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Why are people mad about the Westworld Scoring Competition?

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

...and the surprise video game music-inspired winner?

Westworld Scoring Competition promotional graphic.
This seems to be the worst part of 2020 for a lot of people. Source: Spitfire/HBO

So, the Spitfire Audio Westworld Scoring Competition happened and it seems that the entirety of the online media composing community is going through The Discourse right now. A lot of composers are saying a lot of different things and I don't think it would be entirely unfair to say that the conversation has become somewhat toxic. There is a lot to unpack here and, surprisingly, it involves video games.

Before we begin, I did not enter this competition. I also have never seen an episode of Westworld. I suppose I wanted to be clear about both of those things before I dive into this so that anybody who's reading this can be informed about the author's relationship to the subject matter. Context is important.

Let's start with the announcement video.

In this video, we have: a restating of the judging criteria and who the judges were, as well as the announcement of the runners up and the winner, David Kudell, along with his winning submission in its entirety. What can't be found in this video are the 2300+ comments that appear on this video's YouTube page. And, uh... well, they're a lot. There is a wide spectrum of emotions on display here and the most popular comments are all rather angry and indignant at the judges, Kudell, his music, or all three.

There are four general allegations leveled against the entire competition:

  1. The judges ignored their own criteria.

  2. The music is a "joke."

  3. The winner is an industry insider who knows J.J. Abrams.

  4. The judges did not view every single submission they received.

If I missed any major allegations let me know in the comments section below. If it's an allegation you're passionate about, I have no doubt that you will. I'm going to run through these allegations starting with three and four first.

Let's look at the allegations that approach conspiracy.

I can't speak much to the allegation that not every submission was judged. Some people claim that they received zero views on their entry and others have stated that none of their views came from anywhere in the UK (where Spitfire Audio is located). One commenter pointed out that it would've taken 733 hours to watch all four minutes of all 11.000 entries. I question if this person expected the show’s composer, Ramin Djawadi, Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and the show's Executive Producer J.J. Abrams to watch every single submission themselves? That definitely didn't happen. Spitfire Audio most likely did their best to train a number of their employees to sift through entries for certain criteria (or more concrete interpretations of the competitions three points of criteria - more on that soon) and let them have the first swing at the entries to try and cull that number. If you ever enter a competition with a celebrity judge(s), you probably shouldn't expect that individual(s) to see every submission. I'm not commenting on the correctness of that practice one way or another. I'm just stating it for what it is.

This dovetails into the allegation that the winner, David Kudell, personally knows J.J. Abrams. This is because Kudell worked as an assistant sound editor on Mission Impossible III, which Abram's directed.

As Kudell himself puts it, assistant sound editors do not work with directors. A quick glance at the IMDB page for Mission Impossible III shows about 50 people working in the sound department for that film alone. To better grasp the questionable nature of this allegation, let's adjust the job titles. Do you expect the CEO of Starbucks to have a personal relationship with every barista? Yes, I'm aware that Starbucks employs far more people than a single film crew but the comparison isn't about numbers, it's about the distance between the positions.

I personally doubt that there was insider dealing. I also doubt that there was a problem with judging every entry. Those allegations aren't really about either of those things, anyway. Nobody goes hunting on Kudell's IMDB page unless they're looking for a reason why he won other than his music. Likewise, is everybody questioning the judging of submissions asking to ensure that everybody has been heard? Or, is it because they believe that surely this wouldn't have won if only they had heard all the entries? It's hard to say but I suspect it all points back to a lack of "satisfaction" with the winner.

Let's talk about the allegations dealing with artistic merit.

The allegations I want to spend the most time on are the ones that question the validity of Kudell's artistry. I take great umbrage with composers who choose to tear down other composers. Those actions exist in total opposition to my belief that composing can be a place of abundance for every composer and so I feel an obligation to fight this kind of language where I see it.

If you're here for my personal take on the controversy surrounding Kudell's music, I really think it can be summed up as such: people are pissed off about the chiptune music. That's pretty much it. However, that anger requires some unpacking.

People are pissed off about the chiptune music. That's pretty much it. However, that anger requires some unpacking.

Let's start with the judging criteria. Here it is from Spitfire Audio's own website (pulled from Internet Archive's Wayback Machine):

JUDGING: All entries will be judged beginning on or about 4 June 2020, based on the following judging criteria: enhancement of the viewing experience, creative inventiveness, adding emotion, and the ability to add to the storytelling of the clip. In the event of a tie among entries, the tied entries will be re-judged based solely (100%) on creative inventiveness to determine the winner.

So the question is, did Kudell's entry enhance the viewing experience by adding to the storytelling of the clip with its creative inventiveness? Sure, why not? See, that's not even really the issue. Those are all subjective measurements in a contest that is utterly subjective. You can make an argument one way or another in each of these categories and many of them are fair. You could make a reasonable argument that the scene was overscored or that the employment of chiptune was out of place within the context of Westworld. You can argue that Kudell's music distracted from the viewing experience. But you also have to acknowledge that the show's creators and the show's composer (and, yes, J.J. Abrams, too) have all disagreed with those arguments. And, guess what, it's totally cool to disagree with them while still respecting the outcome.

What isn't cool is being a total ass to David Kudell and his music.

David produced something unique without a doubt. He built his whole score around the line "He's changing genres" and that big gamble paid off. Here is Kudell describing his compositional choices in his own words (found on the YouTube page for his submission):

I had a blast with this scene! My take on Caleb's genre switch was to enter the world of a video game with 8-bit music and sound. My approach was to build on this 8-bit theme by adding the orchestra and create variations on the video game melody that became more epic as the scene goes on, up to the big finale at the end. I felt like this treatment aligns with the tongue-in-cheek genre switches that the producers of the show used in this episode, as well as Ramin's amazing work creating orchestral versions of "Paint it Black" to great effect in seasons 1 & 2.

Is it unconventional? Certainly. Many people feel that both film and television music is almost completely homogenized and predictable at this point, so to employ something as in your face as chiptune music is absolutely against the grain. But that doesn't mean it was a joke. Kudell lays out solid reasoning for the choices he made and it's obvious that he not only believes that what he's producing isn't a joke but that it also falls within the bounds of the competition guidelines. And, yes, the judges thought so as well.

The problem is that video game music isn't taken seriously outside of our community.

Nobody in the video game community -- composers, developers, players, or anybody else -- takes chiptune music for a joke. It is a respectable and serious part of our history and culture. Video game music composers still employ chiptune music to this day because it is referential to a particular period in our medium's history as well as it provides unique timbres and textures to our music. It is fully capable of expressing a wide variety of emotions and it is not some gimmick. Kudell intended to employ it in a tongue-in-cheek manner and that is evident from his use of fanfare whenever an enemy is destroyed in the clip.

Would the outrage have been the same if Kudell employed era-specific orchestral tropes to the scene?

Would the outrage have been the same if Kudell employed era-specific orchestral tropes to the scene? Would the anger have been so palpable if he scored it like noir or a 60s spy film? Would the comments be so vitriolic if he pulled out his best Vangelis impersonation? Perhaps. But I think this anger is particularly because he used a reference point so foreign to tv music and one from a space that, despite being nearly the biggest media form in the world, isn't as artistically respected outside of itself.

So, this blog is geared towards video game music composers and the question is what do we do to earn the respect that we deserve? Well, first I would say that anybody challenging the validity of video game music as an art form in the year 2020 is probably not worth courting the opinion of. It's horrifically outdated and elitist to think that it can be excluded. And, yeah, that does include chiptune. Kudell put in a lot of work for us, honestly. 11,000 composers entered this competition and now 10,999 composers know that chiptune is fair game in their creative work -- whether they like that or not.

11,000 composers entered this competition and now 10,999 composers know that chiptune is fair game in their creative work -- whether they like that or not.

In the end, David Kudell made a bold choice and the judges were receptive to it because of its unconventional nature and not in spite of it. And, yeah, it is okay to disagree with that decision. I think it's really important to discuss what worked and what didn't work in Kudell's submission. Those are the conversations worth having. Are there better ways of integrating chiptune into a more traditional orchestral score for television? If he had chosen a sine wave over a sawtooth wave would that have had a better impact? All great points of discussion! However, don't be a dick or a conspiracy theorist about the whole thing... otherwise, you'll piss off Hans Zimmer, it would seem.

...and, as we all know, Hans Zimmer is into chiptune now:

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