Rock Is Dead. Long Live Rock Band 

Eleven-year-old Lucas Lee is itching to learn "Free Bird."

Introducing a kid born in 1996 to the pleasures of Foghat, Deep Purple, and Lynyrd Skynyrd seems no easy task. Yet all it takes is a video game. "I started really liking the band Guns N' Roses after the character Slash showed up in Guitar Hero III," professes Lucas Lee, a precocious, self-described alternative rock fan who lives with his family in Alameda. He'd been primed for GNR fandom by 2006's Guitar Hero II, which challenges players to follow along to "Sweet Child O' Mine" plus some sixty other songs using a plastic mock-up of a Gibson guitar, and the appearance of the band's legendarily long-haired guitarist in its sequel sealed the deal. "These days, you're only introduced to what's new," says Lee, who owns all three of the series' games. "But in Guitar Hero, you get to hear the older songs."

Lee is only one of the million kids who have realized as much, and adults are catching on, too. The Alameda School of Music, where Lee takes private guitar lessons and has learned to play Guitar Hero songs such as "Smoke on the Water," recently developed a course called "Guitar Hero" Rock Ensemble. Starting next month, the class will teach six to eight students per quarter to perform popular songs from the games such as Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box," the Police's "Message in a Bottle," and the Stray Cats' "Rock This Town."

School director Barry Solomon came up with the idea about six months ago, well before the October and November releases of the two most recent entries in the genre (Activision's Guitar Hero III and EA's Rock Band, which comes bundled with a bass guitar, microphone, and electronic drum kit in addition to the now-standard guitar controller), as more and more students in private instruction requested songs from Guitar Hero. "We've had ten-year-old kids wanting to learn 'Surrender,'" he chuckles. Cheap Trick's 1978 arena rock anthem is featured on Guitar Hero II. "There's no way they would have heard that on their own."

Solomon can't help but get a kick out of this. However, as an advocate for music instruction, he finds himself at odds with the games' more insidious consequences. "I think it's a problem that kids are spending so much time playing these games instead of playing an instrument," he says. "We're trying to get kids to take the next step." He's not alone in this: other local guitar instructors have begun weaving Guitar Hero into their curricula, and music publishers have licensed songbooks containing transcriptions of songs from the game.

Eric Brosius, Audio Director at Harmonix Music Systems, the Cambridge, Massachusetts company that developed Guitar Hero I and II and this year's Rock Band, recognizes the power he and his fellow developers wield as tastemakers. "It treats music with a lot of respect and opens it up to new listeners," Brosius says. MySpace band pages and MP3 swapping haven't shed their roles as new music dispersers, but there's something much more visceral about blasting a song over a home theater system and playing along in real time. No wonder the songs are sticking in so many little heads.

Across the last few years of game development, Harmonix has compiled a list of about 3,500 songs for possible soundtrack use. Based on various criteria including era, popularity, and mood as well as a close-up analysis of composition, Brosius and his crew whittle this unwieldy number down to fifty or sixty songs per game for which they will seek licensing rights. He says they strive for a well-rounded mix spanning the "whole history of rock" and featuring both underground and established acts. Rock Band has 58 playable songs, including ones by newer artists OK Go, Fall Out Boy, and Coheed and Cambria, while Guitar Hero III (subtitled "Legends of Rock") offers 71 weighted more toward the '70s, '80s, and '90s.

Bands and record labels are increasingly recognizing video-game licensing as an attractive enterprise. Oakland pop-punk act the Matches, signed to Epitaph Records since 2004, landed a song on that year's EA game Burnout 3. "Conceptually, the value of being in a video game is high because there is a limited soundtrack and a popular game will be played for many hours," says manager Miles Hurwitz. In the Matches' case, however, reality wasn't so rosy: the band saw no measurable benefit from appearing in the game. Still, it's in good company among East Bay groups for at least trying. Green Day launched the lead single and title track to its 2004 comeback album American Idiot on Madden NFL 2005. Rancid placed 1995's "Maxwell Murder" on the 2000 PlayStation game Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX. And AFI lent its song "Miss Murder" to Guitar Hero III, making it the most likely to reap significant commercial rewards.

Not much comes easy in today's sinking music industry — not for web-savvy young bands, not for older marquee acts, and especially not for everyone else. Yet it's certain that film, TV, and videogame licensing can play a huge role in breaking and revitalizing careers by fostering powerful connections with potential fans. Fun titles like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are serious business. "We like the fact that we're blurring the line between the game and your CD player," says Harmonix' Brosius. "We're thinking of it as a new way to appreciate music." The plan must be working, because eleven-year-old Lucas Lee is just itching to learn "Free Bird."

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