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Play-along video game genre amps up music industry

Tapping on fake instruments and screeching into microphones connected to video game consoles has become lucrative for both the music and gaming industries. Downloadable tunes for music-based games “Guitar Hero,” “Rock Band” and “SingStar” have become as vital as iTunes itself – and one of the last ways to expose youngsters to classic rock.

The genre will evolve again later this month when game publisher Activision and developer Neversoft release “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith,” the first such play-along rhythm game pegged to one music group, instead of featuring a multi-artist compilation more akin to one of those “Now That’s What I Call Music!” albums.

“The game is really about the spirit of guitar music,” Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton recently told Players start out as lead guitarist Joe Perry and can unlock Hamilton and Brad Whitford while playing in virtual versions of venues where Aerosmith once rocked, such as their first show at Nipmuc High School outside of Boston, their first showcase at Max’s Kansas City in New York and the Super Bowl XXXV halftime show in Tampa, Fla.

“I guess it’s one of those rewards that we get for keeping the band together,” said Hamilton. “It might be the silver lining of the Napster cloud, too. Far more of this audience will hear our music via this game than if we had strenuously attempted to talk them into buying all of our CDs.”

While regular versions of “Guitar Hero,” “Rock Band” and “SingStar” come loaded with songs by bands like The Rolling Stones and Radiohead, the most recent incarnations of these games allow players to go online and download additional tracks, costing anywhere from 99 cents up to $2.50 per song, depending on the game.

The downloading doesn’t stop there. Because the songs for these games can’t be burned onto a CD or uploaded to an MP3 player, many players turn to other digital download services for their own copies – as well as to dig deeper into an artist’s discography. All that musical consumption is equaling big bucks for the flailing music industry.

“Revenue back to the music industry can be huge,” said entertainment and new media lawyer Paul Menes, who’s brokered such arrangements. “Getting your music in a video game was formerly all about the publicity, but because of the amount of sales these games are bringing in these days, the labels want to get paid. It’s no longer just a vehicle for promotion.”

The backstage deals vary. Typically, music publishers and musicians are paid advance royalties if their work is included on the original game disc. More copies of the game sold equal more royalties back to the music-makers. The same goes for revenue generated by those augmented new downloads, which are released every month.

“These games can’t exist without the music,” said Alex Hackford, Sony Computer Entertainment America’s artist and repertoire manager. “Musicians deserve these royalties. We pay what I view to be a very reasonable advance royalty. Then, the product goes out and sells and perpetuates the music and mystique of these artists and their catalogs.”

Song downloads for MTV Games and Harmonix’s “Rock Band” – which allows gamers to thrash with friends both online and in-person on various faux instruments, including a drum set – recently passed the 12 million mark, according Paul DeGooyer, MTV senior vice president of electronic games and music.

“There’s no monolithic way of exposing consumers to music anymore,” said DeGooyer. “There’s no more ‘Let’s drive people into stores to buy compact discs on this day.’ That model is gone. People are getting their music all over the place. Managers, labels and artists are experimenting with all sorts of releasing strategies.”

Last month, heavy metal band Motley Crue released the title track from their upcoming new album “Saints of Los Angeles” in two places before the record’s June 24 release date: “Rock Band” and iTunes. The “Rock Band” sales of “Saints of Los Angeles” were actually five times higher than on iTunes, according to Billboard.

“These games are something for record labels, publishers and artists to add life to songs they’ve already recorded or songs they’re trying to launch,” said Hackford. “With radio playlists locked into 30 songs a day, it’s hard to get a foot in the door. Video games are a huge way to make an impression to an important demographic.”

Instead of an animated interface like “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band,” the “SingStar” series broadcasts artists’ music videos as players attempt to achieve a perfect pitch. PlayStation 3’s “SingStar” also takes a cue from YouTube with “SingStar Online,” which invites crooners to upload their performances as well as watch and rate others online.

“I really feel like this is a new way to experience music, which is how describe it to artist that I’m interested in working with on the game,” said Hackford. “Music isn’t suffering. I think the music industry is suffering. There’s more music available more widely than ever before in history. I hope ‘SingStar Online’ becomes a filter for that.”

The next evolution of the genre could reshape not just the music industry but music as a whole. “Guitar Hero World Tour” – the recently announced fourth iteration of the franchise that started this trend – will feature a “Rock Band”-like assemblage of peripheral instruments and the ability to compose digital music from scratch.

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