The New Music Kingpins of the Post-Napster World — Part II, Guitar Hero

To continue along in this series looking at the new kingpins who are running the music biz now (instead of the major labels), let’s take a looksy at Activision. Who’s that? Well, they sold over 20 million copies of a lil game you might have heard of — Guitar Hero, a product that’s been called a competitor to iTunes. In fact, last summer, GH was noted as one of the few bright spots in the music biz.

Unlike Steve Jobs and friends, Guitar Hero looks like they have a good chance of signing a deal to get the Beatles catalog. In fact, after the success of their Aerosmith-themed game, other bands are lining up to have their own versions go to market. Metallica has already inked deals with Guitar Hero and should have their game out soon. And as is only fitting, Guitar Hero is also trying to link up a Hendrix game with his estate, which is appropriate since he’s THE guitar hero after all (and that’ll be a big deal for sure when it goes on sale).

So what is it about the game that’s so damn appealing? The main thing is that it ain’t just a game that you play on a screen with a control pad. You get a ‘guitar’ or rather a controller that’s shaped like a guitar, which you can wear strapped around your neck like the real deal. Using avatars or actual images of the string-benders you worship, you can play along without having to know how to really play the instrument — you just follow the color patterns on the screen and press down on the corresponding ones on your ‘guitar.’ Though you’re not playing, you still get the thrill of mimicking along to rock classics in a much more concrete way than playing air guitar (though the champs of that sport might disagree). Rather than being a passive listening, Guitar Hero gives you something of a sensation of being part of the music and ‘playing’ it and getting rewarded for doing it right- you get applause from the game plus you get to unlock more songs. But uh… isn’t part of what makes rock exciting sometimes NOT playing everything exactly right? That might have to wait for a future version of the game (then again, since Guitar Hero lowers the bar for anyone to play it, maybe it is kinda punk in a way…).

At this point, Guitar Hero has enough clout to get some bands to actually re-record some of their catalog (even the Sex Pistols) when they don’t have access to the masters. And it’s not just established bands lining up for Guitar Hero — indie bands see this as a great way to break into a larger audience and it’s a win for Guitar Hero too as they can license their material for less money. Add in the fact that Guitar Hero also lets you download songs, then you can see why they’re considered competitors to Mr. Jobs — just like Apple, Guitar Hero learned that consumers don’t just want tunes but they also want a cool, sleek way to get at them, whether it’s an iPod or a guitar-shaped controller.

At the moment, Guitar Hero‘s biggest direct competitor is MTV’s Rock Band game, which has sold 4 million copies and is responsible for 30 million song downloads. Rock Band also goes Guitar Hero three or four better by adding a rhythm section and mike for the full ‘band’ experience (though without built-in groupies or substance abuse problems). Nevertheless, their downloads are still a fraction of the numbers that iTunes gets and as of yet, Rock Band haven’t signed up as many bands as Guitar Hero has. As this NY Times article notes, Madden and Wii are also competitors in the video market, with Madden’s games also becoming a hot place for bands to promote and sell songs.

You’d think it’s all peaches and cream for Guitar Hero and the video game market but as this Variety article notes, sales are starting to flatten out for the market, which is no doubt a measure of the sinking economy plus the high price tag for these games. Still, with artists like Aerosmith finding bigger sales and bucks with their Guitar Hero game than with their latest album, big labels have another reason to worry about this kind of competition.

ADDENDUM: As some commentators have indelicately noted, my own experience is limited with GH (played it once) and I should have noted that and not detailed it as I did in the 3rd paragraph. I apologize for that. I hope to at least stimulate some conversation about the popularity of these games and what the future holds for them.