most recent fad in a long lineage of musical entertainment in sports that originated with the organ.
In the 1920s, organs were common sights in movie theaters, pizza parlors and shopping malls, says Matthew Mihalka, a music professor at the University of Arkansas. Before long, they became a part of the live sports experience, too. The first sporting-venue organ debuted at Chicago Stadium to provide “psychological accompaniment” for the Chicago Blackhawks, according to a 1929 article in the Los Angeles Times.
The organ made its baseball debut at a Cardinals/Cubs game at Wrigley Field on April 26, 1941, and was soon in every ballpark, with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” becoming an integral part of the seventh-inning stretch. Organs remained ballpark fixtures for several decades (and several still have them), until technological advances in the late 1970s and early 1980s led to a transition to recorded music.
In 1980, owner Charlie Finley sold the Oakland A’s to Walter Haas, who sought to revitalize the moribund franchise by bringing in marketing guru Andy Dolich and recent college graduate Roger Inman, who instantly became baseball’s first stadium DJ.
“I didn’t see this, but I was told they had a brief ceremony where they threw the organ out the window and put a [sound] mixer up there,” Inman says.
Haas installed a brand new PA system in center field and shortly after, a Jumbotron.
“They were making a statement,” Inman says. “This was entertainment. Sports entertainment.”
Inman was encouraged to get creative, and spiced up the game with the bits of prerecorded music and sound effects that are now commonplace. When an opposing manager walked out to the mound, Inman would drop “Hit the Road Jack” or Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.” When Dave Stewart mowed down opposing hitters in the late 1980s and early 90s, Inman would play Oakland native MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.”
Inman wasn’t the only stadium DJ who innovated, and one bit of fun helped to organically spark the walk-up movement: The Texas Rangers’ Dave Hostetler splashed onto the scene in 1982 with 10 home runs in June after being called up from the minor leagues in late May. Mired in the midst of a 64-98 season, the Rangers pounced on this rare bright spot, building up their marketing around Hostetler’s blasts. The team put out a press release announcing that Hostetler’s home run pace through his first 100 at-bats bested Babe Ruth’s, Hank Aaron’s and Willie Mays’; the entertainment crew began playing the Bonanza theme song (Hostetler shared the nickname “Hoss” with the character from the TV show) every time Hostetler came to bat; and “Hoss-teria” was born.
“It was kind of a kick-start for them, it was a neat thing to get people talking about Ranger baseball,” says Hostetler, now a regional sales manager for Riddell, the sports equipment company. “I think [before that] there were some Friday night high school football games that outdrew us.”
Hostetler may have been an accidental pioneer, but by the time Clayton joined the league in the early 1990s, walk-up music was catching fire.
“Fans dug it,” Clayton says. “I’d go out and walk around town and people were like, ‘Man, I love the fact that you come out to whatever song.'”
Walk-up music has become such an integral part of the stadium experience that many players time their stride to their song, with fans often joining in the chorus. Some songs have been completely reborn thanks to the tradition; just ask Metallica or the Dropkick Murphys.
Now, Clayton wants to take the genre to the next level by bringing players and musicians together to create custom walk-up songs, with MUSIQ Locker pairing players with a team of writers and producers to design a song tailored to each player’s brand.
“We do research on the player’s previous walk-up songs, see what they’re using currently and we start assimilating some of those beats and rhythms to see what they like,” Clayton says. “Once we’ve figured that part out, we engage them on the creative part, like, ‘What’s your nickname? Do you want your nickname in it? Do you want your number included?'”
The players not only can match their songs to their brands and personalities, they also get a piece of any publishing royalties. And though there’s only enough time to play a snippet of the song at the ballpark, Clayton has full-length versions available online and plans to develop additional content such as music videos and “making of” featurettes this offseason.
To date, 12 players have signed on with MUSIQ Locker, most of whom end up giving the money to their charities. But, if Clayton can continue to attract big name clients like Nelson Cruz, who called his song “Knock it Out” by Glasses Malone “a dream come true,” customized walk-up music may indeed become the baseball card of the 21st century. And Clayton says that‘s the goal.
“It’s something that the fans can grab on to,” he says. “When I was growing up, everyone wanted their own baseball card. It motivated you to play baseball. We’re hoping that this leads kids to say, ‘Hey man, I want my own walk-up song.'”