Thanks for the music?

John Lennon once said that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Take a look at the current gaming charts and you could draw the conclusion that music games are now more popular than The Beatles. Obviously, music games themselves aren’t a new phenomenon, but their current popularity, and specifically that of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, certainly is. As we write this, there are three iterations of Guitar Hero nestling in the gaming top 30, while downloadable content in the form of artist-specific song packs has further boosted the games’ appeal.

The seemingly insatiable appetite for these games is something of a mystery to us. While there’s no doubting their appeal, surely it’s only a few steps away from having a quick strum on a toy guitar? Alex Needham, a music journalist who has worked for Smash Hits, NME and The Face, agrees. “To me it seems a bit silly, and also I’m not that great at it. I’m not really dexterous enough. I was playing Guitar Hero with a proper musician and he said I was more of a rhythm guitar player than a lead – where’s the glory in that?”

Sian Llewellyn, editor of Classic Rock magazine, offers a different opinion. “What I do like is it does seem to have become a forum for introducing people to new rock bands, and to established bands’ new recorded output,” she says. “For example, new band The Answer had a track on the last Guitar Hero game when they can’t get mainstream radio play. Other bands are following suit and realizing its importance as a distribution method.”

This is something the games’ publishers are keen to stress. At a recent press conference, a senior Activision employee even went so far as to suggest that Guitar Hero was on a par with the iPod in terms of revolutionizing the music industry. It’s a lofty statement, but do the record labels agree?

Hywel Evans is synchronization director at EMI, where his job involves getting the label’s bands featured in games, films, adverts and so on. “EMI are big fans [of the games],” he says, “and see the gaming world as one that offers great new opportunities for our artists and exciting experiences for their fans.”

Conversely, Jack White of The White Stripes has put the boot into music games. “It’s depressing to have a label come and tell you that [Guitar Hero] is how kids are learning about music and experiencing music… If you have to be in a videogame to get in front of them, that’s a little sad.” Sorry, Jack, the times they are a-changing and it seems an increasing number of industry movers and shakers see games as a valid way of getting exposure for a band.

Llewellyn agrees. “I don’t know that it’s a revolution in itself, but the nature of how people are experiencing music is definitely changing and [these games] are surely playing a part. It’s definitely introducing kids to songs that they probably haven’t heard before but find that they enjoy, and with any luck they’ll seek out the albums and go see the bands in the flesh.” It’s hard to quantify how much of an impact it has on a band when their song appears in Guitar Hero or Rock Band but for less well-established artists we imagine it’s rather like an author getting featured on Oprah's Book Club.