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Can Guitar Hero save Christian music?

by Brad A. Greenberg

December 29, 2008 | 12:04 pm

For many, the dead week between Christmas and New Year’s is a built-in break from work. For me, it’s a welcomed opportunity to return to productivity.

Don’t get me wrong: I had a few great days of rest, capped off with a great day of sports yesterday (first watching the Bruins thump the—uh ... what are the Louisiana Tech’s?—and then seeing the Chargers pound the Broncos). But I fell well short of my goal of finishing Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” which has a few interesting religion angles, and Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” a particularly appropriate book to be reading will moderating anti-Semitic comments on this blog.

The blame, I’d have to say, falls squarely on “Guitar Hero World Tour.”

I spent a good two days playing the game, a gift from my wife, with my brother-in-law, and we still need a lot of practice before we go on tour. On tour? That’s right—at least we could:

LOS ANGELES—“This song is dedicated to Debbie Harry,” flinty-eyed Lisa Hsuan purrs into a microphone on the red-lit stage of Hyperion Tavern. It’s a cozy dive where patrons drink Coke and beer from bottles and a fading chandelier dangles overhead.

Her tribute is intentionally ludicrous: The 30-year-old veterinarian is about to belt out “Call Me,” which Harry—fronting the group Blondie—released 28 years ago. Accompanied on fake guitars and drums by three Web programmers who drove in from the refinery-dotted coastal suburb of El Segundo, Hsuan launches in as a smoke machine puffs nearby.

They’re playing the video game “Rock Band 2,” which along with “Guitar Hero” is rocking bars and living rooms across the country. Many songs’ sales have more than doubled after release in one of the games, and well-known bands have started lining up to provide new music direct to the game makers. Now record labels—noticing what they are missing, and struggling as compact disc sales tumble—are looking for a bigger piece of the action.

Although labels get some royalties from the play-along games’ makers, they are often bypassed on image and likeness licensing deals, which the bands control and which account for a rising proportion of musicians’ income. Meanwhile, the Recording Industry Association of America pegged its U.S. members’ sales at $10.4 billion in 2007, down 11.8 percent from the year before, with a further drop expected for 2008. By comparison, sales of music video games more than doubled this year, hitting $1.9 billion in the past 12 months, according to NPD Group. And they’re expected to keep growing.

Aerosmith made more money off the June release of “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” than either of its last two albums, according to Kai Huang, co-founder of RedOctane, which first developed “Guitar Hero.”

“The kind of exposure that artists can get through the ‘Guitar Hero’ platform is huge,” said Huang, who remains RedOctane’s president, after it and the “Guitar Hero” franchise were taken over by Activision Blizzard Inc. in 2006. “Rock Band,” meanwhile, is made by Viacom Inc.‘s MTV Games and distributed by Electronic Arts Inc.

In other words, it looks like video (games) are saving the aging radio stars. Even the Disney phenomenons, which drew their popularity from TV audiences, have a sing-along karaoke game.

It’s only a matter of time, I imagine, before Steven Curtis Chapman and Delirious team up with the guys who brought you “Left Behind: Eternal Forces.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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