By now, you’ve probably played Rock Band, the music based video game in which you and three friends can play and sing along, using instrument and microphone controllers sold alongside the game. Developed in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Harmonix studios and published by MTV Games, Rock Band has become a worldwide phenomenon, with sales across all platforms grossing well over 1 billion dollars . In the two weeks following the release of Harmonix’s newest game, The Beatles: Rock Band, over 1 million units were sold across the major platforms (Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony Playstation 3). With the least expensive SKU being $60 for the stand alone game disc, and up to $160 for the game with peripherals, that represents a considerable amount of revenue, and sales of the game promise to continue on unabated as we head toward the holiday season.
With the potential to make so much money, there are many products on the market similar to Rock Band, but what helps distinguish it from competitors like Guitar Hero is the developer’s commitment to producing downloadable song expansions. Players can download new songs to play directly from their game systems, expanding their experience beyond what is included on the disc. Since the inception of this service, Harmonix has published over 700 songs to purchase online, selling a combined number of over 50 million downloads , usually at $2 a piece.
One shortcoming of the system however, is that due to track production times and the complicated nature of licensing music, the variety of songs in the game are mostly limited to mainstream rock bands like Metallica and Queen. That’s all about to change, however, when Harmonix and MTV launch the Rock Band Network in November. This new service will allow artists to upload their own music into the game for users to purchase and play along with, providing them with a unique new way to interact with their audience, as well as a new revenue stream. When describing the new service, Harmonix CEO and Co-Founder Alex Rigopulos said:
“Our goal with Rock Band has always been to go beyond making music games and create a true music platform. With the Rock Band Network, we’ve evolved the platform to its next logical step, giving players access to an incredible amount of new music by putting the professional tools we use in the hands of the artists themselves.” -Alex Rigopulos, CEO Harmonix.
Uploading your band’s track into Rock Band looks to be about as complicated as mixing and uploading a track to MySpace, but you’ll need an understanding of modern recording techniques, and $160. Most of the work when creating a new track will be done in a customized Rock Band version of Cockos’ digital audio workstation called Reaper, which will cost $60 for the non-commercial licensed version. Reaper will allow creators to record or import their master tracks and create corresponding midi information (to determine which notes players have to hit on their controller and when), as well as giving the option to customize in-game animations and camera movements, to make the game visuals more exciting.
The file is then exported to your computer via a program called Magma. In this step, artists will be able to test their creations using the peripheral controllers, as well as add additional content like lyrics and album cover art. Finally, when the track is done, it is submitted on the Rock Band Networks creators website, to be vigorously play tested and checked for copyright infringement. Cockos is working to identify rights holders with the help of Gracenote and Audible Magic, and Microsoft’s XNA Creators Club will handle play testing to ensure that the game-play content is of a high caliber. Membership to the XNA Creators Club costs a $99 annual fee. The Rock Band Network (RBN) will initially be available only on the Xbox 360, as track publication relies on the XNA game development platform. Harmonix has said that it will make standout tracks available for purchase on other platforms, as well.
Once a track has been created and passed play testing, it will be available for download in a new in-game store. Artists will choose to sell the song for $1, $2, or $3, and will earn 30% of the revenue generated by sales of the song, with royalties paid on a quarterly basis. In the new store, players will be able to download demo versions of the songs to play, which give access to the first minute of the track. Players will then be able to rate the track on a scale of 1 to 5 ‘lighters’. Harmonix has said that they will help promote the best content, by offering a list of ‘Harmonix Picks’ and ‘Top 10’ in the shop in addition to the standard browse by artist function.
Obviously, the marketing power of the Rock Band Network is immense. Not only is it a new delivery service for your music, it’s also an interactive way to publish your music. By requiring audience participation, such as learning a guitar solo, the consumer will be more likely to develop a meaningful connection to the music, which in turn could spur further sales. The service is not just aimed towards independent musicians, as many smaller labels will now be able to upload their catalog. Tony Kiewel, head of A&R at Sub Pop, has already stated that they intend to submit songs from their upcoming releases, as well as parts of their back catalog, including artists like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. In interviews with Billboard and Rolling Stone, Kiewel has said;
“[The Rock Band Network is] very exciting news to us. It’s important to participate in every possible revenue
stream available. Whatever gets your music heard helps your overall awareness and ability to sell records and
“This’ll be a ‘release’ as far as I’m concerned. This’ll be another format alongside vinyl and CD.” -Tony
Kiewel, Head of A&R, Sub Pop Records
Not only does it seem that there’s real potential to promote bands through the Rock Band Network, but the service could also help break bands into more mainstream channels. MTV Games senior VP of electronic games and music Paul Degooyer says:
“I can envision a song coming into the Rock Band Network first, getting traction, picking up customers through online play and then being picked up by MTV’s programming and showing up there. We’ve shown we can sell millions of songs in the ‘Rock Band’ store. So it really does tie into a larger picture.” -Paul Degooyer, MTV games senior VP
With all the high profile interest, and the ability for anyone to partake, it’s possible that the Rock Band Network could turn into a viable platform for artists to deliver their music in a meaningful and profitable way. One thing is for sure, as the popularity of music videogames continues to grow, so too will their market share and their influence in the world of music. With the Rock Band Network, you and your band finally have a chance to get in the game.
By Alex Mitchell
1 Mike Fahey. “One Billion Dollars Worth Of Rock Band Sold.” Kotaku.com. Mar 26th 2009
2 Full number of units sold as of 2nd week: 1 010 244. Tracked via www.vgchartz.com
3 Anthony Bruno. “MTV To Launch New Track Upload Program For Rock Band.” www.Billboard.biz, July 17th, 2009.
4 Chris Remo. “Rock Band 2 Adds Open ‘Rock Band Network’ Song Creation.” www.Gamasutra.com. July 17, 2009.
5 Ibid. footnote 2
6 David Downs. “Nirvana’s “Bleach” on “Rock Band”? Sub Pop Looks to Code Catalogs Into Playable Tracks.” Rollingstone.com.
July 22, 2009.
7 Ibid. Footnote 2