”This could be really embarrassing,” Mila Kunis cautions, taking her seat behind a plastic Rock Band drum kit. ”I’m in heels!” The actress is hanging out backstage at the July 12 taping of VH1 Rock Honors: The Who, joining Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, and others to celebrate the legacy of that seminal band, which has 13 songs available on the videogame she’s about to play. She dials up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ”Maps,” and hits the kick-drum pedal with stiletto precision. A minute later, it’s obvious that she’s being extremely modest: Kunis is one serious Rock-er. ”Don’t be that impressed,” she says mid-solo, but even Dave Grohl, who’s hanging nearby, starts paying attention. ”Okay, be a little impressed. I can get 99 percent if I take my heels off.”
Welcome to the future of music, where the living room — now increasingly cluttered with plastic guitars, drum sets, and microphones — is the new garage. So-called ”rhythm” games have blown up over the past year, with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock selling 11.3 million copies and Rock Band moving an additional 3.5 million. Together that adds up to more than $1.7 billion in revenue. But it’s not just sales: The excitement over these games is sparking renewed interest in music itself, allowing players to experience songs in a new way and turning kids on to a universe of tunes. In the coming years, these games could launch bands, resurrect faded careers, and — just maybe — reshape the music industry. ”People have moved to this ‘wallpaper’ relationship with music, where they listen to it while doing other things,” says Alex Rigopulos, CEO of Harmonix, the company behind Rock Band. ”We’re making them active participants, and they’ve demonstrated a willingness to pay for that experience.”
We’ll find out how much this fall, when Rock Band and Guitar Hero release eagerly awaited new editions, each retailing for close to $200. Rock Band 2, which hits stores Sept. 14, is rolling out new instruments and a song library that tops 500 tracks. Guitar Hero: World Tour, due in October, will now add drums and a microphone. Rock Band is hawking full albums (on tap: Foo Fighters’ Colour and the Shape, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking, and a No Doubt best-of), while Guitar Hero is ditching all cover versions in favor of the original recordings. Rock Band 2 features a drum training mode, and World Tour offers a studio function that lets players create their own music and post it online. With both brands spending large sums on advertising, expect the phenomenon to absolutely explode.
Part of the reason these games have hit such a chord — even when overall music sales have been declining — is that they bridge the generational and gender divide. Rhythm games are the Xbox equivalent of American Idol, and families are getting addicted together, with parents and kids alike strumming along to songs like Black Sabbath’s ”Paranoid.” ”From age 5 to 55, man or woman, Guitar Hero is for everybody,” says Kai Huang, cofounder of RedOctane, which developed the game (Activision now owns the Guitar Hero franchise, while MTV Games acquired Harmonix in 2006). ”It’s like Twister from hell,” says Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx of the family jam sessions in his house. As a result, young people are now getting exposed to — and falling in love with — a broad swath of rock history. ”There’s nothing quite like being told by your 10-year-old son that you’re not singing Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ right,” laughs matchbox twenty frontman Rob Thomas, an early fan of both games. ”I couldn’t be prouder.”
The music industry’s getting pretty excited too. Unlike members of the Napster generation, who grew up believing that music should be free, the under-12 set are learning that songs have value. Activision and MTV are selling song downloads specifically designed to work with their games. Adding tracks to your library costs twice what you pay on iTunes, and for the artists and labels, who get a hefty royalty, those $2 fees are starting to add up. ”[Compared with iTunes,] the artist’s split is bigger,” says Mötley Crüe manager Allen Kovac. ”And if you own the masters and the publishing, it’s humongous.” Fans have already bought more than 44 million downloads through Guitar Hero and Rock Band. ”And we’re just getting going,” says president of MTV Networks Music Van Toffler. ”Imagine the catalogs we can unleash.”
For once-mighty rock bands now struggling to get noticed, this is excellent news. When Activision teamed with Aerosmith in June to release Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, sales topped $50 million. Metallica will release a gameplay version of their new album, Death Magnetic, on Sept. 12, the same day it hits stores, and there’s also talk of a stand-alone Guitar Hero: Metallica. Guns N’ Roses say they will offer a single off Chinese Democracy exclusively through Rock Band, taking a cue from Mötley Crüe, whose latest single sold five times better as a Rock Band download than on iTunes. Mötley Crüe also partnered with the game for this summer’s multi-act Crüefest tour, running a contest at each venue where the winning players got to perform on stage in front of thousands just before the headlining slot — their rock-star dreams fully realized thanks to all that practice.
Skeptics might point out that these developments seem to benefit musty classic acts more than new artists — that this all could be better for the music industry than for music itself. But rhythm games are helping break new bands, too. The Texas rock group Flyleaf, for example, saw their debut album shoot past the platinum mark after the song ”I’m So Sick” was featured on Rock Band. The companies behind both games are being bombarded by labels looking to place up-and-coming artists, but they’re trying to avoid turning off fans by forcing new acts on them too quickly. ”People can smell marketing these days,” says MTV senior VP Paul Degooyer, who plays a big role in picking Rock Band‘s songs. ”We get offered a lot, but the games shouldn’t be jumping ahead of something.”
Still, it’s nice to be asked, especially since the music business was slow to catch on. ”We had a lot of doors shut on us, no question,” says Huang of Guitar Hero‘s early days. ”Artists didn’t want to work with us. They thought, ‘Cheap little toy guitar? I don’t want my name associated with that.”’ Eventually, the games’ success made labels and bands take notice. ”There was an education hump they had to get over — that this isn’t like being in the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto,” says Rigopulos. ”It’s about connecting people more deeply with your music.”
Some kids are getting so into these games that they’re taking the next step: learning to play real instruments. Mastering a plastic guitar doesn’t have much to do with playing the real deal, but both games do strive for a certain degree of authenticity. Guitar Hero III‘s axes look like real Gibson Les Pauls, while Rock Band apes Fenders. Guitar Hero features Sabian cymbals, and Rock Band has Electro-Harmonix pedals. ”There’s no doubt it’s become a first step for those who might be intimidated by the idea of learning to play a real instrument,” says Dustin Hinz, event marketing and promotions manager for the retailer Guitar Center. ”Guitar Hero and Rock Band are two of the greatest things to happen to our industry in recent history.”
Meanwhile, the music biz is praying for a rock resurgence, driven by rhythm-game-loving tweens growing into teens with cash to spend. The creators of these games are optimistic. ”[At first] we had this self-doubt: Is there even a market for rock & roll?” Rigopulos says of his start-up plan. ”But then we looked around the room and realized that we all love rock music. We couldn’t explain why there was this lull, but we knew there was a core burning passion under the surface, and we were going to use the game to unleash it.” To quote a song by the Who that, strangely enough, is not available on Rock Band, ”Rock is dead they say — long live rock!”
So What Do Real Rockers Think?
”I play with my kids, and they’ll go, ‘Dad, you suck!’ It’s an awesome game and something we get to do together.”
—Nikki Six, Mötley Crü
”The games misguide kids into thinking playing guitar is just pressing three red buttons. It’s harder than it looks!”
—Wayne Coyne, The Flaming Lips
”It’s kind of a shame. When I was growing up, kids wanted to be in a band. Now everyone wants to play Rock Band.”
—Nick Wheeler, The All-American Rejects
”Anything that advances music is really interesting. It’s better than all of those shoot ’em up, blow ’em up, kill ’em games!”
—Roger Daltrey, The Who