It’s sold almost 6 million copies and made more than $1 billion.
But is Guitar Hero exploiting real musicians while getting wannabe rock stars addicted to playing videogames intheir parents’ basement?
I’m at Tiger Bar on College with some friends on a Wednesday night, still unsure whether I’m up for making an ass of myself like I know I’m going to. A few drinks oughta give me the courage I need to take the stage, though.
It’s not karaoke or an open mic that’s got me nervous. It’s Guitar Hero, which has quickly become the norm for live, interactive bar entertainment. It allows over-indulgers to cop the stage presence of AC/DC’s Angus Young or Slash as they wail away on comically toy-like plastic guitars with multi-coloured fret buttons, trying to keep up with the digitized notes speeding toward them on a large fret board projected on a screen in front of them.
Guitar Hero and Rock Band have smacked us in the face with proof that video games are no longer relegated to the pot-smoke-clouded basements of socially awkward geeks. In fact, they’re so popular they’ve been mercilessly lampooned on South Park, clearly a sign they’ve entered the mainstream.
“It’s a fun game that lends itself naturally to social situations – it’s fun to drink and fake-rock,” says GH master Clay Jones, a manager of a not-for-profit who’s been a regular at various Guitar Hero-themed nights around the city for a year now. “It’s for showboating when drunk.”
Local event organizer Laurie Kerr, who puts on a GH weekly at the Fox & Fiddle, says the game is way cooler and more popular than karaoke. Molson now sponsors the event and has purchased a game console and GH with wireless guitar controllers. Its appeal? It’s the great leveller of the musically talented and untalented, she says – like, say, Eddie Van Halen and Avril Lavigne.
“I can’t play any instruments or sing, but I love music,” says Kerr. “So GH gives me a little of that ‘I could be a rock star’ feeling, at least for the length of a song.”
She’s not alone. Lots of people seem to have a ravenous desire to make stupid faces and pretend they’re Joe Perry for four to six minutes at a time.
If anyone understands the draw, it’s Ryan Henson Creighton, a former video game reviewer who’s currently the president of Untold Entertainment Inc. in Toronto.
“There’s obviously a performance aspect to rock, especially with a game like Rock Band that has a karaoke component. The very same things that make karaoke fun to watch also make Rock Band fun to watch. So when you’re up there with your silly plastic guitar, you can can try to put in the theatrics and antics – the Pete Townshend windmills, the knee slide, you can try to flip the drum stick when you’re playing the drums.
“Why do people invent drinking games? Cuz drinking on its own is boring, so you might as well bring in Rock Band and GH.”
The drunker and wankier you get, the more you think you’re a rock god.
But beyond providing ridiculous amounts of drunken entertainment, GH has also given massive exposure to a few independent bands.
A little while before Protest the Hero’s show at the Kool Haus on February 8 in front of a packed all-ages crowd full of the kids you’d expect to find sitting around trying to master GH with their buddies, I board their tour bus. The up-and-coming spasmodic prog-metalcore crew from Whitby recently joined the envied ranks of bands with songs featured in the game.
For a young, hungry band, that’s no small beans. In fact, it’s a whole lot of big tasty beans, possibly mountains’ worth, when you translate the exposure into the lovely, filthy, beautiful corporate cash that comes with it. PTH’s Tim Miller, whose guitar riffing is prominent on the GH-featured song Bury The Hatchet, is pretty damn stoked about it all.
Through label connections and schmoozing the right people while playing on the Warped Tour, Miller and band met with the creators from the developers at RedOctane. After much badgering by the band – “Dudes, get us in the game! Get us in!” – their persistence paid off.
For a smaller band without the resources of the big rock monsters, inclusion in a bonus downloadable three-song pack that includes their song with ones by Atreyu and Trivium bestows the kind of publicity you only get otherwise after your sex tape is leaked online or you bone the governor of New York at 4,300 bucks a pop.
“We’re the smallest band of the three, so the fact that their fans are downloading our song because they have to is great exposure,” says Miller. “And I’ve met people who’ve discovered our band because of GH. It’s brilliant, because it forces you to listen to a song until you master it. It’s playing in your head whether you like it or not. It’s funny how you can get a better relationship with fans and people will like you more because you’re in the game.”
Protest the Hero aren’t the only small band reaping the rewards. Face-melting Montreal hard rockers Priestess have seen the same effect after their song Lay Down was featured on GH III.
“It’s been giving us huge exposure,” says singer/guitarist Mikey Heppner, who has, incidentally, gotten an almost perfect score on his song. That’s no small feat given the trouble real musicians have had adapting to playing video game guitar. GH pitchman Slash admits he has “the hardest time going down to the orange button with the pinkie finger,” while Poison’s Bret Michaels says his seven-year-old daughter kicks his ass on Foghat’s Slow Ride, and Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, is better at laying down GH licks than dear ol’ dad.
“New friends on MySpace frequently comment that they discovered us through Guitar Hero,” Heppner continues. “I can only dream what a slice of royalties from game sales would be, but simply the exposure for a band like us is well worth it.”
Photo By David Hawe
It doesn’t end there. Dimitri Coats, singer and guitarist with the hard-rocking Burning Brides, beams with pride when he talks about walking into a store with his mom to show her a demo of his band’s song on Guitar Hero.
“The whole thing is hilarious to us, because the version of Heart Full Of Black on the game isn’t ours,” he says. “They paid to use the song but re-recorded it. That isn’t me singing or us playing. It’s someone else covering the song. I guess they saved money doing it that way.”
Over at Sony PlayStation Canada, one of the platforms used for GH and Rock Band, PR rep Matt Levitan knows how beneficial inclusion can be for bands like Protest the Hero.
“A lot of young bands in both those games just want to be part of the bonus track list. It’s as good, if not better than, any MySpace exposure they’ll have,” he says. “It’s a way of getting their music out there to a generation of people who might like it.”
Coats and the Burning Brides agree that anything goes in terms of finding new outlets for their music, and just about every band on earth would sell their legs for a shot at Guitar Hero or Rock Band. The games are a new kind of marketing tool, another way to diversify so Burning Brides can keep doing things on their own terms.
“Aside from video games, it’s also important for bands to get music placed in film, on TV shows and in commercials – not necessarily for the exposure, but for the money,” says Coats. “We made the choice not to be on a label, so we use that money to fund our tours and recordings. It felt weird at first, because we grew up in the 90s, when selling out was a huge no-no. That’s out the window now. It’s a matter of survival.”
There are times when Coats wishes they could step back from their song’s success, especially since video games were never exactly his forte.
“People often expect us to play that song live. We haven’t in a while. If you didn’t see Heart Full Of Black the 3,000 times we played it over the last few years, you might have to wait until we’re not sick of it any more,” he says. “Other than that, I really didn’t enjoy being destroyed by an 11-year-old kid at my own song. The game has nothing to do with playing real guitar. It’s a video game, and I suck at video games.”
Although part of me is loath to concede that bands might be benefiting as much as corporations like Sony, especially considering profits from sales of GH and Rock Band, I’m starting to realize that this is a win-win for bands and businesses, and maybe not just another form of exploiting art for commercial gain.
Miller, who incidentally hasn’t had a chance to play his own song yet, fills me in on the business side of things.
“You get a percentage of the download fee, so as long as you keep selling, you get your little chunk of it,” he says. “Our song had about 200,000 downloads in the first month, so even if we’re only getting 10 cents of that, that’s still $20,000.”
“There are two types of arrangements,” Levitan explains. “The game makers either license the actual track as performed by the band or license a song but re-record it with a cover band.”
Beyond giving the bands involved a cash and exposure boost, which usually means more ticket and merch sales for live shows, are GH and Rock Band onto something more than just offering us the chance to get a li’l crazy?
No one disputes the fact that music sales have plunged to bleak lows over the last few years; Reuters recently reported a 10 per cent drop in 2007, a faster rate than in pervious years due to digital five-finger discounts, otherwise known as free downloading. The big labels banded together to sue a handful of culprits in the States, but that didn’t turn out to be the ultimate scare tactic they hoped, so it makes sense that repackaging their music in new, less obvious ways may be part of the solution.
Partnering between GH, Rock Band and record labels is mutually beneficial: the games get good songs and the songs are bought again, not pilfered online. Levitan sees this pairing as a necessary step toward self-preservation for a label like Sony/BMG.
“We have Sony/BMG as a cousin of ours under the Sony label, and I’d be lying to you if I denied there were challenges in the music industry right now in terms of keeping music viable – not only through CD sales and digital downloads but also through merchandising or tours or whatever,” he says.
“I know a lot of us think no one gets hurt by downloading music illegally, but it takes a lot of money to promote a band properly and get their name out there, to build tours and advertising. So we see a variety of ways to access music – this is another way we’re going to be able to add revenue directly to the bands and keep the whole train moving.”
If the video game is the new CD, so to speak, it wasn’t always seen this way, according to Creighton.
“It used to be that if you were a band signed to Sony and your album wasn’t selling well, the way the label carried out your contract was to have you cut tracks for video games. You knew you’d really hit bottom if your song wasn’t released as a single but got put in an ATV racing game. It used to be a stigma,” he explains.
“I think Sony’s a great example, with their entertainment branch and their music branch. They used to relegate rock bands to cutting tracks for video games, but things have done a total 180 now.
“They built the system specifically so it would support a ton of downloadable content and they’re actually releasing content every week.”
It remains to be seen if music-based video games will provide long-term benefits for the major labels.
And despite good reviews from bands and labels, the games have had their fair share of people calling “bullshit!” Not long ago, a story about a fishy smell coming from the creative camps at software companies Activision/RedOctane broke online and spread quickly through blogs and tech news sites like kotaku.com.
The story asserts that studio session players re-recording the wailing guitar solos and accompanying instruments, some of them only getting $100 to $150 an hour, are getting scammed. Bear in mind that Activision recently announced an 80 per cent rise in sales for the holiday quarter, translating into sales of $1.48 billion and profits of $272.2 million.
In another twist, an ironic cherry atop a big ol’ scoop of bad publicity, the Detroit Free Press also caught wind of a legal battle brewing between new-wave band the Romantics and Activision after the latter acquired the rights to the band’s hit What I Like About You for one of its latest editions, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks The 80s. Cause for celebration, you’d think, considering the kind of money the game appears to be generating for the bands, but the Romantics’ lawsuit sought an injunction against the game because (here comes the irony) the re-recorded version was too similar to the band’s original, infringing on “the group’s right to its own image and likeness.” But can you remember the last time you said to yourself, “Man, I really, really miss the Romantics, and to hear their song on this game just won’t do”?
Aaaand there’s the Gibson guitar company lawsuit as well, which basically goes like this: Gibson struck up a deal with Activision to allow the game to use a likeness of its iconic guitars. After the game became popular, Gibson realized it had pretty much already come up with the same concept years ago, although it involved a real guitar and a head-mounted 3-D display, which is definitely not as cool by any stretch. Down to brass tacks, Gibson wants more money, and experts like Creighton can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“It’s just a money grab. If Gibson had that patent kicking around, the company would have brought it up at the beginning,” he says. “But it’s only now that the people at Gibson see dollar signs. I don’t think it’ll hold up, because Gibson’s patent seems too removed from the actual Guitar Hero concept. It’s for a real guitar with six strings that plays music, and you hook it up to a training video and play along.”
Either way, it doesn’t look like the bad press will topple the behemoth games. It’s kind of like David & Goliath, Round 2: This Time It’s Financial. To continue the Biblical references, karaoke begat Dance Dance Revolution, which begat Guitar Hero, which begat Rock Band, which begat the upcoming Guitar Rising (which sounds a lot like Gibson’s concept, using real guitars).
Photo By David Hawe
There’s no telling what’s coming down the game pipe, but Sony’s Levitan hints at the possibility of spinoffs like Keyboard Hero, not to mention four new products slated for release this year alone. (I also have it on good word that Walter Ostanek has been diligently crusading for Polka Hero.)
At places like the Bovine on a Wednesday theme night, where people come out in costumes to rock out, or on social networking sites like Facebook, the eye-widening popularity of these games is evident. More than 500 groups are dedicated to social nights and contests, and websites like beaguitarhero.com list contests all over North America.
GH and Rock Band seem to be here to stay. As someone who’s spent an embarrassing amount of time at friends’ places and bars trying to kick the shit out of Rush’s YYZ on expert but failing miserably, I say that’s probably not entirely a bad thing. But if you do get bored playing the rock star, dudes like Heppner from Priestess may have something better.
“Someone has to develop Touring Band Hero, where in the boss level your guitar player is on ’shrooms and wanders onto the headliners’ bus and you have to protect him from both the evil production manager and his own mangled thoughts. And there’s never anything to eat except hummus and pita!”