Steve Kirk, photo by Julie Bernstein (http://funcrunchphoto.com)
Oakland composer Steve Kirk didn't dream as a boy of growing up to write the FarmVille theme. But the fact that he did, and that 26 million people log on each day and hear his music as they play, suits him just fine.
"No one knows who I am," Kirk said. "But it's great. Nothing I've done comes even remotely close to reaching the number of people who have heard the FarmVille theme. There are at least 75 YouTube covers of that song now. Which I think is hilarious."
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The online game allows players to tend virtual crops, growing and harvesting them and giving gifts to neighbors. According to Zynga, the company that created the game, more than 65 million people have signed up to play since it came out in June.
The game is Facebook's most popular application, with 69,761,553 active users as of early this morning. The next most popular game, also created by Zynga, has fewer than half that many players.
Kirk, 52, was born in San Diego, went to school in Washington state and moved to the Bay Area in the early 80s. He lives lives and works out of his Oakland home and recording studio.
Kirk has played music since he was 8, when his parents gave him a guitar for his birthday "as a way of keeping me out of trouble," he said. He never put it down. By junior high he was writing music out on paper because he "wanted to hear how it sounded when other people played it." In high school, he took private composition and orchestration lessons. Before long he was writing big band songs for music students at his public high school in Bellevue, Wash.
"I don't think my parents knew how serious I was about making music," he said. "But by then I pretty much knew I wasn't going to stop."
After high school, Kirk joined a funk band.
"I felt like, well, if I go to college, it's going to be really academic. I might get a couple pieces played by an orchestra. But if I join a band, I'll be gigging regularly. And by the time I'm 20 or 22, I'll have way more playing experience than any college graduate would have. At least playing guitar."
Since then, Kirk has been in a slew of bands and played all kinds of music, from prog rock to hard rock, alternative to swing. He was a member of Clubfoot Orchestra, a San Francisco-based ensemble that performed live, original scores over silent films.
Bay Area artist and former neighbor Kim Boekbinder describes Kirk as "a true musician."
"Steve is always talking about his projects and has been very good at finding interesting ways to make a living with his music - no mean feat," she said. "Music is not a good way to make money, not for the musicians anyway, yet Steve has managed to carve a career for himself in which he is constantly engaged, creating sound art for a wide variety of audiences, from the hardcore improv noise scene, to online users who only experience his music in the background."
In the 1990s, Kirk composed music for a Saturday morning cartoon series, still running in Europe, called "The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat." He teaches music privately and at two schools in San Francisco.
Along the way, he also started composing for video games. Kirk was in the midst of writing music for a game based on Disney's The Princess and the Frog, which was released in November, when he got a call from one of FarmVille's producers.
"I had worked with him earlier on another project. He called me up and said he needed a song and also needed some barnyard animal sound effects. I said, 'I'm really in the middle of a huge deadline. I have to ask that I not be asked to do any revisions.' And he says, 'Well I think you can hit it out of the park anyway.' And I said, 'Well, we'll see.' It took me a day."
After talking with the producers, Kirk said they decided to hold back from going "too country, with banjos and stuff like that," because they felt it would give the game too rural a feeling.
"The idea was to entice people," Kirk said. "This was a way to chill out. This was a way to take a break from what you're doing and plant some virtual crops, since you don't get the opportunity to do that for real."
Kirk said he wanted to write a song with a Chet Atkins feel, with a dash of "what Randy Newman does with New Orleans music." He made the song, just 30 seconds long, with four instruments: electric and acoustic guitars, and samples of an upright bass and an old-fashioned saloon-type piano. The idea was to style the song after music that would have been written in the late 50s or early 60s before rock was the dominant style on the radio.
The theme's length was dictated by computer memory constraints, Kirk said.
"When you're working on something like this, you're using software, and you just say, okay, well this is 30 seconds long. You make a melodic statement, then something to contrast it and then wrap it up in 30 seconds. Working with a compressed time format, that can be difficult."
Kirk said he plays FarmVille and likes that it's relaxing and lets him keep in touch with his FarmVille neighbors. He focuses on crops that don't require a huge time commitment and draws the line at paying real money to get ahead. (Players can, for example, pay to get fuel faster to speed up productivity, or wait a few hours for the game to replenish the supply automatically.) He said he initially got a kick out of hearing the song while he played.
"I left it on for a long time," he said. "But I turned it off awhile ago. At first it was like, 'Oh my god!' Like how I'd feel if my song got played on the radio. But after awhile, it's just ridiculous, the same 30 seconds over and over."
Kirk said he's working on a project for LucasArts, but could not discuss it because he signed a non-disclosure agreement. When that's done, he's not sure what he'll work on. But he hopes one day to write pieces for guitar and orchestra, some of which he's already done. After spending years writing more conventional pop music, he said he's ready to stretch.
"There are all sorts of combinations of instruments that are viable and fun and creative," he said. "I like the idea that you're not married or chained to some sort of stylistic constraint that says the guitar has to be with drums, has to be with organ. I like the idea of new combinations of acoustic and electric instruments. It broadens the scope of what is creatively possible."
As for the video game music, he said, it gives him the chance to write in styles he might not write in for himself. All in all, it's fun and it pays the bills.
"You can have two attitudes about the work. You can think, 'I can't wait to do my own real thing.' Or you can think, 'How can I make this cool?' And I think you have a much better chance of remaining happy and healthy if you just figure out a way to make it bitchin. Don't send out anything you're not happy with yourself.
"If you want to write music for a living, you kind of have to get paid some of the time," he continued. "If you're successful enough doing it, you can accumulate the capital to do your own projects. And that's nice because you can perpetuate your own art. If you do it right, writing music for a living does not make you feel like a hack."