Unleashing Guitar Hero

Is it a video game, or the salvation of the rock ’n’ roll business?

Guitar Hero

Daniel Piacampo works at Blockbuster Video to help pay for school, where he studies video game design. The 23-year-old from Woodbridge, Ont., is clean-cut and polite, wears sneakers, jeans and baggy sweatshirts. And he is, at least in video game circles, a rock god, even when he’s just playing in his parents’ basement.

Piacampo is the top Guitar Hero player in the nation—a master of the popular video game that involves playing rock songs on a small plastic guitar in rhythm to colour-coded notes that cascade down a video screen. The guitar has five buttons and a toggle switch instead of actual strings. And when Piacampo picks up his guitar, emblazoned with his online nickname “Mithin,” the room is filled with the clicking and tapping of buttons as he rips through the heavy-metal song Through the Fire and Flames by DragonForce. It’s a 3,700 note, seven-minute marathon, hitting eight notes per second. The hardest song on the game, Piacampo does it with 95 per cent accuracy. “It’s my hobby,” he says, wiping his sweaty hands on his jeans. “People watch TV. I play Guitar Hero.”

Like the rock stars he imitates, Piacampo has been in demand since he won the Canadian championship at a tournament in Montreal this fall. He now plays on a professional video game team, called the H20 Clan, and travels to Guitar Hero tournaments. This month, he’s off to the world championships in Cologne, Germany.

That such an event even exists says a lot about the game. Since the release of the first version three years ago (the fourth edition came out last month), Guitar Hero has sold 22 million copies, totalling over $1.5 billion in retail sales for its maker Activision. Along with a competing game called Rock Band, which is owned by MTV Networks, it has helped make music-based video games more popular than sports games, according to market research firm Odyssey. But the ripple effects of this success go far beyond video games and rec room button-pushers. It has exploded into a cultural phenomenon—played in bars like a modern version of karaoke, in which anybody can strut on stage with the flair of AC/DC’s Angus Young, no musical talent required. YouTube is filled with fans hamming it up for the camera.

More importantly, the games are being taken seriously by popular musicians and a music industry that’s still scrambling to connect with fans in the digital age. Some even believe this simple video game is poised to change the music business, and along with it, the tastes of a younger generation.

Last August, during an earnings conference call, Edgar Bronfman Jr., the chairman of Warner Music Group, complained that his company wasn’t getting a big enough slice of the video game pie. “The amount being paid to the industry, even though their games are entirely dependent on the content that we own and control, is far too small,” he said. Although the sums are confidential, some estimates say game makers like Activision pay record companies $25,000 and up to use a song in the game, plus royalties to the bands. Bronfman suggested that Warner Music would stop licensing songs to Guitar Hero if those terms didn’t improve. Most observers chalked this up to music industry sabre-rattling. The success of the game relies on classic rock songs, but there is little question that Guitar Hero is also driving big sales for the industry and revenue for bands. The games are “heavily on the radar” of the music industry, says Bob Lefsetz, an independent music industry analyst and the author of The Lefsetz Letter. “People under the age of 25 are seeing it as a game and getting a laugh out of it,” he says. “People over the age of 25 or 30 who are in the business are seeing this as a cash cow.”

Kai Huang is the co-founder and president of RedOctane, the company, owned by Activision, that publishes Guitar Hero. He brushes off the spat between record labels and game makers as growing pains in a fast-changing business. “We’re still trying to work this out and figure out the best way to do it,” he told Maclean’s. “Clearly the most important thing that we all recognize is that it’s good for the fans, it’s good for the artists. Eventually, our two industries will find the right solution.”

While the music industry kicks up dust, artists are clamouring to get on the bandwagon. With good reason. Aerosmith made more money off a special edition of the game, called Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, than it did from either of its last two albums, says Huang. After Guitar Hero III came out last year, sales jumped for every song included in the game. Additional songs can be downloaded onto the game, providing a lucrative new sales outlet for bands. Metallica recently made its entire new album, Death Magnetic, available as a game download. And last month, Guns N’ Roses released a game version of one track from its much-hyped new album Chinese Democracy as part of a huge advance-marketing campaign.

Priestess, a hard rock band from Montreal, stumbled into Guitar Hero after one of the game’s developers, who happened to be a fan, added its song Lay Down (right alongside big-ticket acts like Santana, Smashing Pumpkins and Iron Maiden). “The day it came out we quadrupled everything we had achieved up to that point,” says Mikey Heppner, the band’s singer, on the phone from Los Angeles, where Priestess is recording a new album. Sales of Lay Down on iTunes went from around 25,000 to somewhere over 100,000, he estimates. Both financially and in terms of career momentum, it’s been a huge boost, he adds. Heppner is reluctant to disclose what the band was paid but says, “it’s very fair and it’s really been helpful.”

In the latest version of the game, Guitar Hero World Tour, Activision is moving beyond guitars. Like its smaller rival Rock Band, it now includes an electronic drum kit and a microphone so people can play along with their friends as a full band. Early estimates predict sales could jump another 35 per cent. Video games like these, despite costing upward of $100, are one of the few consumer goods expected to buck a slump in holiday sales.

The key to this success seems to be the game’s appeal to the player’s inner, rock ’n’ roll fantasy. Freddie Wong posted a video of himself on YouTube playing Rush’s YYZ on Guitar Hero. His intentionally over-the-top performance, which ends with him smashing his roommate’s guitar into pieces, à la Pete Townsend, has received six million hits and 35,000 comments. “The game is letting you pose without any of the work of becoming an actual rock star,” he says, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “Basically you take your air guitaring that you’d do in your bedroom alone. Now you have a points system with it and a little bit of feedback. It’s scored air guitar,” adds Wong, a talented guitar player in real life.

The big question is whether the novelty will wear off, or if this type of game will find a permanent place as a music marketing and sales vehicle. Piacampo argues that the supply of new songs that can be downloaded is limitless, meaning the game will always stay fresh—a strategy Huang says the company is indeed focused on. But Lefsetz is more cautious, noting the traditionally short lifespan of video games. Regardless, Guitar Hero and its rivals have been a boon for hard rock acts who are being exposed to new, younger fans, says Heppner. While there’s plenty of criticism that the games are dumbing down music for kids who might normally have taken up a real instrument, Heppner sees only an upside. “It’s at least making millions and millions of kids aware of something really important, like rock ’n’ roll.”

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