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Beatles playing for keeps with "Rock Band" game

 Ringo Starr (L) and Paul McCartney, of The Beatles, introduce the new video game
Ringo Starr (L) and Paul McCartney, of The Beatles, introduce the new video game 'The Beatles: Rock Band' at the Microsoft XBox 360 E3 2009 media briefing in Los Angeles June 1, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser
— image credit: Reuters

By Antony Bruno

DENVER (Billboard) - Paul DeGooyer is tired -- for good reason. It's about two weeks before the September 9 release of MTV's "The Beatles: Rock Band," and DeGooyer, senior vice president of electronic games and music for MTV Networks Music Group, has been traveling to New York, Boston, Los Angeles and London since 2007 to work on the project.

He's conducted delicate negotiations with surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with Yoko Ono Lennon and Olivia Harrison; hammered out essential licensing deals with executives at Sony/ATV and EMI Music, which treat the Beatles catalog with almost reverent care, and overseen the development of new technologies to meet the high expectations of all involved.

"It's been a bit of a blur," he says, the fatigue obvious in his voice as he speaks from his New York office.

To all involved -- MTV, its game development subsidiary Harmonix, EMI, Sony/ATV, the remaining band members and the families of all -- the result of all this time, effort and frustration is much more than just a videogame. It's the latest contribution to the hallowed canon of what many consider the world's greatest band.

"It's really about a new way to play with the Beatles' music than it is a new 'Rock Band' game," DeGooyer says with quiet humility. "If we did our jobs right, it is an authentic piece of the Beatles' catalog of work, and that sounds kind of crazy because it's a videogame."

This point became crystal clear to DeGooyer when, after first pitching the concept to the band and surviving family members two years ago, they insisted on including music from every stage of the Beatles' career -- something that wasn't as easy as it sounds, given the primitive way the band recorded its early work.

On "Taxman," for example, the drums and guitar were recorded on the same track. But "Rock Band" needs to devote a separate audio track to each instrument, so MTV had to figure out how to split those tracks into separate files in order to include the earlier songs in the game. Failure would mean losing the band's blessing -- and thus the project.

ALL TOGETHER NOW

Thankfully, MTV and Harmonix were able to enlist the help of Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, who had access to the Beatles' master recordings and had just cataloged them while working on the Grammy Award-winning "Love" project for Cirque du Soleil. He developed a filtering method that split the instruments into separate tracks.

With that hurdle passed, MTV could have just plowed forward with the simple act of licensing. Instead the team brought in Martin Bandier and Peter Brodsky, Sony/ATV's CEO and executive vice president of business and legal affairs, respectively; and Cynthia Sexton, executive VP of global brand partnerships at EMI, into the planning and development process along with the Apple Corps shareholders.

"While it was critical to work with Apple and the Beatles, we didn't want to take for granted the other rights holders would go along with them," DeGooyer says. "They all needed to understand exactly what we were doing and have input. When you have that many rights holders involved in a catalog, it's not obvious that their interests align at all points."

The results of this process are evident in the game. In addition to the 45 songs from the band's catalog -- more from one act than any other music-based game yet released -- the title brings a level of detail not yet seen in a music-based game. Each band member is animated in striking detail, down to the way their eyes and hair move while playing. Scenes of the Beatles' performances in Liverpool's Cavern Club and New York's Shea Stadium include the actual crowd noise from each venue. The game's re-creation of the Beatles recording in Abbey Road's famed Studio 2 includes never-before-heard banter among the band as it recorded its later work. Trivia about the act is included as bonus material, along with previously unreleased photos, audio and video.

Perhaps most remarkably, the Beatles will allow fans to buy at least a portion of their music in digital form as extra downloadable content for the game, starting with "Abbey Road" October 20 and followed by "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Rubber Soul" in November and December, respectively.

"Everyone realized doing this game was really a significant event in bringing the Beatles into the 21st century," Sony/ATV's Bandier says. "This is an enormous opportunity, because for a moment in time, it will be the only legitimate place where you can get the music in a digital form."

THAT'S WHAT I WANT

Legacy aside, the Beatles hope the game will generate profits for them as well. The band will make money on the music included in the game, but also on their likenesses and for the downloadable music being made available later.

The many versions of the game include a $250 deluxe edition with plastic signed replicas of McCartney's Hofner bass guitar and Starr's Ludwig drums (George Harrison's Gretsch Duo Jet and John Lennon's Rickenbacker will be sold separately for $100 each). The $160 "value" package includes basic "Rock Band" instruments. There's also a $60 disc-only version for consumers who have existing "Rock Band" or "Guitar Hero" instruments.

Sales expectations are high. Wedbush Morgan Securities videogame analyst Michael Pachter estimates the game will sell 5 million copies by year's end, with the disc-only version moving 3.5 million and the deluxe and standard versions selling 1.5 million between them.

For the Beatles, the biggest upside comes from sales of the deluxe version. MTV won't make much money on that package, but the company enjoys healthy margins on the disc-only version, as well as downloadable content. There isn't a shortage of speculation about how much MTV paid for the rights to the Beatles catalog, but sources say the design and motion-capture work was just as expensive as the licensing costs in the eight-figure budget.

Without directly addressing the game's costs, MTV's DeGooyer says the deal is structured so both parties stand to profit.

"The deal was carefully constructed as a partnership with the Beatles and Apple Corps," he says, "and that's borne out in both the creative of the game as well as the business deal behind it."

MTV hopes the game will drive subsequent sales of downloadable Beatles content and convert Beatles buyers to the "Rock Band" franchise. Beatles content won't be available for existing versions of "Rock Band," nor will "Rock Band" music be playable on the Beatles game. But the plastic instruments that come with the Beatles game will work with other versions of "Rock Band."

Each downloadable Beatles album will cost $17, with individual songs going for $2. MTV typically keeps about 70 percent of the price of downloadable content purchased through "Rock Band." Although the Beatles are believed to have received a better deal, this is still a very profitable business.

The entire music-game category has suffered a 46 percent decline in year-over-year revenue through July of this year, according to market research company NPD Group, causing some to question whether music games are just a passing fad. But much of this decline is due to sales migrating from expensive first-time hardware purchases to software sales that consist of new music, either in the form of downloadable content or expansion discs. And NPD's figures don't include the revenue made from downloadable content.

GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE

The future of music games depends on attracting newcomers, which is why the Beatles game is so important to MTV.

"It has to be for older people," Wedbush Morgan's Pachter says. "They're sitting around waiting for something to come along that appeals to them. So they're 40-something people that have looked at 'Guitar Hero' but are not sure why they want to learn Aerosmith or Metallica songs. They see this and think, 'I can get into this.'"

The game's developers went to great lengths to appeal to this demographic by removing many of the "game" elements from the Beatles title. While "Rock Band" has players earning points for accuracy and being rewarded with virtual money to spend on such band essentials as a van or instruments, the Beatles game is fully experiential. There's no "goal" or "boss" or points. You just play.

The Beatles music should attract new gamers, and the way the band used the title to tell its story could inspire other artists to get creative in this new medium. From their formation in 1960 (after several years as the Quarrymen) to their 1970 breakup, the Beatles always experimented with whatever medium was driving rock music at the time. Their rise to fame was driven by concerts, their greatest success came from studio albums. And now, despite having skipped digital downloading, the Fab Four stand poised to master yet another format -- interactive media.

"I look at the musical landscape and say, 'There's the Beatles and everybody else,'" Bandier says. "I don't think you can find another artist that you can use a chronology of their life and events in the same way."

Even so, the Beatles will almost certainly embolden other bands to take the plunge into the world of gaming. Pearl Jam plans to release its new album as downloadable "Rock Band" content the same day it arrives in stores. The new Rock Band Network allows any band to create and sell music as it likes through MTV's system.

"It would be great if people look at this a year from now and say, 'I want to play my favorite song in this format,'" DeGooyer says. "And chances are, a lot of people's favorite songs will be on the 'Rock Band' platform."

(Editing by SheriLinden at Reuters)

(please visit our entertainment blog via www.reuters.com or on http://blogs.reuters.com/fanfare/)

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