Games like "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero III" have proved their ability to breathe new life into classic rock sales. But can they do the same for new music?
Last month, Motley Crue decided to find out. The band placed its new single, the title track from "Saints of Los Angeles," for sale as a downloadable track on "Rock Band" well in advance of the album's release date, which has been pushed back to June 24. The only other place to obtain the track was iTunes.
According to data provided by the band's management, Tenth Street Entertainment, the track was downloaded more than 47,000 times via the Xbox 360 version of the game alone in the first week after it became available. ("Rock Band" publisher MTV Networks was unable to independently verify these figures, and total downloads that include the PlayStation 3 version of the game were not available.)
By comparison, the same track received slightly more than 10,000 downloads via digital services like iTunes and Amazon, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
That's a pretty big discrepancy considering that music bought via "Rock Band" can't be transferred to a portable music player or even a computer for later enjoyment. It can be played only via the game.
Tenth Street CEO Allen Kovac shrugs off the gap in sales between formats, pointing out that a sale is a sale. In an age of rampant piracy, reaching fans where they are willing to spend money is the primary goal.
"We do research on every artist we have, and the research said that the people who bought Motley Crue music and tickets play 'Rock Band" and video games ... (so) it was our inclination to go there," he says. "As marketers, it's our job to find the audience. If our audience tells us they're sitting at Xbox and PlayStation, that's our job to do that."
In slightly more than six months, the number of songs downloaded to the "Rock Band" game has surpassed 10 million tracks, according to MTV Networks, while song downloads from "Guitar Hero" passed 15 million, according to Activision. With more than 100 songs available for download via the "Rock Band" platform, that's an average of 100,000 downloads per song sold through the game.
That average, though, is somewhat skewed: Since new songs are added to the "Rock Band" store weekly, tracks available for sale since November have sold more than tracks added just last week. Still, it's an impressive figure.
By all accounts, catalog tracks sell best. Seven of the top 10 best-selling songs available on "Rock Band" are catalog titles; the other three are more recent, but still a few years old. Of all the songs available for download on "Rock Band," more than 75 percent are catalog tracks. The rest is primarily music released within the past year. Only a handful of songs are previously unreleased new music or music from unknown acts using the game to get noticed.
One such example is new metal act Black Tide. When its "Light From Above" album was released November 11, 2007, the single "Shockwave" sold only a few hundred copies per week, barely registering on Nielsen SoundScan. The week before being featured as a downloadable song on "Rock Band" on March 11, the single sold 1,000 downloads. Two weeks later, download sales doubled.
Yet sales on "Rock Band" were 10 times that of those on iTunes and other stores. In the six weeks following the "Rock Band" debut, "Shockwave" sold 6,000 digital downloads via online retailers, compared with an estimated 60,000 downloads via the game.
And "Rock Band" isn't the only game hawking new music. Def Leppard chose to release its new single "Nine Lives" as part of a three-song bundle on "Guitar Hero III" on April 24, along with past hits "Photograph" and "Rock of Ages."
The "Guitar Hero III" download totals are unavailable, but first-week figures from SoundScan show that it sold about 7,000 downloads. The album it was meant to promote, "Songs From the Sparkle Lounge," sold only 55,000 physical and digital units combined in its first week.
But Tenth Street's Kovac says "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" sales don't necessarily need to convert to album or digital download sales on a one-to-one basis to count as successful. Today's generation of music fans, he says, may be interested only in buying the game version of new music, enabling an interactive experience that has been sorely lacking lately.
"The resurgence of rock has happened because of 'Rock Band' and 'Guitar Hero,"' he says. "And the reason is because of the interaction with the audience. The more music marketing people look at interaction with the audience as opposed to only radio or a video, the more lasting the experience will be and the longer the artists' career will be."