Video may have killed the radio star back in those dark and desperate times known as the ‘80s, but today, video games are bringing the radio star back to life. On Oct. 27, gaming giant Activision will release DJ Hero, the hip hop/electronic cousin to its popular Guitar Hero series. The game includes over 100 songs licensed from some of music’s heaviest hitters. Eminem, Jay-Z, Beastie Boys and M.I.A. all contribute tracks, to name a select few, and electronic music’s biggest French-robot duo, Daft Punk, even created 11 exclusive tracks just for the game.
If that all sounds like a big deal, it’s because it kind of is, but it shouldn’t be surprising; the blessed marriage between music and video games renewed its vows with the first Guitar Hero game in 2005, and the love’s only gotten stronger since.
With Hero games now the third most successful video game franchise ever (behind only Madden and Mario), having raked in over $2 billion, the impact of gaming on the music world is indelible. But when top acts prefer to write music for video games than release good old-fashioned albums, where does that leave the music fans?
Lionel Conway, who brokered the deal that gave Aerosmith its own Guitar Hero title, believes that the video-game takeover will never be all encompassing, simply due to portability. “You can’t take [a video game] in your car, and so the audience is limited,” Conway told Paste. “If you want to reach the whole audience out there, you still need to go via the same routes—you still need radio and TV. It’ll never replace buying a record.”
Will Townsend isn’t so sure. The DJ Hero producer was quick to peg video games as a new door for the music industry to push its product into the mainstream.. “Everyone gets it. This is the new distribution model,” Townsend said at a recent Xbox 360 DJ Hero premiere party.
His reasoning, aside from the fact that his job depends on it, was two-fold; both artists and music fans are eager to be a part of this new wave of music distribution. After all, it’s not everyday that the ever-elusive Daft Punk emerges to not only approve, but create music for a non-Daft Punk project.
Part of the appeal for artists, of course, is simple math; with these games moving units in the millions, a spot on Guitar Hero or DJ Hero could provide more exposure than an album release ever could, both for up-and-coming bands and established acts, hence the special edition games for groups like Aerosmith, Metallica and Rock Band’s The Beatles, the latter of which alone has sold over 600,000 copies in just more than a month.
“For classic rock, it’s been brilliant,” Conway says. “These games open the ears and eyes to a whole new audience. “Kids that would never normally listen to an Aerosmith record are now familiar with them.” Conway also noted that much of Aerosmith’s back catalog spiked 50-75% in sales following the release of the band’s Guitar Hero in 2008.
The success of Guitar Hero seems to have built up to the release of DJ Hero; with more licensed songs than any previous Hero title, DJ Hero, Townsend believes, will both diversify and strengthen the impact these games have on the music market. “This is the kind of game where artists come out of the woodwork, like ‘Wow, I want to be a part of this,’” he says. “We’re in a good place. It was like ‘Oh hi, we’re the Beastie Boys. Can we get into the game?’ And the answer will always be ‘Yes, you can.’”
Although the popularity of Hero games is no surprise to Townsend (he worked on the Guitar Hero franchise for years before heading DJ Hero), the enthusiasm from artists caught him off-guard. Especially, of course, when Daft Punk committed to creating exclusive tracks. “I think it had something to do with a unicorn and a leprechaun shitting cupcakes and all of my dreams coming true,” Townsend speculates.
If the trend of bands writing music exclusively for video games continues, there may be a new pocket of music created that’s unavailable for casual downloaders. And like that, video games could effectively corner the music market in a way that even the record industry, in which album leaks are nowadays both expected and inevitable, couldn’t do.
Increasingly, it simply makes business sense for artists to license their music to video games. “ Guitar Hero does pay royalties,” Conway says. “It’s a small one, but when you’re selling six to eight million units, you don’t mind the smaller royalty,”
To Townsend, of course, the new distribution model is a win-win for fans and artists. “If I were to get these 93 tracks on iTunes at a buck a pop, it’d be 93 bucks,” he explains. “So throw in another 20 bucks and you’ve got this hardware that allows you to play along with your tracks. That’s money in the bank.”
Whether or not exclusive video-game songs increase in the future, it’s becoming obvious that these two entertainment industries are changing in a big way. But it remains to be seen how intertwined they’ll become as fads and technologies wax and wane. “The only place you’ll get to hear this stuff is in DJ Hero,” Townsend says. “It’s not for iTunes, it’s not for YouTube. It’s just for our space.”