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Band Aids

The music industry is thrown a life preserver, in the form of two popular video games

By David King

I can’t remember the last time I was excited about an album release. That’s not to say I don’t get excited about music. I do, to the extent that I will reload my favorite BitTorrent sites over and over until the album I want finally leaks. (Don’t tell!) Usually the tracks leak a month before the album is due on the CD racks, so the flames of anxiety and anticipation are doused prematurely. But for the past month I have been on pins and needles waiting for the release—well, I guess I should say “reissue”—of the Pixies’ Doolittle, and I enjoyed the feeling.

This wasn’t a traditional record release. I didn’t wait for it at a record shop, order the vinyl from England or even download it on iTunes. I couldn’t even steal it!

To get this version of Doolittle, I turned on my Xbox 360 and offered up some Microsoft points (a form of virtual currency that must be purchased with real cash), and the album downloaded to my hard drive. Then I slipped my copy of Rock Band into the system, picked up my fake plastic guitar, set up the Rock Band drum kit, uncoiled the Rock Band microphone, and hoped my virtual rocking chops were still up to par.

This is the how the music industry is getting kids excited about paying for music.

Sure, you don’t get the album artwork and lyrics that accompanies a traditional, physical release, but can kids even read and appreciate art these days? I kid. Seriously though, what you do get from Rock Band and Guitar Hero releases that you don’t from a record is an interactive experience, one that gauges your ability to virtually rock.

Rock Band, created by Harmonix (the same development company responsible for Guitar Hero) and owned and distributed by Electronic Arts, is the more-complete answer to Guitar Hero. The game features a drum set, a microphone and the ability to play bass and guitar—not just a guitar, as in the original Guitar Hero game.

Every Tuesday, just as in traditional, physical music stores, new music is released. Although initial releases featured two or three back-catalogue tracks from bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and Muse, recently Electronic Arts has begun to fulfill its initial promise that Rock Band would feature newly released singles before radio got them, as well as entire albums by popular artists.

In the last few weeks, two other full albums have been released besides Doolittle: the Cars’ self-titled debut, and Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance. Along with those classic albums, new singles and cuts from bands like Disturbed, the Offspring, and Weezer have appeared for purchase. The Rock Band release of Mötley Crüe’s single “Saints of Los Angeles” significantly outsold the iTunes version.

In fact, music-industry insiders are beginning to consider games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero a legitimate, and extremely lucrative, medium for music sales.

Allen Kovac, the head of Tenth Street, Mötley Crüe’s management company, recently told Reuters, “We do research on every artist we have, and the research said that the people who bought Mötley Crüe music and tickets play Rock Band and video games . . . (so) it was our inclination to go there.”

Kovac went on to describe to Reuters how games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero have helped revive not only sales of rock music but its popularity in general: “The resurgence of rock has happened because of Rock Band and Guitar Hero,” said Kovac. “The reason is because of the interaction with the audience. The more music- marketing people look at interaction with the audience as opposed to only radio or a video, the more lasting the experience will be and the longer the artist’s career will be.”

Guitar Hero’s owners, Activision, have been methodical—some would say slothlike—in their response to Rock Band’s lightning-quick move toward online music sales. Activision offers track-packs by popular artists to download, but not as many and not as often.

Activision’s latest offering—Guitar Hero: Aerosmith—is perhaps a good example of how to quickly ruin the goodwill their games have built with the videogame-music-loving community. Rather than refreshing their entire presentation and interactivity to compete with Rock Band’s multiple instruments (something they have planned for this fall), the company designed what could most generously be described as an add-on to Guitar Hero 3. The new game lets people play along to Aerosmith songs, and to other songs handpicked by the band. Despite the band’s long-term appeal, they are not going to drive music diehards to the store. Choosing a band with a little more street cred might have been more effective.

And they’re charging $60. A Rock Band release likely would allow users to download an Aerosmith album or a collection of Aerosmith hits for about $12.

The sales of Rock Band and Guitar Hero tracks have not actually begun to equal the sales of tracks on regular digital-distribution formats like iTunes, and they may never do so. But members of the music industry insist that it does not really matter if the sales are ever equaled or exceeded. They say the tracks that sell the best for games are band-catalogue tracks that have been around for more than five years, and they say kids may not actually be interested in buying the MP3 of those tracks just to listen to them, but they will pay to interact with the music—to jam along with Black Sabbath, or sing the parts of Pete Townsend. These games have created a market that is, in some ways, totally unique and unable to be measured against existing markets.

And I can attest to that. I have never bought a CD by Boston. I’ve never stolen one of their MP3’s or even streamed their music online. But my friends can tell you that I will never, ever, pass up a chance to test my virtual guitar chops and my actual pipes over the band’s “More Than a Feeling”—although most of them wish that I would.

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