Will Guitar Hero save the music industry?

In high school, I quit guitar lessons after just six months. I have really tiny hands and got frustrated just making chords — plus, my teenage self thought it'd be more fun to date an ax master than to be one. Later, I decided that writing about rock bands was a lot more satisfying than pining after them. But I've always wondered if 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 or Fender 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 Guitar Hero, a video game that's become a phenomenon these past few years, transcending the gamer geek contingent and sucking in real rock fans, not to mention turning a new generation into rock fans, too. Maybe more 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 new version, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, featured the song "Through the Fire and Flames" by the band DragonForce, its label, Roadrunner Records, reported a 183 percent sales increase for the single and another spike for its aggro metalers Killswitch Engage, who also have a featured cut. Early SoundScan numbers for all Guitar Hero III's singles — from Weezer's "My Name Is Jonas" to the Strokes' "Reptilia" — show download increases across the board.

Got game? Practice your guitar kicks and licks in Rock Band.
courtesy of Harmonix Music Systems Inc.
Got game? Practice your guitar kicks and licks in Rock Band.

My first Guitar Hero fix came late, at an after-party for a Sex Pistols show (which the game sponsored). I did a surprisingly good job on the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black," and like Keef, Slash, Jonesy and an ex who shall remain nameless, I think I now finally understand the rhythmic bliss of shredding. From its vibrant visuals to the music selections themselves, however cheesy it sounds (and looks), 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 such as Dance Dance Revolution, Karaoke Revolution and SingStar, have music-driven functions that help popularize songs in an overt way, it's really the video game industry as a whole that's changed 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 for Electronic Arts, creators of popular titles such as Madden NFL and the Need For Speed racing games, and a distributor for Rock Band. "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, particularly Schnur's titles, 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, publishing and programming for everyone from Capitol to Arista to BMG to MTV in its formative years. They also decided to include chyrons (those three-line tags at the right-hand bottom corner of the screen that tell you to whom you're listening).

After being included on EA games, unknowns such as Avenged Sevenfold and Good Charlotte were almost immediately getting requested on radio stations. "The labels were thrilled," Schnur says, "but more importantly, the artists were, too. They want to be on these games because they're on the front lines. They hear fans telling them they discovered their music on games like Madden NFL."

This may finally explain why there are always so many jocks doing head butts at metal and punk shows lately, but we digress.

These days, it's not just sports enthusiasts, cyberfanatics and frustrated musicians-cum-rock journalists like me (yes, the cliché is true) getting in on the gaming trend. Schnur, who just embarked on a joint venture with Nettwerk Records to release CDs from acts such as Junkie XL (no stranger to video games), says that thanks to the new rhythmic games and consoles such as the Wii, we are entering the era of the "casual" gamer: Mom, Dad, sis, bro, hipsters, and hotties (anybody see the Guitar Hero party scene on the CW's Gossip Girl?). The antisocial video nerd who never leaves the basement not only has to surrender the joystick more often to his Hannah Montana-loving little sister, but he's getting less attention from video game marketers looking for an ever-wider audience.

And music-minded games deserve a lot of the credit. There are Guitar Hero bar nights all around the world, countless Web communities devoted to the game (you can also play online) and a fan base that includes real flesh-and-blood rock stars. How's this for cred? The Pistols re-recorded "Anarchy in the U.K." for the new Guitar Heroes edition, and none other than Little Steven Van Zandt heads the music board that helps choose the titles for Rock Band.

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William Drinkwater
William Drinkwater

In response to your comment, "... Guitar Hero is a love letter to rock and roll, and it just might be saving it." I must remind you that Rock and Roll does NOT need saving!It's not wounded, hurt, ill, or going away. It is alive and well. The beatniks couldn't kill it, Disco couldn't kill it, Folk music couldn't kill it, Rap and Hip-Hop couldn't kill it, Reggae/Ska couldn't kill it, New Country couldn't kill it, etc.. Face it Lena, it has been said many times before "Rock and Roll is here to Stay". It will continue to be a form of expression for many generations to come, and it will continue to assimilate the strongest of other forms of music. Don't get me wrong, Rock and Roll is not the ONLY music. I enjoy all kinds myself. But, it is by far the best when it comes to social expression. This is because it allows the assimilation of ALL music expression; much like Jazz, except not so boring, Ha Ha (Sorry, I don't do the "lol" thing, it's for dummies).By the way, although I have never played the G.H. Game, I've watched some friends play, I think it is very cool and it does introduce Rock and Roll to some who would otherwise be living in a bubble of denial.Maybe it will even inspire some youngsters to pick-up the "real" guitar and learn something. No doubt, that will boost SAT scores and we can stop being ashamed of our "dumb" kids, whom cannot spell correctly.BRING BACK THE MUSIC!Bill

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