By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Fans of the music video game Rock Band were abuzz this month when its creators announced that they will throw open the doors to the online store where it sells downloadable tracks for the game. But where most players will be logging on to the service to spend their money, at least one local software programmer sees a business opportunity.
Starting this fall, Rock Band Network will let aspiring musicians upload their songs as tracks that others can buy and download. Think of it kind of like Apple's App Store, a relatively open marketplace where anybody with some programming skills is invited to design and sell their own software applications for the iPhone.
For all the world's great indie bands and unsigned talent, there's a small catch: not every would-be rock star who knows how to play a real Fender Strat will take the time to master the software to get that song onto the game.
And so, for either a flat fee or a cut of sales, Towson-based programmer J.C. Cirri and his start-up, Rhythm Authors, will take a band's song and convert it into a game level. After it passes a bit of beta testing, any Rock Band player with a Web-connected Xbox can download it and rock out. Tracks will be priced at $1, $2 or $3. For every buck, an artist gets 30 cents -- or about half that if they're splitting it with Cirri.
Cirri says that most of the bands he has talked to are mostly interested in the exposure that an appearance in Rock Band might bring them; for now, at least, some find the prospect of being in the game more exciting than the potential revenue.
"Album sales have gone through the roof for bands that have been featured in Rock Band and Guitar Hero," Cirri said. "I see it as a new distribution channel for the music industry."
He's not alone. MTV, which owns the game studio that develops Rock Band, says it has heard from music companies including EMI, Sony and Universal about getting into the business.
Paul DeGooyer, MTV's vice president of electronic games and music, said they opened the game's marketplace because of an overload of material.
"We have more music licensed than we can get to, we have a backlog over a year's worth of stuff," he said. "We thought it would be great to be able to get the unsigned artists we like into the game."
While it's too early to say how much of a business this could turn into, there's apparently no lack of demand for Rock Band music content. According to the company, people have bought 50 million downloads for the game from a pool of about 530 songs.
Cirri might just have the right set of skills to turn this into a viable business. The former computer science major founded a fan site in 2006 dedicated to Guitar Hero. Originally launched as a place where he and his friends could track their high scores, ScoreHero.com became a meeting place for Guitar Hero-obsessed hackers who figured out how to create levels for songs that weren't included on the game's disc.
Back in the days before Metallica had its own version of Guitar Hero, you could poke around online and find unauthorized files that let you rock out to a hacked game level with, say, "Master of Puppets." To avoid lawsuits, Cirri banned people who uploaded copyrighted audio to his site, though bright users could figure out how to put that in on their own. Some of the hackers who congregated at ScoreHero were talented enough to land game-industry jobs.
As Guitar Hero caught on and became a blockbuster, ScoreHero's traffic soared and brought in advertising dollars. In one month, Cirri made more than he made in a year as a teaching assistant at Towson University, where he was working on a doctorate in robotics. He switched gears to focus on the site full time.
Despite the site's hacker tendencies, it has friends in high places at Harmonix, the studio that develops Rock Band. In the early days, before ScoreHero was profitable, Harmonix founder Alex Rigopulos once sent Cirri $2,000 toward a new server. In January, Harmonix flew Cirri to its headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., for a secret briefing about the new Rock Band Network service.
These days, ScoreHero gets about 10 million page views a month, or 20,000 unique visitors a day, though that figure varies widely depending on when new games are released. Traffic will probably be on the uptick soon, as a Beatles-themed version of Rock Band and the latest version of Guitar Hero are on the way for release in September.
Cirri doesn't make any claims about being a talent spotter: The main thing he and his team are looking for are tracks that'll be fun when turned into a game level. The ideal song has all four parts -- guitar, bass, drums and vocals -- and has enough variation in each to keep players from getting bored.
Cirri says it takes approximately 40 hours to give a song enough programming polish for the game. Rhythm Authors has, as of this writing, been open for less than a week, and the 10-person firm has signed up 16 bands and fielded queries from as far as Poland.
With that amount of work, who has time to fire up the Xbox? "I haven't seen him play a game in years," says his dad, Michael Cirri, who also serves as Cirri's business manager.
Cirri is far from topping the high-score charts at his own fan site these days, but every once in a while he's able to dust off the ol' plastic ax. Not long ago, he came in second at a Guitar Hero tournament thrown by a local car dealership. The prize: A real guitar, which he doesn't know how to play.