What the Beatles' new videogame shows us about the media transformation we're all experiencing, with gamers, music fans and young people leading the way
By Anne Collier
If you'd like some powerful insights into how music is changing, why audiences are turning into participants, and what role videogames have in all this, read "While My Guitar Gently Beeps" in the New York Times Magazine. It's the story of how Apple Corps warmed up to and fully embraced interactive, or participatory, music – the next phase of music history, one could say (without exaggerating). Author and writer Daniel Radosh runs you through the Beatles' version of this evolution, from helping to "kick the compact-disc era into overdrive in 1987," about 20 years after they broke up, right past the "current era of downloadable music" (when "financial disputes kept the Beatles conspicuously sidelined"), to what the $3 billion music part of the videogame industry (a category that's a close second to action games and ahead of sports) represents: simulated performance of real music, among other things. Beatles: Rock Band will be released Sept. 9.
From one perspective, the music videogames of Rock Band and Guitar Hero are a solution to the music industry's P2P file-sharing problem (it probably calls it the piracy problem): Videogames don't just market songs, they sell them now. "In its first week, Motley Crue's 2008 single 'Saints of Los Angeles' sold nearly five times as many copies on Rock Band as it did on iTunes, and at twice the price," Radosh reports. "Pearl Jam plans to release its new album simultaneously on CD and in Rock Band."
And soon there will be the Rock Band Network, which "will license software tools and provide training for anyone to create and distribute interactive versions of their own songs." That doesn't only expand "the amount and variety of interactive music available," it expands both the musician and participant bases. Now, I think, Rock Band just needs to team up with MySpace or maybe Last.fm to complete the picture, strengthen the community part of the spectrum (see "MySpace's metamorphosis?"). Because fans are often musicians and vice versa, and tunes are talking points in an ongoing "conversation" between artists and fans (and among fans, of course), multidirectionally.
People often put down Rock Band and Guitar Hero as trivializing music, as "just a game" or more about partying than music. Pointing out that, 40 years ago, "an earlier generation was deeply troubled by the advent of recorded music," Radosh cites the view of Brown University ethnomusicology professor Kiri Miller that people seem either to believe these games should be teaching some "fabulous skill" or else they're having some sort of addictive or automatizing effect on you, when they actually represent "a new form of musical experience."
It looks like Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison have come to agree, to varying degrees. Though the Beatles one isn't quite as interactive as other Rock Band games (comparatively, it's "a 'walled garden' from which songs cannot be exported and added to a party mix alongside other Rock Band tunes, [violating] the central shuffle-and-personalize ethos of modern music consumption"), Yoko Ono sees it as art, Radosh writes, along the lines of her 1964 book Grapefruit. He cites Lennon's view in a later edition of Grapefruit: "A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality."
Apple Corps also apparently liked how a music videogame adds a physical dimension, "requires players to make a commitment of time, effort, and energy," "demands attention," makes the music multisensory. It wasn't about making the Beatles' music compelling for a new generation, Ono told Radosh. For her, McCartney, and Dhani and Olivia Harrison, it came to be about an art form evolving with its practitioners of all kinds - listeners, sharers, performers, composers, etc.
For details on how, in these games of performance simulation, players learn more about both the music and how a particular artist (e.g., Ringo Starr) plays it, look for the paragraph beginning: "Like roughly 80% of the creative team, Eric Brosius, Harmonix's director of audio is an active musician..." (Harmonix is the maker of Beatles: Rock Band). And don't miss the last page or so, where Radosh shows what he's learned from this writing project about where music is headed, then closes with a scene from the E3 videogame convention in Los Angeles this summer, when Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Olivia appeared on the Staple Center stage together for 75 seconds to unveil the Beatles' 21st-century incarnation.
This isn't just the Beatles' and Harmonix's story. It's everybody's. It's the story of the media sea change we are all experiencing right now, and I think we parents and educators would be wise to join Apple Corps in embracing it.
* CD vs. digital: "While CDs made up 65% of all music sold in the first half of 2009, digital downloads are quickly catching up," the San Jose Mercury News reports, citing NPD Group research. Digital music sales are increasing 15-20% a year and CD sales are dropping "at an equal pace." NPD also found that iTunes iTunes store is becoming the leading music retailer. "Song downloads from iTunes represent 25% of all music units sold in the United States, up from 21% in 2008 and 14% in 2007."
* "Joe's Non-Netbook": a student-produced 1:45 minute video on YouTube that'll make you smile and give you a feel for how strange non-interactive media are becoming to the digital generation.
* "The power of play"
* "Play, Part 2"