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Downloading legally in a criminal world

Last week, Amazon and Rockstar announced a partnership that makes it easier for gamers to buy music they hear in “Grand Theft Auto IV,” which launches on April 29.
Image: Scene from Grand Theft Auto IV
If you like the music you hear in "Grand Theft Auto IV," Rockstar and Amazon have teamed up to make it easy for you to buy it. Rockstar Games

The soundtracks from the “Grand Theft Auto” games have long been lauded as super-extra-hipster-awesome. But if you’ve ever heard a catchy tune and then tried to find it online, you know how time-consuming that can be.

Last week, Amazon and Rockstar announced a partnership that makes it easier for gamers to buy music they hear in “Grand Theft Auto IV,” which launches on April 29. Rockstar wants fans to be able to own the hard-to-find and vintage tracks they feature in their games. And Amazon? Well, they want to lure people to their fledgling music service.

Here’s how it works: You’re playing along in “GTA IV,” and you hear a song that you like on the in-game radio. Just whip out the mobile phone that your character carries around in the game and call this number: ZiT-555-0100 (well, consider the target audience). The artist and song title zaps back to you via in-game text message and it’s also automatically added to your profile and playlist on Rockstar’s community Web site. From there, you click to buy the track from Amazon’s MP3 service. The tracks aren’t encumbered by digital rights management, and will cost between 89 and 99 cents.

“Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” already offer the ability to download songs — but they’re only available when you’re playing the game. With this Rockstar/Amazon partnership, you can download the tracks to your PC, and then export them to whatever device you want.

Of course, you already get access to the entire 200-plus game soundtrack when you’re playing “GTA IV.” But this new deal, the first of its kind in video games, allows players to hear something, like it, and buy it with a minimal amount of effort.

Certainly, music has always played an important role in the video-gaming experience. Think of the Gregorian chants in “Halo,” or the epic “Legend of Zelda” theme. But recently, with the success of “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band,” artists and music-industry folks are eyeing games as a new discovery platform for music — as well as a potential distribution channel.

The numbers are certainly impressive. Harmonix confirms that 6 million songs have been downloaded via “Rock Band” since the game’s Nov. 20 launch. And the “Guitar Hero” franchise has sold a mind-boggling 14 million units since 2005.

But it’s unlikely that labels or artists will be able to depend on video games as a consistent moneymaker, says Michael McGuire, an analyst with the Gartner Group. Games don’t come out often enough to be a reliable promotional tool. And a lot of music fans never get near a game console.

“If you’ve got a lot of ardent music fans who are also gamers … they can be an important part of starting the wave, of how quickly a piece of content can spread,” he says. “It’s one important tool in the toolkit.”

Increasingly, the music industry is depending on tools like video games to turn people on to new music — and hopefully, convert them into paying customers. But games are just one outlet. TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The O.C.” launched plenty of struggling artists. MySpace is also a great place for indie artists to get discovered.

In the end, says McGuire, nothing is more powerful than word of mouth. And in today’s hyper-wired world, that word can spread as quickly as the sniffles in a kindergarten class.

“You’re seeing these tools magnify the number of megaphones, or the size of the megaphone, that the individual has to share their tastes,” says McGuire.

How big of a megaphone will “GTA IV” be? Stay tuned.