Rock Band gives Beatles and garage bands a gaming stage

The makers of the game system that brought the Beatles to a younger generation of fans and has popularized any number of other veteran acts now hopes to do the same thing for up and coming artists.

Rock Band Network, which went public on Wednesday, introduces a platform that allows bands to format and upload their own recordings into the network's music store, where users can -- if they like what they sample -- download them onto their own consoles and get fully interactive with them.

Musicians can elect to charge consumers from $1 to $3 to download songs; the artists get a 30% royalty for each paid download.

"Every outlet you get is great in this day and age," said Luke Walker, the singer-bassist of the L.A. pop-punk band the Summer Obsession who has produced and written for acts including Leighton Meester, Good Charlotte, Deftones and Alkaline Trio.

Summer Obsession is exactly the kind of band that might benefit from Rock Band Platform -- they appeal to a largely teenage fan base, play big hooky rock tunes and are willing to embrace alternative distribution and marketing avenues. "Not everybody can perform music, so what better way for a fan to interact with your band than by giving them a way to play your song?" Walker said. "That could definitely make a stronger connection between a band and its fans."

The move could help Cambridge, Mass.-based Rock Band producer Harmonix as well, injecting continued life in the company's well-known gaming franchise, which, like its rival Guitar Hero, suffered a sales downturn last year amid the recession. Even the highly anticipated offering The Beatles: Rock Band failed to make much noise, moving only 1.1 million units in the U.S.

Rock Band Network has the potential to entice people who already own the game to spend more for online content, generating additional revenue for Harmonix and its parent company Viacom, Inc. It could also lure new players excited about the prospect of discovering emerging acts.

"We are excited to democratize the Rock Band platform and expand the music discovery experience to the greater music community with the Rock Band Network," Harmonix Chief Executive and Co-founder Alex Rigopulos, Rock Band's creator, said in a statement issued Wednesday. "We believe this will be great for fans, music lovers, bands and the music industry as a whole."

Using the new platform, musicians upload their songs to one of two places: a "Play-test" portal, where other users can road test tracks, then offer feedback that the song's creator can choose to incorporate -- or not -- before submitting the finished product to the "Peer Review" panel.

At that point, Harmonix staffers check for potential copyright or other legal issues, adult content or vulgarity before sending it through to the music store for downloading.

Initially, the songs offered through Rock Band Network will be available only for Microsoft's Xbox system. After 30 days, however, selected tracks that have proved popular with Xbox users will become available for players with Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii game systems.

Although the Rock Band franchise has been built on material from such longtime acts as Bon Jovi, Rage Against the Machine and AC/DC -- artists who in many cases have witnessed pumped up sales of their recorded catalogs -- showcasing newer acts could prove a boon to the gaming series.

Joe Escalante, bassist for the long-running punk band the Vandals and a music industry lawyer by profession, said the new platform could spark much greater interest, with lesser known artists looking to use Rock Band much in the same way they do MySpace or other social networking platforms to reach listeners. (Unlike MySpace, though, there is a one-time $60 license fee to use the Rock Band Platform software.)

Escalante, host of the Barely Legal Radio weekly advice program at, said he expects the best potential for taking advantage of Rock Band Network will come at the beginning, akin to bands that exploited MySpace "before every other musician on the planet put up a MySpace page."

Mike Lee, the singer and producer of the local electro-rock band Letting Up Despite Great Faults, remains skeptical about any upside from uploading music to the new platform, however.

"The unsigned and probably unknown artist will see little come out of it," Lee wrote in an e-mail. "In the end, it's a video game designed for fun, and maybe not so much a serious involvement of the artist's music."

Still, Harmonix staffers believe that musicians who do get fans playing their songs on Rock Band will have a leg up because "it's a more substantive connection," said Harmonix's manager of communications and special projects John Drake. "You become a participant in an active community that cares about tunes."

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