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Videogames: The New Indie Label?

Seven years ago, when *NSync's "Bye Bye Bye" ruled pop radio, if someone had predicted that I'd someday like a song by Justin Timberlake called "Sexy Back," I would've been insulted. Yet, all these years later, I do like "Sexy Back," which is either totally embarrassing or proves the following: Good music doesn't always come from where you'd expect.

Like Timberlake, videogame soundtracks have also been snubbed as a source of quality music. However, the score is changing, literally: Videogame companies are putting almost as much effort into the soundtracks as the games themselves, while musicians are realizing that there's more at stake here than an easy paycheck–people are actually listening.

My game-music epiphany came while playing Harmonix's console hit Guitar Hero 2. After shredding through Heart's "Crazy on You" for two straight hours, I decided to unlock some hidden songs. Scrolling through the options, I landed on a sludgy chunk of Electric Wizard-inspired doom metal by a band called Megasus. Their featured song, "Red Lottery," was a brilliantly desperate, gloomy dirge–the sort of thing you'd never expect to find in a videogame.

"Usually, you don't hear something that heavy in games," admits Ryan Lesser, guitarist of Megasus, and (coincidentally) Art Director at Harmonix. "The response has been amazing. [Megasus] could put together a tour based off that one song. We've all been in bands that have done things the hard way, but with Guitar Hero, we've suddenly got fans in Norway and Australia."

Videogame soundtracks have translated into a decent supplementary income for some established bands and producers, and have also proven successful at resurrecting musical careers, with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater making Chuck D a threat again and Flock of Seagulls getting a second run thanks to Grand Theft Auto. But the relative success of an underground act like Megasus hints at the potential of videogames to be a very important method of distribution for indie bands' music.

"I don't think a lot of people realize it's possible to have a small studio of hip people just making their art... and their art happens to be a videogame," says Lesser. "Two years ago, we were like, 'You know who would be perfect for Guitar Hero? The Bags." They were one of our favorite Boston bands from like 20 years ago. So we said, 'Fuck it, this is our platform! Let's put the music that we love on it.'"

Unfortunately, not all gaming companies are like Harmonix; most of the industry is still rooted in a "take the money and run" approach. "You may get a couple grand–if that–to have your song in a game, but to my knowledge, not many acts get royalties," says Ryan Rayhill, editor of the XLR8R-affiliated Phuze magazine, and a former employee of Rockstar Games. "Having music in a game could get you a little more exposure, but it doesn't have much impact on your career in most cases."

Don't tell that to the salivating wolves I saw at the Winter 2007 NAMM Show, the U.S.'s most well known conference for music-gear manufacturers and starving guitar heroes of yore. After attending a panel discussion on game-music licensing, I felt like I stepped out of a pyramid scheme seminar. You could practically see the gold in the attendees' eyes, riled up on the notion that they could make easy cash by selling material to big companies like EA.

Though videogames may not yet be small bands' instant ticket to fame and fortune, the industry is changing, and small production houses are the future. Now that videogames appeal to a wide range of customers, companies like Harmonix are able to cater to niche markets. While that doesn't mean the entire industry is going to pull a Justin Timberlake, it does afford new levels of creative freedom.

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