The booming success of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises has dropped a bomb on the music biz. Record labels and rock stars alike are eyeing new revenue streams as gamemakers compete for musical talent, scramble to secure rights to original master tapes and bring in aging artists to re-record classic rock hits.
Activision Blizzard -- publisher of Guitar Hero, the groundbreaking videogame that lets wannabe rockers tap out songs on Les Paul-shaped controllers -- raked in a reported $830 million in 2007
, an annual record for any game franchise.
Now an industry reeling from the disruptive effects of technology is looking at music games as a lucrative new income stream.
Here are a few ways that Rock Band and Guitar Hero are changing the game for the record industry:Old bands, new fans
Young gamers are getting turned on to classic rock songs recorded before they were born, with videogame consoles functioning almost like radio did in its hit-making heyday.
"Guitar Hero is a really funny craze, kind of like the Hula-Hoop," says Nancy Wilson of Heart, whose 1976 hit "Crazy on You
" appears in Guitar Hero II. "It also is one big reason why so many really young kids are showing up at Heart concerts these days."
"Crazy on You" might be winning Heart new fans, but it's not the original recording that gamers are playing along to. Of the 106 recordings featured in the first three releases of Guitar Hero, only nine are original recordings. The other 97, including the Heart hit, are re-recordings done by a stable of studio hired guns at WaveGroup Sound
in Fremont, California, according to Will Littlejohn, WaveGroup's president.
"We usually shoot for the same vibe, and pick players and vocalists that will work with the song," says Littlejohn. "We don't over-think it, we just have them play the song as they hear it or sing the tune with their own voice. In terms of the arrangements, we often make changes to the guitar and bass parts in order to make gameplay more interesting in Guitar Hero."
While record labels and classic rock groups are enjoying newfound success as a result of music games' popularity, at least one band is not happy about the situation and is challenging Activision in court. Members of '80s rock band The Romantics are suing Activision, claiming their hit "What I Like About You
" and the Guitar Hero cover version of the song
sound so much alike that gamers are confused and the band suffers as a result.
"There's at least a half-dozen other bands waiting in the wings to see what happens with this case," says Romantics' attorney Mike Novak.
Activision insists it obtained proper licensing to include the song in the game, and says the band is on a fishing expedition. "What they did was file for a preliminary injunction over the Thanksgiving holiday trying to disrupt sales of Guitar Hero on a theory that just doesn't hold water," says Activision attorney George Hedges, referring to The Romantics' lawsuit. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has agreed with Activision at least at the preliminary stage, finding that the band sold its rights in the song and recordings to a music publisher and record company, neither of whom is suing.
In her opinion denying the band's bid
(.pdf) for an injunction to stop sales of the game, U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds noted that the lead singer of the song, Jimmy Marinos, is not even a plaintiff and is no longer in the band. The court held a summary judgment hearing July 9 and is expected to decide soon who wins.
Old bands, new sessions
Studio magic tweaks classic rock songs for today's hottest videogames. Dave Urrutia and Will Littlejohn work behind the soundboard at WaveSound, while Darryl C. Anders, Marcus Henderson and Scott Dugdale (left to right) lay down tracks.
Photo courtesy WaveSound Group
Perhaps in part because of litigation fears and the game's wild success, Activision is now more often using record labels' original master recordings or going to original band members for re-recordings of their hits rather than using sound-alike recordings.
"In some cases it's karaoke, except with the original band members," says Marti Frederiksen
, a top producer who has re-recorded hits by Aerosmith, Foreigner and others. "Other times they'll go back to the original to get the vibe but go for something new. With Aerosmith, the vocals and guitar and every sound is different. We didn't go for retro, we wanted it different for Guitar Hero."
Frederiksen and mix engineer Anthony Focx
have remixed many original Aerosmith multitrack recordings for Guitar Hero: Aerosmith
, an upcoming release to feature only tracks from Aerosmith and select bands that have toured with the 38-year-old supergroup. Because master tapes of the band's debut album have been lost, the band recently re-recorded megahits "Dream On" and "Mama Kin."
Power to the performers
Many artists would rather re-record an old hit and own it outright than share licensing income with a record label. For example, the timing was perfect for Sammy Hagar when Activision came looking for a re-recording of his hit "I Can't Drive 55" after Geffen Records couldn't locate the master.
"By coincidence," Hagar says, "we had re-recorded the song a couple years earlier because we did a commercial for Napa Auto Parts, but we couldn't close the deal at the time and so we had a great multitrack of the song sitting on the shelf. Guitar Hero needed it, we were ready."
Games as starmakers
With once-dominant record labels now staggering blindly, young bands like the Silversun Pickups view Rock Band and Guitar Hero, which licensed the band's hit "Lazy Eye," as a sort of band-breaking vehicle similar to MTV in the '80s. With music titles rocking the videogame charts, getting a song picked up for Guitar Hero is a great way to gain all-important exposure.
"It's really cool to have a record out, or radio spins, or get your song in a movie," says the band's label head, Jeff Castelaz. "But kids don't listen to a song on the radio or watch it in a movie 30 times a night with a bunch of friends."
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