They are the robots: Flight of the Conchords. Now, you are the robots, too, as Rock Band Network opens the indie floodgates to the music-distribution-as-game model. (And yes, you’ll get to sing along with the Conchords, too.) Photo (CC-BY-SA) kris krüg.

Music games Rock Band and Guitar Hero are simple enough in terms of gameplay, but testifying to the power of people’s passion for music, their impact has been staggering. At a time when purchasing recorded music has waned from a 90s peak, downloads for games are proving surprising growth, despite pundits predicting the segment would cool off. The talents of the Harmonix team attracted the collaboration of the download-averse surviving Beatles and family members. But most importantly, the popularity of these games has translated into renewed interest in learning to play real instruments. It’s no accident popular music chart sales are surging, or that you will now find a new selection of digital and acoustic (but serious) instruments at your local Best Buy, often located right next to the games section. (Even as a witness to this trend, I was surprised recently to pick up an extra KORG nanoKONTROL in the aisle next to Rock Band.) Heck, even sales of music notation software are growing.

I’m uncertain of the extent to which a game like Rock Band can be identified as the cause of these trends, but there’s no question that popular music making is on the rise, and games are part of the shift. Perhaps it’s a matter of games changing the way people feel about making music. After all, a lot of early music training is very much like a game: to learn a new instrument, you simplify the playing of that instrument into more basic exercises. Obviously, that helps develop chops, but it also boosts confidence, giving a music student a feel for what it’s like to play successfully. (And, let’s face it, even experienced pro players sometimes need to defeat anxiety.)

The dark side of all of this has been that the music itself has been limited to a narrow selection of top-of-the-charts hits and popular classic tracks. Rock Band Network doesn’t yet address the limited instrumentation (guitar, bass, drums, voice), but it does open production to a new range of artists – and that, in turn, could be the beginning of much more to come. By allowing anyone to author and distribute tracks for a nominal subscription fee on Microsoft’s Xbox creation community, Rock Band Network is all about opening floodgates.

Having followed the story here on CDM since last year, I’m thrilled that the Rock Band Network store itself is now live. The results run the gamut from relatively big-name artists to more obscure contributions. (Phone giant T-Mobile will pony up some cash to highlight an “Artist of the Month” from the community, in the interest of shining a spotlight on lesser-known acts.) The only bad news is, while the store is international, the Rock Band Network isn’t immune from the music industry’s trouble crossing national borders; as our own Jaymis discovered to his dismay, countries like Australia are left out. I hope to talk to Harmonix and Microsoft about how they plan to make these kinds of efforts more global with time.

For those countries covered, though, you can now enjoy the store as both an artist and listener (or make that “player”). Starting on launch day last week, of Montreal, The Shins, The Hold Steady, Steven Vai, and geek God Jonathan Coulton were onboard. (“The Future Soon,” anyone?) I’m pleased that among other artists, we have Flight of the Conchords to look forward to.

But I will say, whether you appreciate these games or not, there are promising signs for the music business here, without question. Harmonix’s founders began work with experimental musical interface research, as with many of the readers of this site. Oddly enough, though, what they found was by some measure an entirely new industry.

The idea: make the Xbox 360 game Rock Band an open mic night. Photo (CC-BY) Justin Moore.

By the numbers:

  • Rock Band Network launches with over 100 songs, out of a private beta; expect far more.
  • Artists choose pricing tiers and get a 30% royalty (high for this kind of royalty, at least for a typical indie artist).
  • 1,100 tracks are currently available on Rock Band, prior to the many, many more expected on RBN.
  • Some 4,300 users have registered on RBN to contribute tracks and/or perform peer review. That’s significant growth for Microsoft’s XNA community, and it’s prior to a wider launch that will be an order of magnitude bigger.

Harmonix info:
How to Submit a Song; scroll down to “Adding a song to the pipeline.”

How to Become a Peer Reviewer (aka playtester)

I’ll see the Harmonix team this week at GDC; I’m looking forward to it. Let me know if you have questions for them. It is a reminder, though, of why I’m glad to spend my travel time in March at the Game Developer Conference even in place of South by Southwest. I think a lot of our future may be at the former as much as the latter. (Well, and if not, I still get to geek out with discussions of adaptive music engines.)

If this stuff does interest you, don’t miss our previous, exhaustive Q&A’s with Harmonix (thanks to the folks there for being so forthcoming):
Inside the Rock Band Network, as Harmonix Gives Interactive Music its Game-Changer
Your Band in Rock Band: Rock Band Network Beta Opens, Q&A with Harmonix