In spring 2008, Activision's Guitar Hero: World Tour looked like a bona fide music publishing platform. Users could create and upload their own songs to the game, in a process that was part Facebook and part Apple
But when the game hit store shelves, the reality wasn't so rosy for musicians. User-created content in Guitar Hero was a clumsy affair: hidden in menus you rarely touched, barely promoted, tied to a rudimentary publishing process where you had to use game controllers to make the music, and missing significant features like vocal tracks. Yeah, you could make a song, but it'd have to be instrumental only. Activision's lawyers didn't want to deal with potential profanity and insults in a game marketed to kids.
The Rock Band gang is now taking a swing at the same opportunity with the Rock Band Network (henceforth known as "RBN"). This new addition to the music store in Rock Band 2 and the upcoming Rock Band 3 lets musicians generate gameplay markup from their own master tapes, by way of MIDI encoders. This time, you even get to sing. RBN is correctly marketed to musicians, publishers, and record studios. Only a week old, the store already sports more than 100 songs that have gone through a lengthy process of quality control and spit-shine.
Singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, who sports several songs in the first wave of RBN releases, as well as a couple of songs in the regular Rock Band catalog, calls it "another way for smaller fish to play in the big pond." He plans to add many more titles. Other big-name artists in the RBN store include Flogging Molly, The Shins, Steve Vai, and Lacuna Coil. If you've never heard of some of these bands, that's kind of the point -- RBN is a new channel for artists to peddle their wares.
If Viacom's MTV Studios and distribution partner Electronic Arts handle this right, RBN could become the effective publishing platform that Guitar Hero never was. Artists keep a 30% royalty on every download, and the rest goes to the publishers. Microsoft
While nothing is ever guaranteed when you're dealing with fickle consumers and musicians, this interactive music store looks poised to deliver on its promises. The likes of Iron Maiden and Pearl Jam will continue to sell music through the Viacom-controlled download store, while others like Metallica and Green Day get their own discs -- and everybody gets to take a chance in the RBN channel.
Would you ever buy new music through a video game? And if not, did you think the same about digital tracks before the rise of iTunes? Discuss the future of music distribution in the comments below.