DENVER (Billboard) - The emerging effort to use videogames as a channel for selling music is entering its next phase with the recent release of "Grand Theft Auto IV."
Phase I has proved a phenomenal success, with "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero III" selling millions of songs through their respective platforms. But it has been a limited victory.
Both are music-based rhythm games that use master recordings and cover songs to let gamers "play" along to the tunes using special controllers shaped like musical instruments. Purchased songs can be used only as elements of the game itself. They can't be transferred to an MP3 player or stored in users' digital music libraries.
But "Grand Theft Auto IV" includes a feature that lets players tag any song in the soundtrack in order to receive more information about the title and artist, as well as store tagged tracks in a custom playlist on the Amazon digital music store for later purchase.
"GTA IV" is not a rhythm game. It's a story-driven interactive "film" with plenty of side missions that add up to 100 hours of gameplay and features a soundtrack of more than 200 songs -- the largest in videogame history.
It's been well established how TV shows, ads and videogames are growing areas of music discovery and promotion. But until "GTA IV," there's been no construct that allows for the immediate identification and purchase of those songs from videogames. "GTA IV" has added that "buy" button, and record labels welcome the innovation.
"It's a very big deal for us," says Cynthia Sexton, senior vice president of marketing and licensing for EMI Music North America. "We're continually looking for new ways to sell our music. There are millions of people buying 'Grand Theft Auto,' and we hope they will enjoy the music and in turn buy those tracks."
With this in mind, the music industry could have no better ally than Rockstar. The outfit is one of the few game developers that actually creates and licenses its own soundtracks -- a task often left to the game publisher -- and the company approaches it with a passion close to music-geek-like obsession.
Consider the back story on how the 1979 cult classic "Walk the Night" by the Skatt Bros. came to appear on the soundtrack. Skatt Bros. member Sean Delaney -- also known as the "fifth member of Kiss" for his writing and production work with the rock band -- died in 2003, leaving his publishing share to a brother, a sister and a nephew living somewhere in Utah. They proved so hard to find that Rockstar went through the trouble of hiring a private investigator who flew to Orum, Utah, to locate them.
"It was just one of those songs we just couldn't let go of," Rockstar music supervisor Ivan Pavlovich says. "It fit the game perfectly, so we were obviously determined to track them down."
It is this resolve to create the best entertainment experience for its fans -- postponing the game's release by almost six months because of quality concerns, weathering persistent criticism from politicians over the game's violent content and fighting a hostile takeover bid for parent company Take-Two Interactive from Electronic Arts -- that has earned Rockstar and the "GTA" franchise a rabidly loyal following within the gaming community. As a result, the company may be the ultimate tastemaker for the hardcore gamer set.
"The 'GTA' developers have gotten a really good reputation for having really good taste because of the choices they've made," GameSpot editor Ricardo Torres says. "They're really focused on the quality of the experience for the player ... (so) there's a lot of anticipation to see what they've deemed as cool enough to include in the new 'GTA.' "
The soundtrack is dominated by the kind of obscure tracks only the hippest DJs know to spin, many of which may find new sales life as a result of Rockstar's partnership with Amazon. According to Pavlovich, the Amazon music service didn't even have 40 percent of the soundtrack in its inventory when the deal was made. Rockstar gathered the product from its many licensees so the store could be fully stocked by launch. This separates "GTA IV" from other videogame franchises like the "Madden" football series or "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band." These are more casual games generally featuring mainstream hits with the occasional emerging act thrown in.
"That's fine for the masses," Torres says. "But when you're dealing with a finicky crowd like gamers, it has to be really cool and really different."