Gamers Become Stars with Rock Band or Guitar Hero

Meet the newest kind of bar band

Arnold also says the kids are savvier about music than they were pre-Guitar Hero. "First of all, these kids have a knowledge of classic rock, like they've been digging through their dad's records, plus they know what a Les Paul Sunburst is," he says.

People are forming Rock Band combos that regularly meet for pseudo-gigs. Fans of bands with songs on the games now bring their controllers to shows for the guitarists to autograph. Subtly, it changes the way its players experience music in their lives. "I'm gonna see the Foo Fighters next week, and I always liked listening to the CDs, but now I am really gonna watch Dave Grohl play the guitar," says Edwards, one of the Rock Band players at Lucky's.

Few people under 25 bother with the radio, so for many, video game soundtracks have filled the vacuum. What's more, there's a difference in intensity between hearing a song through your computer, iPod speakers, or on the radio and experiencing it in an interactive music game. Pretending to play a song, especially along with or in front of your friends, is a much more visceral experience.

The death of stand-alone karaoke? There's no need to fly solo when you can play with your friends...
Photos by Daniel Kramer
The death of stand-alone karaoke? There's no need to fly solo when you can play with your friends... these Rock Band players at Lucky's Pub.
Photos by Daniel Kramer these Rock Band players at Lucky's Pub.

Record companies have taken notice. Labels love the fact that these games have a limited number of songs on the soundtracks and that players will hear each one many times over the duration of their interest in the game.

And so now there is a bit of a scramble to land songs on these soundtracks. It wasn't always such: On Guitar Hero I, the soundtrack was almost entirely composed of sound-alike recordings of famous (and many not-so-famous) songs, with a few utterly obscure bonus tracks coming from the bands of the game's programmers and their friends.

Since that game was such a success, the labels have been much keener to allow the use of master recordings. On Guitar Hero III, more than 50 of the 71 songs on the game are the originals, and even the notoriously protective and expensive Rolling Stones licensed a master to Rock Band.

Music retail is likewise getting aboard. iTunes has cobbled together 75 of the songs from each of the games in one of its "Essentials" playlists, so fans can find and download most of the songs with ease. Playable versions of songs are also available — for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 users, Rock Band offers new music for download every week.

And many of them have. In eight weeks, more than two-and-a-half-million songs were sold for use on Rock Band, and some of the charts have been host to a surreal invasion of old guitar rock.

Unless they have been specifically re-released to radio, as Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was in the wake of Wayne's World in 1992, Billboard doesn't allow old songs to recur on their "bricks and mortar" sales chart.

Billboard has no such restriction on digital sales, and, especially right after Christmas, when both Guitar Hero III and Rock Band were top sellers, that chart displayed a definite Guitar Hero effect. The lower end of the top 200 singles was littered with songs from the games — everything from hoary classic rock chestnuts like the spooky 41-year-old Stones dirge "Paint It Black" and Foghat's riff-a-riffic cock rocker "Slow Ride" to Metallica's "One" and "Enter Sandman" and Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine" and "Welcome to the Jungle."

Even the two most overplayed songs in American radio history enjoyed a sales bump: Apparently, there were 23,000 Americans who both did not already own and were not sick to painful death of "Free Bird" and "Stairway to Heaven," a fact that says as much about the death of rock radio as it does the power of Guitar Hero.

The Sex Pistols reunited just to re-record their old classic "Anarchy in the U.K." just for inclusion on the Guitar Hero III soundtrack. ZZ Top, with "Sharp Dressed Man" on Guitar Hero I and "La Grange" on III, are the only Houstonians to have benefited so far. At the Orange Bowl halftime show earlier this year, the trio performed "Sharp Dressed Man." Would the band even have been invited to play pre-Guitar Hero? Would they have chosen that song if they had?

Less geriatric bands have also benefited. DragonForce, youthful purveyors of hilariously operatic and over-the-top metal, have become nearly legendary, due in no small part to their laughably hard-to-master Guitar Hero III song "Through the Fire and Flames." (Law-Yone calls it "the hardest song to do well on.")

Since the release of Guitar Hero III in November of last year, the song has sold 145,000 downloads, beating out all the more famed older bands.

Before the game's release, DragonForce was something of an underground phenomenon, albeit a successful one. Now, a few savvy rock stations are adding "Through the Fire and Flames" to their playlists.

If you apprise Allen Hill of stats and figures like that, he'll laugh and say something like this: "Yeah, but can you break a string in the middle of a song in Guitar Hero?"

"The old man in me gets more and more pronounced every year," adds the thirtysomething. "Part of the point of playing music is getting there, the journey, and toiling away and then finally getting to the point where you say, 'Wow, cool, I can do that.' And learning things like how to tune an instrument."

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