Will Rock Band and Guitar Hero Save Us?

Are rocker videogames the new MTV—and will they help us save the music universe?

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 and 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 videogame 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 Jonah" to the Strokes' "Reptilia"—show download increases across the board.

My first Guitar Hero fix came late—at an after-party for a Sex Pistols show (which the game sponsored) at L.A. on the Rox. 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 to popularize songs in an overt way, it's really the videogame industry as a whole that's changed the playing field for music artists. And it's been doing so 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 who you're listening to).

After being included on EA games, then 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 videogames), 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, he's getting less attention from videogame 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.

A couple of days before the highly anticipated release of Rock Band, I pop into the Best Buy on Los Feliz Boulevard to check out the demo. A posse of skater boys from nearby Marshall High (my alma mater) pounds on the faux drums. An Afro'd teen does a slamming good job on the Hives' "Main Offender." His score comes up at the end of his "set." It's a 95 percent. Now it's my turn. I pick Bowie's "Suffragette City"—which these kids probably recognize from commercials—and begin to tap the color-coded skins (with real sticks) to the corresponding shades that light up on the screen. I suck, the kids next to me smirk, and even the faux fans on the screen look disappointed (they're programmed to react according to your performance). I get a 40 percent.

Rock Band is essentially Guitar Hero with more bells and whistles—not only can you play guitar (lead or bass), you can drum and even sing, either individually or with a group of friends to create a real group experience. The two games are battling neck and neck for sales this Christmas, but this isn't your typical retail war. Band was developed by Harmonix, the same company that originated Hero. But not unlike the drama that comes with fame and fortune in the real rock world, "creative differences" led to a breakup. Game publisher Activision brought in a new company, Neversoft, for Hero III, while Harmonix, now part of MTV, decided to come give 'em a little competition with Band. In group terms, if Guitar Hero is Axl's Guns N' Roses then Rock Band is Slash and Duff McKagan's Velvet Revolver.

Ironically, Slash is now a figurehead for Guitar Hero III. The fuzzy fret-ster's hat-topped mug is all over the packaging, centered directly under the "Legends of Rock" subtitle, and he even had his strumming captured by motion sensors so you can play as him in the game. Also depicted in Hero is Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello—guess Xbox, PlayStation and Wii aren't the kind of machines he's raging against these days.

But is jumping on the virtual tour bus even selling out? Little Steven says no way. "That's just old thinking. That's for people who haven't read the papers lately, frankly," the guitarist tells us via phone (he's on tour with Springsteen). "This is the opposite of selling out; this is a necessity. This is the new marketing. Commercials and videogames have replaced the old marketing of radio airplay or videos. It's totally cool."

And while Slash is surely getting compensated for Guitar Hero's use of his image, Van Zandt says he ain't getting paid for his participation with Rock Band. "They couldn't possibly afford me," he says lightheartedly. "Like, what I do with my company Renegade Nation and my radio show, it's about trying to support rock and roll in all its forms. My main mission for future Rock Band music is to feature stuff from the '50s and early '60s, and eventually new acts too."

Back at Best Buy, my turn for Rock Band has come up again. This time I choose Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," hoping the slower tempo will be easier. Still paying attention to the colors flashing in front of us, this time I really listen to the music as I pound the drum pads. It sounds pretty good. The blue-shirted employees nod approvingly, and even the skater boys seem slightly impressed. Then I start thinking about something Little Steven said: "The game has an interesting side effect. Unlike the guitar games, this will be creating real drummers. If you're playing the rhythm accurately you will actually have the fundamentals of becoming a drummer."

Visions of bad-ass female pounders (Meg White, Samantha Maloney, Sheila E.) float through my head, and for a couple of seconds, like every other kid who plays the game, I imagine what it would be like to be in a real band. It's the same sensation I had when I noodled the buttons on Guitar Hero a few weeks earlier, except this time it feels even more real. But just as swiftly, the song ends and it's game over. I won't ever be a rock star, but the kid next to me just might be. Maybe I'll write about him someday.

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