LABEL PROFILE Screenwave Recordings Breaks New Ground for Video Game Music By Casey Jarman · August 03, 2023

Screenwave Media’s Kristin Epstein wears a lot of hats: artist wrangler; indie game and music champion; YouTube soothsayer. Perhaps more than anything else, though, she’s a matchmaker. 

“For me it all connects really easily,” she says via Discord from her home outside of Philadelphia, her excitable, quick voice carrying an audible smile. “I meet somebody in person or in an online community, and I connect them to someone else when it’s a good fit at the right time. A lot of labels have to create a culture first. We have this amazing community that already exists in virtual and physical spaces. We just put the right people together to make it happen.”

Epstein recently returned from one of those physical spaces: not a music festival, but Kami-Con, billed as “Alabama’s Largest Anime & Gaming Convention,” complete with cosplayers and YouTube personalities. “Birmingham is a place I’d never been before and never thought I’d go to,” she says. “But we had a great time.” We, in this case, includes the musicians CG5 and OR3O, who are known for both their original music and original tribute songs that fit within the universes of games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and Among Us. While they may not be not household names to the general public, these artists have huge followings, with around 1.3 billion (yes, billion) views on YouTube and 2.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify between them.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
✓ following
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
✓ following

This is the world that Screenwave inhabits. While the label releases traditional video game soundtracks for original Retroware games like Love 3, the line between official game music and community-created tributes is thin and getting thinner. To wit: In 2020, Screenwave released the official soundtrack for The Angry Video Game Nerd I & II Deluxe. It’s a contemporary game built in the style of classic Nintendo platformers which follows the adventures of a popular video streaming personality who in turn built his reputation on reviewing classic video games. Screenwave, with roots in the hyper-referential world of YouTube, is particularly well-positioned to navigate this type of fandom inception, because Screenwave was a lot of other things long before it was a record label: a branding agency, an umbrella “Multi-Channel Network” for a handful of popular video streamers, an indie game publisher (Retroware), and—as of this January—a small arcade in downtown Lansdale, Pennsylvania. 

The record label wing of Screenwave first grew from an increasing awareness that indie game developers and musicians were engaged in an awkward dance: the game developers often didn’t know how to release music or clear rights hurdles, and the musicians were often intimidated or baffled by how to approach gaming fan communities that are used to deep interaction with game creators. “It’s really just about taking those misconceptions and preconceived notions,” Epstein says. “And being like, this is how it can work where everyone can be happy.”

Sam Beddoes seems pretty happy. The Angry Video Game Nerd game designer also wrote and composed the game’s music, which contains chiptune-style tracks that double as loving nods to classic gaming with names like “Ghouls ‘n’ Garbage” and “Atari Porn” (which Beddoes points out is also a parody of Culture Beat’s 1993 club hit “Mr Vain”). Navigating the music’s digital and physical release was something Beddoes wasn’t quite sure how to go about. “I always dreamed of the idea, but as with a lot of things, Screenwave just made it happen and gave it an incredible treatment,” he says via email. “The vinyl set is wonderful, and I’m still getting over the fact that it even exists.”

Digital-only album releases, like Philly duo Hyper Potions’s popular 2022 compilation, Collector’s Box, have also been met with enough fan excitement that Screenwave has ambitious plans to expand their album release schedule. They’re working with Bleem to release around 100 soundtracks from retro games that have never seen digital releases. The first, Steve Duckworth’s wobbly and unsettling score for the Playstation game 40 Winks, is out now, with more to come at a planned pace of about one soundtrack a week. They’re also planning new collection of cyberpunk-inspired tracks called Future Fusion, featuring Crusher, Mega Ran, Trey Frey, and others.

If those releases represent the glory of running the fledgling record label, there are still plenty of guts to sift through. The Screenwave team dedicates considerable manpower to combing YouTube for rights requests, aware that “there are games whose launches have been destroyed by songs being blocked” by YouTube’s copyright protection filters, Epstein says. While the process is “incredibly resource-intensive,” it’s just one more piece of bringing an indie game background to the world of indie music. Epstein, who began at Screenwave/Retroware in the financials department and has slowly evolved into a full-fledged gamer, thinks it’s well worth the company’s time.

“I’m happy that I can advocate for people who just want to make a living and share things with the world,” she says. “I can’t imagine not doing it at this point.” Her bubbly voice hangs for a moment to think about what she’s just said. “That’s crazy to think about,” she admits. “Because I have an English degree I don’t use.”

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