May 2009

High-End Audio: The Video Game

I was at a local store shopping for a computer mouse when I heard the faint opening bars of the Eagles' "Hotel California" come from somewhere nearby. Anyone who was a teenager in the late 1970s recognizes that combination of notes immediately. But what I heard wasn't from the original song. It was electronic and homogenized, lacking in most of what made the opening so famous. Then I heard two excited voices coming from the same direction. I walked to the end of the isle and saw the source of the music and whooping: a pair of 20-something guys were playing Guitar Hero II, following the Eagles' licks on a toy guitar to the adulation of the computerized audience.

Guitar Hero and its main competitor, Rock Band, are a true phenomenon in video gaming. Guitar Hero was released in 2005 for the holiday season and promptly sold 1.5 million copies. A year later came Guitar Hero II, selling 4 million copies. In 2007, Rock Band was introduced. It added to the fun by rounding out the band with bass, vocals and drums. Then came Guitar Hero: Aerosmith in 2008, followed by Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour later that year. Guitar Hero: Metallica was released earlier this year, with a Beatles-inspired version of Rock Band due later on.

There are differences between the two games. Guitar Hero allows you to become the electronic equivalent of your favorite rock star, while with Rock Band you to create your own rock star and live the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll dream virtually. Both require that the consumer purchase songs online to play with the games, each costing about $2.

From what I could immediately see, there are many similarities between playing these games and experiencing high-end audio, the most apparent and important of which is participation. How you participate in Guitar Hero II is obvious, having less to do with any musical talent than the simple dexterity needed to follow onscreen cues. With high-end audio, there are social and individual ways to participate. Audiophiles commingle online and at consumer-oriented shows, prompting friends and family to join in their world. More important, however, they participate by listening intently and actively, proving that this is a meaningful part of the seemingly simple act of playing recorded music.

A few years ago, the advent of the iPod was considered a noteworthy event for high-end audio. It signaled that young people were becoming more interested in music, so the reasoning went, because so many million of them were buying iPods. This could only be good for the present and future of the audio industry. Some of those young people did graduate from iPods to bigger and better things: real audio systems, some with turntables. Vinyl is the iPod of 2009 on a much, much smaller scale: the coolest way to play music right now. However, vinyl has a history that a nearly throwaway electronic item like the iPod can only hope for. In a few years, I'm sure those early iPods will be selling at garage sales for little more than beat-up records.

In fact, the iPod has already moved on from its audio-only roots -- to video and the interactivity of the iPhone -- but the audio industry still has Guitar Hero and Rock Band as its next great hope for connecting with mainstream consumers. How does the audio industry translate the interest of those of two guys playing Guitar Hero II into money leaving their pockets for new amplifiers and CD players? It's a stretch to think that those dots connect, but here's some food for thought. Songs available for Guitar Hero and Rock Band almost always lead to increased sales for the work of the actual artists. It has been reported that Weezer's 1994 song "My Name is Jonas" experienced a tenfold increase in its online sales after it was featured in Guitar Hero. Rock Band's library is at over 500 songs, and there have been 28 million downloads so far.

What do all of these numbers mean for high-end audio? Beats me. But if I were an audio manufacturer, I would feel encouraged by the fact that participation with music, even via a video game, seems to be a trend that's here to stay. A swelling of the audiophile ranks from the gaming world would be a dream come true. There's plenty of room at the Hotel California.

...Marc Mickelson