Are Guitar Hero and Rock Band the new FM Radio?

Ever since the original Guitar Hero found a solid audience with gamers back in 2005, rockers both new and experienced have been lobbying to get their songs in both the Rock Band and Guitar Hero games. At first, it seemed a strange phenomenon to have these veteran rockers providing their master tracks to a video game company, but there are many reasons behind it.

The first, and most obvious reason, is money. For the usage of their huge hit songs, EA and Activision are willing to shell out lots of money to the big name bands and labels. The money these companies shell out is more than worth it, however. Overall, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series have each made over $1 billion from sales of the games and downloadable tracks. Rock Band has even sold over 50 million tracks through it's online music store, which sell for an average of two dollars per track.

While the money may be good, the most beneficial aspect of an artist getting their songs in either Guitar Hero and Rock Band is the exposure that a band gets from appearing in these massively-selling games. One of the bands that has benefited from the Guitar Hero and Rock Band's exposure factor has been Bang Camaro.

Bang Camaro features one of the biggest sounds in rock, by having an entire choir of rock singers filling the lead singer role and two very talented guitarists filling the lead guitar role. The sound acts as one huge call-back to the glory days of arena rock, where bands like Skid Row, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard ruled the charts. The band has appeared everywhere from the hit video game, Madden 10, to late night talk shows like Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. Alex Necochea, one of the guitarists and founding members of Bang Camaro, attributes a lot of the band's success to their breakthrough hit, "Push Push (Lady Lightning)" being featured as a bonus track on Guitar Hero II.

"We were in the right place at the right time," Necochea said. "Harmonix is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a lot of musicians work there. When they were developing the second Guitar Hero, they had a few openings to include local bands. We were the only band writing songs with big gang vocals and guitar solos, so it was a perfect fit for us. Since then, we've placed songs in Rock Band, Rock Band 2, Titan Quest, Madden 10, and the Sims 3."

In terms of exposure, few have benefited more than Steve Ouimette, who has developed more than a cult following within the Guitar Hero community. Ouimette skyrocketed into Guitar Hero legendary status for his epic metal re-imagining of Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down the Georgia". The song, which was featured as the final boss song for Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, has been hailed as arguably the most difficult song in the series history.

"Guitar Hero III was a fantastic vehicle for opening doors for me, especially in the fact that it led to working with Neversoft on just about every Guitar Hero since then.  The only game I haven’t worked on to date is 'Van Halen.  To date, I've recorded the intro music for Guitar Hero World Tour and Guitar Hero 5, as well as the cutscene and menu music for most of the games since Guitar Hero III. If you listen to the incidental music in Guitar Hero: Metallica, I did the 'Talica Jr. band music, which was a total blast. Outside of Guitar Hero it definitely has let the game industry see what I can do, but it also tends to put me in the 'guitar' category even though I’m a classically trained composer.  There are some cool projects coming up that really stretched my writing to new places."

In addition to creating the blisteringly difficult "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", Ouimette also created incredibly faithful covers of songs like Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane", Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me", and The Black Crowes' "Hard to Handle". One thing Ouimette does extensively to prepare for covering a track is research the original recording process.

"Preserving the original vision of the artist is something I stick to very tightly on covers like "Rock You Like A Hurricane", "Talk Dirty", etc." Ouimette said. "On songs like "The Devil Went Down To Georgia", I threw caution to the wind and did my best to keep the spirit of the duel in tact from the original. However, to stay true to the original I always heavily research the song down to who recorded it, when it was recorded, where it was recorded and what type of gear they used... all the way down to the type of strings, drumheads, mics, mixer, etc. If I can source out the original guitar type, pickups and amp, I do that as well.  Of course, there are times when that is impossible so we improvise but always a/b the recording with the original to ensure it's as close as possible."

Ouimette recognizes that all the research in the world is useless without the right singer.

"The most important aspect of any cover is the vocalist.  If they're not right it sucks in the first couple of notes.  That ends up being a huge focus for me in the research phase and I've come to work with a killer group of people," Ouimette said. "Chris (Powers of Razer, who provided vocals on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia") is local here (in Arizona) and had recorded at Crush with Ryan Greene, who does all my mixes and engineering of the drums for the games and my personal music. Ryan mentioned Chris to do a vocal track (he also sings on "Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll" on Guitar Hero III).  We hit it off immediately and I love his voice. He's a super powerful and LOUD singer.  Nearly blows my ears out every time we record together."

Ever since the advent of file-sharing and internet piracy, the music industry has been floundering. Since the recession has hit nearly everyone hard, entertainment expenses have been cut back for many families. With that, those who want to continue their high-level of entertainment, but want to cut back on expenses, have turned to piracy as a means to obtain music, movies and even video games for no charge. One main reason that games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero have become so popular in the eyes of musicians is that people are willing to pay for music in these games, in part because the material is nearly impossible to pirate into the games.

"Having your music in a video game is now another path to distribution," said Necochea. "Mötley Crüe sold more copies of their last single on Rock Band than they did on iTunes. Those left standing in the music industry finally understand that gaming is a great tool for marketing music to people interested in music. It's not about MTV, radio, and print media anymore. The internet and modern gaming have changed all that. All acts, big and small, need to understand that. Piracy has gone a great distance to growing a fanbase but does very little to address the financial side. Artists need to be paid for their work."

With the industry floundering, do video games now have a responsibility to expose new artists and their music to the masses? While it seems like more of a hypothetical philosophical question, it has become a reality to those game companies that choose to put a lot of focus on their soundtracks, much like EA has with Brütal Legend. Alex Necochea doesn't know if the video game industry is quite ready to bear that responsibility yet.

"I don't know if the industry has a responsibility to do anything other than find a way to monetize the sale and distribution of music. If that is partially through video games, then so be it," Necochea said. "Gaming, however, will only be one part of the equation for the music industry. There will always be an audience for new artists that do not learn about music playing video games. The 'industry', if you can still call it that, needs to find a way to sell music to those people.

To help remedy the direness of this situation, Harmonix and EA have kept a steady stream of weekly downloadable content, featuring acts as huge as Iron Maiden and Queen, but also acts that aren't so well known as well. Rock Band's downloadable tracks have turned a lot of fans onto some not-so-well-known bands throughout it's over 2 year run. The exposure will only grow from here, as Harmonix has introduced the Rock Band Network, which will allow artists to upload their own music into the Network store and receive profits from people that purchase the tracks. The money might be nice, but exposure will be the true prize of Rock Band network. Could Rock Band Network be the future of the music industry?

"It's tough to say," says Necochea. "Rock Band has gotten the name 'Bang Camaro'  into millions of living rooms, but that doesn't necessarily mean huge album sales for us. Often, if people already own the music in the game, they aren't going to go out and buy the album at Wal-Mart or on the internet."

Ouimette agrees that Rock Band Network could really prove powerful.

"I think it's a fantastic way to get music out there... kind of like an iTunes for Rock Band!" Ouimette said. "It will be very interesting to see who commits to this technology band-wise, because it’s a great concept."

The true test of their faith in Rock Band Network will obviously come in if they utilize the tool for their own gain.

"We have gotten many requests to release our other album tracks on Rock Band, so that's something we're contemplating doing through the Rock Band Network," Necochea said. "I'm curious to see if that will generate income for the band."

"So far I haven’t had a chance to dig into their dev-tools but it appears to be a fairly straightforward process of translating the stems into the game play workings.  No doubt if I did it I’d need to team up with somebody to do that end of the work as it’s very time intensive and I simply don’t have 40+ hours per song to work out good note tracking."

With these acting as only two real-life testimonials as to how games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero can help jump-start musical careers. With this genre in the prime of its run, it will be interesting to see how games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band continue exposing new artists to the masses, as well as classic artists to a new generation.

Check out these other testimonials from my previous interviews as to how Guitar Hero/Rock Band have helped them:

"(Being in Guitar Hero III was) definitely a huge boost for us, it's great. The developer of that game was a fan, so he asked us (to be in the game)!"
- Mikey Heppner, Priestess

"It has been incredible. It's the main reason that most people out there know who we are. We've been ridiculously fortunate to have the support of Harmonix up to this point."
- Bryn Bennett, Bang Camaro

"As a fan of Rock Band myself it really made me feel like all the dark sacrifices to Yog-Sothoth had finally paid off! It's pretty much a dream come true and the entire band did get a chance to play "Shhh...." on Rock Band at the Penny Arcade Expo, thanks to Harmonix! (We've also noticed) a much larger YouTube presence. I didn't know about this community of gamers who post their scores on YouTube, bless their little consoles!"
- Toren Atkinson, The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets

"At the moment we just have the one song on Guitar Hero, but there is talk of more. I think they need to get some more new bands on there, which is starting to happen. It helps to expose new music to another generation."
- Paul Mahon, The Answer

"We just played our songs the other day and it was excellent. We haven't noticed the immediate shot in the arm, but I know sales have been way better than expected."
- Jesse Laz, Locksley