Can the Rock Band Network Transform the Music Industry?

Coulton performs Rock Band CoultonWhen the Rock Band Network — essentially an App Store for musicians who want to upload and sell Rock Band-playable versions of their songs — opens for business later this year, it has the potential to transform the music industry by giving musicians large and small a distribution platform on one of the few online services that’s managed to successfully monetize music downloads. If, that is, the Network can make their songs easy to find and enjoyable to play. 

The latest addition to the incredibly profitable music video game franchise from MTV/Viacom game studio Harmonix, the Rock Band Network will initially be available for the Microsoft Xbox 360 retail channel, and later for Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii. With more than 50 million purchases and counting, downloadable Rock Band songs are already an important revenue and promotion platform for the music industry. So what will happen when the Rock Band Network greatly expands the download catalog? Two leading figures working at the intersection of music and games are expressing enthusiasm for the Network, but are also sounding some cautionary notes on song deployment.

“Opening Rock Band to uploading by musicians is a key point in making the rise of music games be of benefit to all musicians,” said Nabeel Hyatt, CEO of Conduit Labs (developer of social music game Loud Croud.) Indie star Jonathan Coulton, who has two tracks in Rock Band’s current download library, including his much-loved themed to the cult video game hit Portal, says he plans to expand his offerings on the Network as soon as he can. “[M]y fans are always asking when there will be more,” Coulton told me. “This means I can put as many up there as I want.”

However, that also raises one of the Network’s biggest challenges: As more and more music is uploaded, Rock Band owners may find themselves overwhelmed by choices. “They are going to run into the same discoverability problems that we see in the iPhone App Store and saw in Tower Records,” Hyatt predicted. Coulton concurred. “Hopefully Harmonix will take a cue from all the other successful music discovery platforms and leverage the community itself, ratchet up the social networking aspect of it,” he said.

The challenge for musicians, meanwhile, will be finding indie game developers who can convert their tracks into engaging Rock Band experiences. “I don’t think it will be terribly time-consuming to get something playable,” said Coulton, “but translating good music into good gaming is a new skill, really, one that the Harmonix team has already mastered and the rest of us have never tried.”

Notwithstanding those concerns, “I do think it has the potential to be pretty transformative,” Coulton said. “Anytime you put independent musicians on the same playing field as old school superstars, interesting things start to happen.”

Photo: Coulton performing Rock Band version of Coulton’s “Still Alive” courtesy of Crashworks via Flickr.

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