MTV formulating Rock Band Network

Company will beta test its inclusive initiative in August

DENVER -- Most recording artists would love to have their music available on MTV Networks' "Rock Band" video game. But MTV's Harmonix unit, the developer of "Rock Band," simply hasn't had the time or staff to program the vast number of songs it would like to include in the game.

That's about to change. Later this year, MTV plans to launch a groundbreaking initiative called the Rock Band Network that will enable any artist -- unsigned emerging act, indie cult fave or major-label superstar -- to submit songs for possible inclusion in the game.

The Rock Band Network recently started a closed beta trial, which MTV expects to expand to a public beta test in August. The company hopes to open the Rock Band Network store before year's end. Songs available through the new store, which will remain separate from the existing "Rock Band" store, will be initially available for download to users of Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console. MTV expects to eventually make the popular tracks available for use on the Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii game systems.

"We've figured out how to make it so anybody who owns and controls masters and publishing can put music into ("Rock Band") at their own pace," said MTV Games senior vp electronic games and music Paul DeGooyer. "We're talking about a set of serious professional tools to allow people on the front line of writing and recording songs to completely control their destiny with respect to interactive products and then giving them direct access to the download store."

Rather than deal with Harmonix directly, artists and labels will submit songs to a community of Harmonix-trained freelance game developers and other interested programmers who will prepare the tracks for "Rock Band." Additionally, labels can either hire trained developers or school their existing employees to do the work in-house.

Songs submitted through this process must then be reviewed by other developers to check for playability, inappropriate lyrics, copyright infringement and so on. Harmonix will post approved tracks to an in-game download store separate from its existing "Rock Band" store where creators can set their own price (50 cents to $3 per song) and receive 30% of any resulting sales. Gamers also will be able to demo 30-second samples of each track.

Although originally designed to give indie and unsigned artists a way to sell music through the game, MTV quickly realized the Rock Band Network could be used to clear the bottleneck for major-label content as well. While the Harmonix team has grown from fewer than 10 programmers to a few dozen since MTV acquired the video game developer in 2006, the company can only add about 10 new songs per week to sell through the "Rock Band" store. The same team has also been handling the development work for the upcoming "The Beatles: Rock Band," due in September.

"Once we flip on the infrastructure, we can go from a few dozen people capable of doing this work to hundreds of people or more," Harmonix founder/CEO Alex Rigopulos said. "We can ramp up by a factor of 10 or more the rate of production of content."

So far, Harmonix developers have made about 700 songs available to download and play on the game. Those titles have sold a combined 50 million downloads through the game, demonstrating an ability to drive sales that has other artists and labels itching to have their music included.

Sub Pop Records head of A&R Tony Kiewel said the label is expecting to submit songs from its upcoming fall releases as well as its bigger releases from the past two years.

"It's very exciting news to us," Kiewel said. "It's important to participate in every possible revenue stream available. Whatever gets your music heard helps your overall awareness and ability to sell records and downloads."

Artists could use the Rock Band Network to upload their entire discography to the game or release an album through the game day-and-date with a new CD release or the start of a tour.

"If there's a really great song we love, we'd promote that, because that helps everybody," DeGooyer said. "We're also able to see what's selling well. If stuff has some heat on it, we may pick up on it. ... If Judas Priest decided to put their whole catalog in the Rock Band Network, we would promote the heck out of that."

Differentiating 'Rock Band' From 'Guitar Hero'

By launching the Rock Band Network, MTV is essentially doubling down on downloadable content, the primary point of differentiation between "Rock Band" and Activision's rival "Guitar Hero" franchise. While Activision makes the occasional song available for download for "Guitar Hero," its primary strategy is to sell expansion discs like "Guitar Hero: Metallica" and the forthcoming "Guitar Hero: Van Halen."

By contrast, MTV wants "Rock Band" to become a platform for music distribution, using its interactive features to lure music fans who otherwise may not be buying music.

"Recorded music on its own no longer leads the charge for artists," MTV's DeGooyer said. "It's now this aggregated value proposition of recorded music, touring, merch, branding, Web presence and now video games. .... If we get this right, music creators will start to think about what they're releasing in terms of interactivity."

The Rock Band Network is the result of a 16-month development process with a number of partners. Most important was Microsoft. Tracks released through the Rock Band Network will only be available at first to Xbox 360 users, as it relies on Microsoft's XNA game development platform and its Creators Club online community of developers.

The Creators Club allows freelance developers or hobbyists to make their own games and sell them on the Xbox Live Marketplace. Games created through this process must first be submitted to the Creators Club community for game-play and content review before they are added to the marketplace.

The Rock Band Network marks the first time that XNA and the Creators Club have been used to outsource the development of expansions to an existing game, according to Dave Mitchell, the Microsoft product unit manager in charge of overseeing the two programs.

The Creators Club reviews about 30-50 games per month. Because MTV and Microsoft expect the number of "Rock Band" submissions to quickly dwarf these totals, the software giant took the unprecedented step of creating a custom version of the Creators Club for Harmonix, complete with a customized set of review procedures specific to music games-including checking for copyright infringement-which Harmonix will host separate from the existing Microsoft site.

Another key partnership is with the software developer Cockos, which customized a version of its Reaper audio production application that developers will use to program the audio stems needed to create each instrument and vocal track within "Rock Band." Reaper will also allow developers to customize the avatars, camera angles and lighting for the background video rather than using the automatically generated default setting. Cockos is working with Audible Magic and Gracenote to identify rights holders.

And finally there is the freelance game development community. Harmonix will hold regular training sessions to certify developers for the program and operate a support forum staffed by Harmonix developers to answer questions. It will also maintain a list of certified developers for artists and labels to contact and reach out to existing rhythm game community sites like ScoreHero.

"This is arguably the most complicated initiative Harmonix has ever tried to get off the ground, given the number of parties involved and the technical infrastructure involved," Rigopulos said.

Potential Risks

MTV is moving slowly with the rollout mostly because of the anticipated volume of submissions. If the response from artists and labels is anywhere near what MTV expects, the program may experience delays in reviewing and approving songs until a critical mass of developers and reviewers emerges.

Another concern is ensuring that the playability of songs developed for the game through its namesake network will match the sophistication of those developed in-house. Selling songs that provide a sub-par playing experience would hurt the integrity of the "Rock Band" store and could drive labels away from the program.

The decision to keep the Rock Band Network store separate from the existing one was made to address both issues. But operating two different download stores raises the possibility that artists, labels and customers may come to view the Rock Band Network store as an inferior "kids' table." It could also cause confusion because it would require users to search through two stores.

DeGooyer said MTV will keep a close eye on the music submitted to the store and cherry-pick tracks to promote as part of its weekly "Rock Band" communication. While it doesn't expect to move songs from one store to another, MTV could decide to merge the two outlets if the program is successful.

"It's kind of a capitalistic petri dish," DeGooyer said. "I can envision a song coming into the Rock Band Network first, getting traction, picking up customers through online play and then being picked up by MTV's programming and showing up there. We've shown we can sell millions of songs in the 'Rock Band' store. So it really does tie into a larger picture."