In high school, I quit guitar lessons after just six months. I have really tiny hands and got frustrated making chords. Besides, my teenage self thought it'd be more fun to date an axe master than to be one. Later, I decided that writing about rock bands was a lot more satisfying than pining for them. But I've always wondered whether I shouldn't have been so quick to give up on those lessons. What if I had kept with it? Could I have been the next Joan Jett? Crooning "I Love Rock-n-Roll" at karaoke bars is one thing. But groping a glossy Gibson and making it explode with beauteous bombast? That's something else entirely.
Pushing multicolored buttons on a fake plastic guitar while virtual fans cheer isn't exactly the kind of high I have in mind. But it is the idea behind the hugely popular Guitar Hero video-game series, which has transcended the gamer-geek contingent and sucked in real rock fans. It's also turned a new generation into rock fans. Most significantly, it's given the flagging record industry a nice kick in the amps — and not just for dinosaur rockers either.
When the game's latest version, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, featured the song "Through the Fire and Flames" by the band DragonForce, its record label, Roadrunner, reported a 183 percent sales increase for the single. Aggro-metalers Killswitch Engage, who also have a featured cut, also saw a sales spike. In fact, most of Guitar Hero III's songs — from Weezer's "My Name Is Jonas" to the Strokes' "Reptilia" — have shown download increases across the board.
I recently had my first Guitar Hero experience. I did a surprisingly good job on the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black." I think I now finally understand the rhythmic bliss of shredding. From its vibrant visuals to the music selections themselves, Guitar Hero is a love letter to rock and roll. And it just might be saving it.
While Hero, its recently released rival Rock Band, and other interactive games like Dance Dance Revolution and SingStar have music-driven functions that help popularize songs, it's really the video-game industry that's changing the playing field for music artists. And it's been doing so since way before joysticks starting looking like musical instruments.
"We are, in many respects, the new MTV," says Steve Schnur, worldwide executive for music and marketing at Electronic Arts, creators of popular titles like Madden NFL. "We warm up the marketplace and create a familiarity for many artists."
In the case of Guitar Hero and its competitors, that means introducing older acts to new fans. But for most other games, it means exposing brand-new bands. "We made a commitment to use 99 percent new, breaking artists for our games," says Schnur, whose music-biz background includes marketing and publishing for everyone from Capitol to BMG to MTV in its formative years.
After being included on EA games, low-profile groups like Avenged Sevenfold and Good Charlotte were almost immediately getting requested on radio stations. "The labels were thrilled," says Schnur. "But more importantly, the artists were too. They want to be on these games, because they're on the front lines."
These days, it's not just sports enthusiasts, cyberfanatics, and frustrated musicians getting in on the gaming trend. Schnur says that, thanks to the new rhythmic games and consoles such as the Wii, we are entering the era of the casual gamer — where hipsters, girls, and even Mom are joining the party. The antisocial video-game nerd who never leaves the basement not only has to surrender the joystick to his Hannah Montana-loving little sister, but he's also getting less attention from video-game marketers looking for an ever-wider audience.
Music-minded games deserve much of the credit. The new Rock Band is essentially Guitar Hero with more bells and whistles. Not only can you play guitar or bass; you can drum and even sing — either individually or with a group of friends — to create a "real band" experience.
The two games battled over the holidays for your gift-giving dollars. But this wasn't your typical retail war. Rock Band was developed by Harmonix, the company that developed the original Guitar Hero. And just as in the real rock world, "creative differences" led to a breakup. Game publisher Activision brought in a new company for Hero III, while Harmonix decided to give it some competition.
Let's put it this way: If Guitar Hero is Axl's Guns N' Roses, then Rock Band is Duff McKagan and Slash's Velvet Revolver. Ironically, Slash is now a figurehead for Guitar Hero III. The fuzzy fretster's hat-topped mug is all over the packaging, and you can even play as him in the game.
But is jumping on the virtual tour bus considered selling out? Little Steven Van Zandt — the Springsteen sidekick and Sopranos star, who heads the music board that helps choose Rock Band's set lists — says no way. "This is the opposite of selling out," he says. "This is the new marketing. Commercials and video games have replaced the old marketing of radio airplay or videos. This is a necessity."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.