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Rock Games Battle for Bands

Guitar Hero, Rock Band sign Hendrix, Aerosmith, G n’ R and the Who

Brian Hiatt Sep 14, 2008

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Aerosmith don’t have a new album out, but the band still scored the biggest sales week of its 38-year career in early July, thanks to the fastest-growing new business in rock: video games. The new Guitar Hero: Aerosmith ”“ which lets fans use the franchise’s familiar plastic guitar controller to play 25 songs from ”˜Sweet Emotion’ to ”˜Love in an Elevator’ ”“ sold over 567,000 copies in its first week, grossing more than $25 million, at $50 a game. In contrast, the band’s last studio album, 2004’s Honkin’ on Bobo, sold 160,500 copies in its first week, grossing about $2 million. “We didn’t have to think about it very much,” says Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford. “We were all pretty aware of how popular the game was, and being the first band to have our own version of it seemed pretty exciting. We’re the first band of many.”

After the competing rock-themed video-game franchises Guitar Hero and Rock Band grossed nearly $1 billion combined in 2007, rock’s most legendary names took note: In addition to Aerosmith, top acts like Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, the Who, Jimi Hendrix and many more are making tour stops at Xboxes and PS3s this year. G n’ R are debuting ”˜Shackler’s Revenge,’ a song from the endlessly awaited Chinese Democracy, as part of this fall’s Rock Band 2; Metallica are making their new album, Death Magnetic, available for play on Guitar Hero the same day it’s released in stores and on iTunes; and Hendrix-estate conservator Janie Hendrix tells Rolling Stone that some of Jimi’s greatest hits will soon be on Guitar Hero.

Since Rock Band and Guitar Hero offer similar game play ”“ the upcoming Guitar Hero: World Tour will even let players take on drums and vocals, Rock Band-style ”“ the games’ makers are increasingly focussed on differentiating themselves through deals with major artists. “There’s a massive list of artists and songs that are available,” says Tim Riley, head of music for Activision, which controls the GH franchise. “There’s a smaller list of the ones you really want, and there’s a supershort list of the ones you have to have. So it’s safe to say we’re all kind of going after similar things.” Although the company won’t yet confirm it, Metallica may also be the next band to have their own edition of Guitar Hero, according to an SEC filing by Activision.

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And while Activision promises more games based around single bands, the company says there’s a limited number of acts that could carry a title on their own. “There’s actually just a handful of bands that have this really deep catalogue of music that people would have a lot of fun playing,” says Kai Huang, president and co-founder of Activision subsidiary RedOctane. One of those bands, Led Zeppelin, have taken themselves out of the running ”“ they have yet to license songs to a game and have no plans to, because of concerns about turning over their masters to outsiders, according to their management company, Q Prime. Rock Band and Guitar Hero executives are pursuing the Beatles (who have also not licensed any master tracks to the games), but no plans have been announced.

But the ultimate guitar hero, Hendrix, is finally coming to GH in Guitar Hero: World Tour. The Hendrix estate, which had difficulty working with the original masters until now, has delivered multiple songs ”“ including ”˜Purple Haze,’ ”˜Foxy Lady’ and ”˜Little Wing’ ”“ to RedOctane for use in the game and as downloadable tracks. It has also authorised an official Hendrix avatar to use as a game character. “Guitar Hero really was on the ball, and they were biting at the bit to get this out this year, so we accommodated them,” says Janie Hendrix, who is also working on a possible deal with Rock Band. “Jimi was a kid at heart ”“ he definitely would have played these games.”

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While each edition of these games comes with dozens of playable songs ”“ Rock Band 2 will include tracks from Elvis Costello’s ”˜Pump It Up’ to AC/DC’s ”˜Let There Be Rock’ ”“ both Guitar Hero and Rock Band offer hundreds more that can be downloaded through Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Fans have bought 20 million of these $2-apiece tracks for Guitar Hero and 16 million for Rock Band. Bands and labels each earn about 50 cents per track, more than they get from iTunes and other standard download sites. “This fusion of gaming and music is really expanding the music industry,” says Eran Egozy, co-founder of Harmonix, which makes Rock Band ”“ and originally developed Guitar Hero before the franchise moved to Activision. “It’s a revolution for the business.”

While the Guitar Hero franchise dwarfs the newer Rock Band ”“ 20.7 million Guitar Hero games have sold worldwide in various incarnations, versus 1.3 million of Rock Band ”“ the latter has the power of media giant Viacom behind it. The company is promoting the game and its downloadable content on MTV and VH1, as on the recent VH1 Rock Honors: The Who special, which heavily pushed a Rock Band download package of 12 Who songs. “Rock Honors was originally floated as an idea to help sell Rock Band,” Who guitarist Pete Townshend wrote in an e-mail to Rolling Stone, before making a bitter joke about smashing plastic guitars onstage.

But most veteran artists and their managers are less ambivalent about tying their fates to a video game. Allen Kovac, CEO of Tenth Street Entertainment, Mötley Crüe’s management firm, says the company’s internal research showed that the games are “bringing a whole new demographic and audience to rock.” Accordingly, Mötley Crüe debuted the first single from their new album on Rock Band, selling 48,000 playable copies. “Pretty soon,” says Kovac, “this is going to be the way you sell music.