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CES: EA, Activision Talk New Beat For Games And Music

Music games have risen to phenomenon status, but what does it mean for both games and music? Electronic Arts' Steve Schnur and Activision's Tim Riley discussed this quandary, what the Activision/Blizzard merger means to music games and more at a recent CE
What does the music game phenomenon mean for both media forms, games and music? Music games make the rock god fantasy possible -- but by making music more interactive, does that transform it into a casual game? And does it make music more valuable? At CES, EA's worldwide director of music and marketing Steve Schnur, along with Tim Riley, who plays the same tune at Activision, met in a panel moderated by Billboard's executive director of mobile and digital programming Antony Bruno to discuss these and other issues surrounding the growth of music games. Schnur got his start in marketing with MTV, and followed that path through to EA. As for Riley, he worked at big-name record labels like Geffen and Warner Bros. before landing at Activision. Music is entirely interactive to today's younger generation; they've no experience with linear media. It's something bands and artists need to take into account now when considering projects -- for example, having Slash as a boss character in Guitar Hero III introduced him to an entirely new audience of young fans. Additionally, playing with a song creates attachment between users and the music, as well as the artists creating it. So how should the music industry respond to this evolution? Riley noticed more involvement from record labels getting music into games. "The labels and the brand had an education process, coming to understand the new technology," he said. "But once they'd grasped it, even with the lead time and the multiple layers of approval, the success of the GH brand is self-explanatory. It's making money for labels and artists. The next step is to basically keep doing that. Now that they have a dedicated staff, they're really proactive on working with the franchise." "I think what's next is a 24/7 interactive experience," projected Schnur. "The experience of the future is going to be about bringing music to the consumer and letting them interact with it any way that they want to." Schnur explained that music labels are understanding that the terms that are being dictated to them from the consumer are all about interactivity and choice. The more that content makers allow hardware and software makers to involve them in the creation experience, the more revenue they'll generate. Bruno asked the panelists about the lessons they've learned since arriving on the games side of things, and which of those they think should be strongly conveyed to the labels. Schnur thinks the music industry ought to ape the way the games industry prioritizes consumer feedback. "The games industry has always been about what the consumer wants to do, about how they want to use the media. It's all about how gamers want to play." He's saddened by labels trying to control distribution and experiences for the consumer, and advocates creating a consumer-driven environment, an area where he feels the game industry excels. "If gamers wanted nothing but black and white games, we'd make them," he says. Riley has much the same idea. "Don't fight unwinnable fights," he advises, painting a picture of the industry he knew of. To him, by contrast, games are more "forward-thinking," an "ever-evolving business." From Activision's perspective, how does its recent merger with Blizzard -- and, by proxy, Universal Music Group -- affect how it approaches Guitar Hero? Replied Riley, "It's all very new. We're very happy with the state of things, but every label will get the same kind of treatment -- it's not a Vivendi-Universal-specific experience. The industry as a whole is now experiencing music as a more important element." The games industry has gotten consumers to do something that the music industry has struggled with -- that is, buying individual songs as playable levels. Can those same consumers be encouraged to buy songs just for listening to? "These downloads aren't going to compete with folks like Apple," Riley said. "We're an additional revenue stream. But wouldn't it be great to download a song while you're playing Tony Hawk?" Riley says they're definitely considering that type of idea, but that there are many issues to work through. Does working through digital rights management issues with Guitar Hero clear any obstacles, or is that a separate experience? Schnur thinks it'll continue moving forward in a big way "in the very near future." He continued, "In a consumer-driven medium, what gamers want is completely customizable situations. There needs to be a seamless experience that will allow them to get what they want. A lot of indie labels might jump on this before bigger labels." As Bruno pointed out, there are still more barriers to bring down. With that in mind, what do Schnur and Riley hope to see going forward into 2008? Said Schnur, referencing newly announced Nettwerk/EA music firm Artwerk, and which runs alongside existing EA Trax licensing: "The goal was to create a new company-within-a-company that would deal with bands directly, and that was the big news for last year. We're now launching artists on new careers, iPod commercials, car commercials, big album launches. Most artists are gamers, too, and it's been a great experience to be an alternative to the normal distribution channels." For Riley, Guitar Hero is a full-time job in and of itself. "I'm looking to get great music into games, that's the bottom line," he added. "The more creative stuff you can imagine, the more you get to do. Getting musicians into the studios for new experiences is going to be a focus."

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