Interview with Raymond Herrera of Alt-Strum Productions: Rock Band Needs Rock Bands

Raymond Herrera is best known as the drummer for metal bands Fear Factory (though not in its current incarnation) and Arkaea, but he’s been involved in video game music for years through his company 3volution. After reading that Rock Band was opening up the software required to get music in their video game, Herrera checked in to see who could do it for his music.

It took a while, but eventually he found a match with Alt-Strum Productions—such a match that he was hired by them to work the idea to record labels and publishing companies. As one of the “aggregators”—independent companies that take care of the encoding of songs for the Rock Band Network—Alt-Strum sees itself as the premiere company among the pack due to not only their track record of songs already on the network but also Herrera and his long-standing relationships in the music and video game businesses.

Herrera talks about the unusual margins in the business of Rock Band, the format’s relative infancy but proven success breaking bands, and some of the ins, outs, and costs associated with it.

Give me an idea of what you’re doing.

Essentially, my title is Business Development. One of the main things we needed to do was get a proper contract in place that had verbage for the music industry so that publishers and record labels actually understand what’s going on and how this is going to work out.

The biggest push back that we’ve gotten is the fact that labels are already very pissed that they have to pay out 30 percent to iTunes because they’re the highest aggregator as far as digital distribution. Technically, Rock Band Network isn’t digital distribution, because it’s a whole different entity. It’s New New Media. The biggest hurdle is trying to get them to agree to the 70 percent that Harmonix and EA and MTV Games is taking. That’s a huge chunk.

So companies like Alt-Strum and any other companies doing authoring and charting for bands, all of those proceeds have to be taken out of that 30 percent or charge an upfront fee. What we’re doing now is figure out a way where the bands are happy, the labels are happy, the publishers are happy, and we still have a cut to justify the work we’re doing.

There was a lot of out of the box thinking. I’ve been in the music industry for over 15 years so I understand the way that world works. I’ve been in video game music licensing since ’95, so I’ve been doing that almost 15 years as well, so I understand both sides of it. And one of the other reasons why it was good for Alt-Strum is I’m close with Harmonix. I’ve done business with them in the past. I worked with them on a game called Frequency that came out in ’98 or something, one of their first projects. We wrote the song called ‘Frequency’ with Fear Factory. So we’re one of the few companies that actually work directly with Harmonix. It’s almost like being a consultant on the other side.

It seems the majority of what kids want to do is play Foghat or old ‘70s riffs. Is there an interest in wanting to play new bands? Or is there a possibility of breaking a band via this medium by paying $3 to play the song?

The answer is yes. There’s already a proof of concept. Dragonforce were doing alright, maybe 1,500 to 2,000 records a week. Their song was the last song, the ‘boss’ song if you want to call it, on Guitar Hero. That became a huge track. Everybody was trying to see if they could play that song on expert. A year later, the band goes gold. The only way to answer that, the only reason why that happened, was because of the game. I remember going to a couple of shows and I would nonchalantly ask people ‘How did you hear of this band?’ and sure enough it was Guitar Hero.

If you look at what the highest downloads are, it’s all across the board. Some of the emo stuff is taking off, some of the newer bands you’ve never heard of, they’ve got 100,000 downloads. The most telling thing is at the beginning of the year, they’ had almost 600 songs available for download, and they got to $60 million, roughly 20 million downloads.

But one of the other issues is, if you wanted to get your song onto Rock Band and the Rock Band Network didn’t exist, if you got approved, it’s between six to 12 months out. To get a song charted could take 50 hours, it could take 100 hours, depending on how hard the song is.

From the aggregator standpoint, there’s an eight-step process to get this done. One of the things that Alt-Strum have going for us is we already have songs that have charted and been approved and are already up and have been up on the betas. I found that there are other aggregators, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll get your music up. People have the misconception that ‘Oh, well, we’re going to do this deal and only get up there for $500.’ And they find out that the charting wasn’t done right and it didn’t even get approved and essentially nothing’s going to happen. There are a lot of companies out there, but not too many people understand the nuts and bolts of how to get it up there.

Just to clarify the lingo, by charting it, you mean actually setting up the song.

I’ve heard the word charting, and I’ve heard the word authoring. It’s essentially taking the song, doing the coding that needs to be done to making playable within the game. I don’t know what the proper term is, that’s how new this is (laughs).

Is this a version of sheet music? There is drum tab, guitar tab—why is this authoring or charting process so markedly different than that?

For instance, sheet music, I have friends that can bust that out in an hour. But this, it’s a different set of tools. You also have to do it four or five times, because you have your different difficulties. So you’ve got to do a version that’s easy, and obviously it gets more difficult. But the tools themselves are not the easiest thing in the world. They’re even going to start teaching classes on how to do this. The School For Music in Hollywood is going to have a class in how to do this stuff.

It also hasn’t been perfected yet. Take recording a record. I remember when we started using ProTools halfway through our third record. Man, it took forever even to do nudging on ProTools. For one song, it took you like a day. Eventually, it’s gotten to the point where you hit one button and it lines up all your kicks and all your notes on the right beats. But that took some time.

So in the long term, do you see these costs changing?

Oh yeah. It’s funny because I’ve talked to the Harmonix guys a couple of times like, ‘Look, this 70-30 business is killing everybody. This is what labels are used to paying, and you guys are more than double that.’ I understand. This is software they created, it’s on their intellectual property. I understand the investment put in, but it’s what the market will bear.

It’s just like the mid-‘90s, when licensing music for video games was unheard of because the budgets weren’t there, and record labels were used to getting $40-60,000 for a song in a movie and they’re saying ‘Why can’t we get the same for a video game? We don’t want to do it.’ They thought they were getting screwed over. By ’98, ’99, every band had music in a video game and it became its own industry.

Just like with this, there’s such a learning curve not only from the music industry but also from the video game publisher and developer standpoint, where this is new for them too. It was a pretty ambitious idea to make the software available for anybody to upload music to it. That’s a forward-thinking idea in itself. Who knows where this is all going to settle? We’ll see how it goes, but there’s definitely some room to play with on the 70 percent side where it would still be worthwhile for all the parties.

Some of the smaller bands who own their own publishing or other bands who aren’t signed yet and have their master recordings, it’s not that bad of a deal. But when you’ve got a publisher, record label, and band, and you’re splitting the pie even more, that’s when we’re running into an issue.

As far as the publishing, does this count as a public performance or a private performance?

By default, I think it would be public. I know of a lot of places where they have Rock Band and it’s almost become like karaoke. That line has been blurred because of the multi-player aspect. Rock Band really blew that wide open by having a full band.

The interesting thing from a contractual standpoint is that nobody has a boilerplate. Publishers and labels don’t have a boilerplate for something like this because it’s different. It’s not licensing the song to a video game anymore; this has become a different thing.

It doesn’t compete with anything. It doesn’t compete with an album—if you want to listen to it, you’ve got to be playing the game. It doesn’t compete with a concert. I don’t feel threatened as a musician as in this is going to take away from sales or get in the way of merchandising. Unlike other things where it steps on toes, this really doesn’t. If anything, it’s shown that it actually enhances sales. That becomes the biggest argument. It’s a marketing tool that you’re getting paid for.

There’s some sort of metal preference that’s built into the game, and you as a guy in a metal band are a good pitchman for it. Are you aiming in the metal direction?

Yes, I am aiming in the metal direction, and the reason people want to play it is they want to see what the hardest thing is out there. The Dragonforce song is testament to what people want. ‘Man, how hard is that song? I want to try it.’ The nature of video games is ‘How can I beat this?’ It’s the challenge. Naturally, it’s metal. Most people want to play something that’s really hard to play, and when you think metal bands, you think that’s going to be the hardest thing to play. Sometimes it really isn’t, sometimes it’s the lighter things you would never think of that are difficult to play. I think people mainly want to download sing-a-longs, obviously catchy stuff, but also the difficult songs to play.

For a band to get a song on, what is the actual cost breakdown?

I’ve heard anywhere from $500 even as high as $10,000. We don’t like to quote prices up front. I can give you a ballpark figure, but it really comes down to hearing the song, hearing how much work is going to have to go into it, and then we can quote a real price. That’s what we are doing thus far.

At the beginning, we started throwing numbers out, and we got the tunes and were like ‘This really isn’t going to be that hard, we don’t want to charge the band that much,’ or we quoted way too low and then the band gets pissed off. We want to be able to quote it once we get the song. Then we go from there. A lot of bands, even some of the signed bands, they don’t want to pay the upfront. They’re taking a wait and see approach, even some of the bigger labels.

We know it’s a pretty pricey thing. So a lot of bands aren’t going to be able to pay that, and that’s why we’re willing to do these back end deals. We’ll do it free of charge, take something on the back end, and it’s no money out of their pocket. Essentially, they get paid for doing nothing.