Seven years after its launch, Grand Theft Auto, via the game’s new Cayo Perico Heist update, has received its most substantial musical bump to date — reflecting the growing foothold that video games have on a music industry intent on finding digital revenue opportunities.
The entire list of musical add-ons in this update is extensive. In the game’s most interactive music feature, three well-known DJs — Moodymann, Palms Trax and DJ collective Keinemusik — are now residents at The Music Locker, GTA Online’s virtual nightclub where players can hang out. All three have their own sets and digital avatars in the game. Elsewhere, Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine and DJ Pooh make cameos playing themselves in one of the update’s cutscenes (Iovine even gets a phone call with his ringtone set to Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen,” a song he produced).
Julian Casablancas curated his own playlist for the game’s long-running radio feature, where he premiered a new song from his band the Voidz while spinning songs from the Strokes as well as other influential garage rock bands like the Stooges and the Cramps. He recorded enough lines to simulate a live radio show, and the show is co-hosted by David Cross with a special appearance from Mac Demarco. Flying Lotus, who previously ran his own in-game station, came back again, this time joined by Tierra Wack. He also premiered new and previously unreleased tracks. English DJ Gilles Peterson has his own station as well, and electronic musician Joy Orbison is running his own pirate-radio station in the game where fans must fix radio antennas as a mission to expand the station’s reach to other parts of the game’s map. (All these add-ons are available on GTA Online, GTA V’s online component, which has kept more significant upkeep and new content while the standalone offline game has stayed more or less the same.)
GTA’s maker Rockstar Games, headed by Sam Houser, a former music executive, has for years prided itself on keeping ahead of the curve on the marriage of music and gaming culture. Virtual DJ shows aren’t new for GTA. In 2018, well before virtual concert sets became the in-vogue music-gaming partnership, the Blessed Madonna and three other DJs were musicians for hire in GTA for a feature allowing gamers to run their own nightclubs.
As the music business hungers for immersive content thanks to successful virtual concerts from superstars like Travis Scott and Lil Nas X, other gaming companies have focused on creating those experiences — but the GTA developer is keeping more steady having already leaned in with music.
“Rockstar Games itself started from the philosophy of those cool punk and hip-hop labels,” says Ivan Pavlovich, who’s been Rockstar’s director of music since 2004. “Music has always played an integral part in the gaming, from working with indie labels in the beginning to [making] the radio stations in GTA and developing those over the years. For us, it’s constantly figuring out how to evolve the role of music in our games. That means that now, not only are we creating these incredible radio stations with artist contributing across the board, we’re also trying to find ways to integrate artists into the storyline and gameplay. It’s finding cool ways of doing that that are really natural. They’re not forced. It’s seamless and it works for the game and the story.”
Spanning seven years and three generations of gaming consoles, few games have ever held the longevity GTA V has managed. (I reviewed the game in 2013 when it first came out, and now, as I write this in Rolling Stone, it still remains one of the most popular on the market). Pavlovich boasts 135 million sales for the game. Prior to the latest update, Along with the aforementioned DJ feature, GTA had already partnered with several artists like Danny Brown, and Tyler, The Creator, who fans recently discovered voiced a few NPCs in the game.
Whereas Fortnite or Roblox have taken more event-style approaches to shows thus far, presenting them as clear standalone events, GTA has gone the opposite direction for years — using music more seamlessly within the game’s environment.
And while the previous games have mostly focused on bringing top-tier superstars for concerts, Rockstar is looking to be more of a tastemaker introducing fans to music they might enjoy.
“We want to create a musical event, but we want to do it on our terms. We go out to the clubs, we hang out with these people. The choices we make reflect the music we want to listen to in our every day lives. These are the people we love and we follow,” Pavlovich says. “We’re really passionate about it. We always say that these [music experiences are worked in, they aren’t tacked on.”