If you make a process easy enough, you can change the world. MP3 made it easy to share sounds. The Web made it easy to self-publish. And in 1995, two MIT graduates set out to make music-making easy enough for everyone, launching Harmonix.
Harmonix's Guitar Hero and Rock Band games succeeded wildly. Millions of people now flail happily on plastic guitar and drum controllers, and I'll bet many of them advance to more complex and expressive instruments. The latest version of Rock Band includes a drum trainer mode to help you build transportable music skills.
Rock Band's Beatles-inspired bass controller features five color-coded buttons mapped to the cascading notes on the game screen.
In the games, you play along with familiar songs, but in a clever nod to self-publishing, Harmonix is now opening song-creation to everyone by releasing its developer tools. Interestingly, the centerpiece is the shareware Reaper DAW, equipped with some custom plugins. More interestingly, as I discovered when I interviewed Harmonix for the MIDI Manufacturers Association site ("The Rock Band Network and MIDI: Get Your Music In The Game"), plain ol' MIDI is what synchronizes the music and animations.
Here's a video that shows how the publishing process works. (I focus more on the authoring side in my article.) If you look past the hype, you'll see several modern ideas in digital distribution:
- The process is based on commonly available tools.
- Products (songs) are vetted through peer review.
- The publisher acts as a distributor rather than an editor or gatekeeper.
- The song price is low enough ($1–3) to make it an impulse buy.
- The artist keeps an unusually large percentage of the profits (30%).
It will be fascinating to see where this leads. The authoring process is actually quite complex, but already dozens of companies have sprung up to make it easier for artists — a sign of a promising ecosystem.