Ben Trokan sounds a bit mystified as he talks about the first few times he played Rock Band. “I was terrible at it,” he says with a laugh. “And I can actually play all those instruments too — even the drums!” Trokan is the lead singer of Robbers on High Street, a New York City-based indie band that’s about to record its third album. But just because Trokan wasn’t any good at it doesn’t mean he’ll turn up his nose at a few extra bucks. The band has been floating without a record label since March 2008, and one of their biggest concerns is figuring out how to pay for the whole thing. Ironically, it might be Rock Band that does it.
As the music industry continues to search for additional sources of revenue, the latest gambit is the Rock Band Network, a sort of open-source marketplace that will essentially allow musicians to sell their songs directly to the video game’s customers. Given that Rock Band players downloaded more than 60 million songs in the past two years, Rock Band could go from being a game to being an actual music store — an iTunes you can rock out with, not just rock out to.
With two successful versions of Rock Band and the highly anticipated (if not exactly blockbuster) Beatles: Rock Band, MTV Games has tried to distinguish its game from Guitar Hero by offering new songs for purchase every week. About 6-10 new tunes, from Blondie to Blur, Nine Inch Nails to No Doubt, go on sale every Tuesday for about $2. Most songs are programmed by one of about 30 Harmonix employees whose job it is to turn musical notes into the game’s familiar colored gems.
But 30 programmers working on 10-20 songs a week is just too few to make a dent in the sheer number of available songs. Hence Rock Band Network, which, when it launches early next year, will allow labels and artists — anyone who owns a song’s publishing rights and its original multi-track master files — to build a video game version of that tune on their own. And, more importantly, on their own timetable. “When working with Rock Band before, we had to wait for them to put the songs up on their own schedule,” says Cynthia Sexton, Executive Vice President in charge of licensing at EMI, a major label with a robust back catalog. “Now, we can map out our own timing based on when we’re putting out a single or dropping an album.”
There are some start-up costs. You need an XBox 360 (Playstation 3 users are out of luck for the time being), the game Rock Band 2, various memberships to XBox online clubs, an audio program called Reaper, and a computer that runs Windows. What follows is a four-step process. Using a song’s multi-track master files, you break up the tune into seven “stems” — kick drum, snare drum, other percussion, bass, guitar, vocals, and supplemental instrumentation (keyboards, cow bell). Then the song has to be “authored,” with individual notes matched to colored gems depending on the game’s various difficulty levels. Once the entire song is built (authors can even control lighting and camera angles for the accompanying visuals), it is submitted to a online peer review system, where it is tested for playability, reviewed for naughty lyrics and possible copyright violations, and opened to feedback from other users. Finally, the song is placed for sale on the Rock Band Network store at anywhere from $1-$3. The payoff: 70 percent of the money goes to MTV Games, and the rest to the songholder. Piece of cake, right?
It’s a bit more complicated than that, says Tony Kiewel, Head of A&R for Seattle-based indie label Sub Pop Records. “At first, it seemed like it was a door being through wide open,” says Kiewel. “But I think now there is definitely more of a threshold then we first perceived.” One problem, says Kiewel, is that sometimes the original mixes that you need in order to produce a game-ready song, are not available. If an album was recorded on analog tapes, as many were before the mid-90’s, “sometimes the tape has just disappeared,” says Kiewel. “Maybe it got left at the studio, maybe the producer is still sitting on it, maybe the artists had it and kept it, maybe it got destroyed.” A digital recording is only slightly more reliable. Two of Sub Pop’s most popular bands this decade — The Shins and The Postal Service — lost most of their first albums when various hard drives crashed. “They recovered some of it, but almost all the original unmixed stuff just vanished into thin air.”
Then there’s the issue of actually getting someone to do the physical work of turning song into game. Large labels might be able to designate a team to deal solely with “authoring” tracks. But smaller outfits and bands who decide to take on the task themselves may not have the expertise to make a really good video game level, which will lead, say some in the audio production scene, to a sub-industry of large and small shops that specialize in “authoring” RBN tracks. “There’s an artistic element involved here that’s arguably as important as anything else,” says Will Littlejohn, CEO of WaveGroup, an audio production company that has worked with on Rock Band and Guitar Hero games. “The difference between having a technically accurate representation of the song in the game — which many people will be able to do — versus something that actually feels good when you are playing it are sometimes two different thing. You can be technically perfect, but it may not be very fun.”
There is some danger, of course, in opening anything up to the masses. While MTV Games is certain that RBN’s peer review process will weed out any crap, Robbers on High Street’s Trokan isn’t so sure. “You don’t want this thing to be ugly, you don’t want it to be like the MySpace of video games,” he says. “I would imagine it’s going to take a really long time to get through all this stuff, especially with the amount of admissions they’re probably going to receive. There’s a lot of bad music out there.”