Measuring The “Guitar Hero” Effect With A Faulty Ruler
What with video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band becoming higher-profile vehicles for rock bands to hawk their wares than old-fashioned music-centric venues like radio, the effects of the games’ song choices are of keen interest to music-industry observers. So last week Ars Technica did up a graph showing that certain songs featured in Guitar Hero 3–including Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” and the Strokes’ “Reptilia”–saw large sales jumps, percentage-wise, after the game hit store shelves. Quoth Ars: “The week GH III was released, ‘Reptilia’ sold 127 percent more digital copies than it had the week before. The following week saw another 96 percent jump in sales. That number stayed high the next week as well, as the song saw a modest 3 precent [sic] increase.” All well and good, but it’s hard to figure out just what, exactly, these sales increases actually mean, given that the numbers Ars threw around were percentages and not hard totals. That 127% gain for “Reptilia” would have meant a lot more if it had sold, say, 3,500 copies in the pre-GH week than, say, 1,000 or so. Ars’ graph after the jump.
Looks pretty, no? But a glance at SoundScan’s most recent Digital Tracks chart shows that none of these songs–not even the Beasties’ “Sabotage,” arguably the most well-known of the songs cited here (hence its less impressive percentage gain)–have broken the 6,100-sold mark that would have landed them in the top 200. In contrast, slots 127-152 of the digital-track charts from last week were taken up by the songs that make up TuneCore’s 34 Stars, an album that was given away by the digital distributor as a way to show off the artists whose wares it hawks; each song was downloaded legally about 7,500 times, a total that would also put the album somewhere around No. 129.
There’s certainly a story to be told about Guitar Hero and its effects on the dissemination of music, particularly for less-well-known bands like The Sleeping, whose song is actually a bonus track. But the unclear statistics and seemingly random song choices make it unclear what, exactly, Ars is trying to prove with this graph–and why, for a site that’s so pro-filesharing all the time, the site relies on the old-model saw of sales to make whatever point it’s trying to make. Surely BigChampagne’s statistics would be more in tune with the free-music-at-all-costs demographic that Ars usually caters to? Especially since an album of no-cost tracks by new artists like A Place To Bury Strangers, Care Bears On Fire, and, uh, Izzy Stradlin demolished the GHIII tracks, and the advantage wasn’t gained from placement on a video game (or attendant iTunes playlist); it was the fact that the songs were free.