MAGFest: The Story Behind The DMV’s Largest Video Game Music Festival
Chris Davidson seems like a rather average guy, until he puts on his “power helmet”, a red bicycle helmet with a record cut on top that looks a bit like a giant pair of scissors.
In that moment, he becomes DJ Cutman, a character named after the boss from the Mega Man series of video games.
“I perform and produce chiptune music in all its facets,” Davidson says, referring to the genre that uses sounds, melodies, effects and videogame hardware from the late 1980s and is repurposed with hip hop and dance music.
Davidson, who also heads the video game remix record label Game Chop, says that one of the major influences for starting his music career was the DMV-based music and gaming festival MAGFest.
“It literally changed my life and got me into making music professionally,” he says.
Since its inception in 2002, MAGFest(short for “Music and Gaming Festival”) has been attracting thousands of fans and gamers who are passionate not only for live music, but gaming as well.
The festival base spans a variety of ages and generations, from fans of the classic Atari 2600 to the Microsoft Xbox. Along with over eight generations of video game consoles, attendees can try their hands at classic arcade machines, up-and-coming independent developers, tabletop gaming and cosplay, to name a few.
But music makes up a major part of the four-day festival, with MAGfest’s annual event held last month at the National Harbor.
Even if you’re not familiar with the entire culture of video game music and its surrounding community, its roots can be found in bands who obsessed over the themes and songs from video games like the Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers and the Mega Man series.
“Video game cover bands were the primary inspirations for the concerts [in the beginning],” says Nick Marinelli, head of MAGFest Promotions/Public Relations. Bands like Massachusetts’s The Minibosses played at the inaugural event, which are known for their metal infused takes on classic Nintendo soundtracks.
With the popularity of the festival growing, Marinelli says there was more of an effort to focus on local acts that played this genre of music.
“Thankfully as we grew, the scene grew,” he says. “Video game cover bands and nerd-inspired stuff is what we’re going after, and there’s very good stuff in the area.”
That influence of gaming and nerd culture can be found within the realm of classical music, especially with the Washington Metropolitan Gamer Symphony Orchestra. The WMGSO’s roots lay in the University of Maryland’s Gamer Symphony Orchestra, which has performed orchestral and symphonic versions of video game scores, from Nintendo to more modern tracks.
Robert Garner, director of public relations for WMGSO, says that MAGFest was a major boost for the original GSO.
“Those of us leading Maryland’s GSO at the time knew we’d be fools to miss out on it,” Garner says of GSO’s early interaction with MAGFest in 2009, in an email interview. “We got a table in the dealer area and basically just handed out flyers to passersby. As MAGFest’s popularity continued to snowball, so did the number of people signing up for our mailing lists.”
MAGFest has also done an exceptional job in connecting musicians with different aspects of the video game community, Garner says.
“The rise of MAGFest pretty much mirrors the rise of video game music’s profile in American pop culture,” Garner says. “It would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that MAGFest is solely responsible for that, but in my mind, there’s definitely a high correlation there.”
Chris Davidson has experienced the same growth. “The cultivation of a positive scene can do wonders to whatever industry it surrounds,” he says, adding that this also impacts the industry itself.
As video game culture begins to move more into the mainstream, MAGFest has kept in lock step with the growth. The event now hosts over forty live acts every year, which range from hard rock to dance music and hip hop artists. Many of the live acts have been local or American-based, but high-profile international acts have also played, such as Brazil’s MegaDriver and Japan’s Earthbound Papas, which is lead by acclaimed Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu.
Not only has the initial festival grown more successful, but it has also started partnerships with other conventions and shows, including Baltimore’s BitGen Gamer Fest and its touring concert series, Game Over.
“It’s very cool to see [MAGFest] grow from around, I think 600 or 700 people up to the 12,000,” Marinelli says, adding that it’s exciting to watch the festival grow and mature while also staying true to its roots.
“On the surface, I’d like to think we maintained our community and fans, and non-industry vibe,” Marinelli adds.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the festival is completely adverse to the major industries in gaming. Panels and forums have allowed fans to have a deeper understanding of how to create and license music. Jesse Buddington of the San Francisco music licensing company Loudr, hosted a crash-course in music licensing panel. Buddington felt the need for this panel after attending the festival in 2012.
For Buddington and his team, MAGFest served as an integral platform in reaching out to the gaming and music community.
“We were totally blown away by the music, the energy and the sense of friendship,” Buddington says. “[That] made the decision to be more involved with MAGFest this year as panelists.”
Garner related to a lot of that same energy and community.
“I more or less fell out of serious gaming in middle school,” he remembers. “Music I’ve played in the GSO’s and heard or heard about at MAGFest has been what’s driven me back to the games.”
While people like Davidson, Garner and Buddington may come to MAGFest from slightly different backgrounds, the vibrant community has been incredibly crucial for them, with both Davidson and Garner making personal and professional connections with fellow musicians.
“I think MAGFest is a perfect storm of fantypes,” Buddington says of his experience. “It’s also a hotbed of creativity around common themes.” For Buddington, one of the highlights from the most recent festival includes a jam session with fellow musicians, playing themes from Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda. “Even with all the tons of musical events at MAGFest, that room-jam was probably my favorite.”
“There are some great live acoustic hallway musicians,” Marinelli says. Along with that, DJs have been known to set up turntables and play music in the hallway, and other attendees can play in the festival’s space.
While gaming and nerd culture is the engine of MAGFest, the music is the octane that keeps it going.
“There are so many opportunities to hear and play music at MAGFest. You need to come and meet the people there,” he adds. “If you’re at all looking to grow as a musician, meet other musicians, or just playing video game music that you have known and loved since you were a kid, you really have to come and meet the other musicians at MAGFest.”