DragonForce guitarist Herman Li and his speed metal bandmates used to play the video game Guitar Hero. Now, fans are flocking to the band after finding their song Through the Fire and Flames in the latest installment of the game, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.
"Our CD sales have gone up, and we are high up the charts on digital downloads," Li says. "It's great. We don't play commercial music. It took everyone by surprise."
More fans were converted last month when Ellen DeGeneres invited a young Guitar Hero expert onto her talk show to play DragonForce's song, considered to be the toughest of all songs to play. (Go to YouTube and search for "Ellen" and "guitar hero"; you can also find her playing the game herself.)
"Somehow it seems our music really connects with the younger generation, gamers and non-gamers," says Li, 29. "This is a game that is driving music sales when everybody is complaining about the video game industry taking money from movies and music."
The Guitar Hero effect is real. DragonForce saw digital sales of Through the Fire rise from fewer than 2,000 weekly to a high of 37,825 the week ending Dec. 30, a week when many who got the game as a holiday gift were playing it. (Only one GH III song sold more, Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle at 38,330.)
Also since the game came out in late October, DragonForce's album Inhuman Rampage has been atop Billboard magazine's Top Heatseekers chart four times (it dropped to No. 4 this week). Overall sales of the album have reached 230,000, much more than the 75,000 sold in the band's adopted home, the United Kingdom.
"There has been a steady buzz on the band, and you could just feel their star rising. Then (Guitar Hero III) hit, and it catapulted it to an entirely new level," says Jonas Nachsin, president of DragonForce's label, Roadrunner Records.
Two other Roadrunner artists, Slipknot and Kill Switch Engage, have seen increased sales from inclusion in the game. "You might be surprised. It's not only digital sales but significant full-length sales of CDs," Nachsin says. "Competition (to be in future games) will probably be more fierce because everyone can see what it does for a band."
Even though previous Guitar Hero games relied almost exclusively on cover versions of most songs, original artists still saw increased song sales from inclusion in Guitar Hero II, released in October 2006 for the Sony PlayStation 2 and in April 2007 for the Microsoft Xbox 360.
A look at Nielsen SoundScan data for a dozen Guitar Hero II songs found that 11 out of 12 had increased sales in 2007, including:
• Cheap Trick's Surrender nearly tripled from 58,000 digital sales in 2006 to 161,000 in 2007.
• Kiss' Strutter went from 11,000 to 63,000 sold.
• The Pretenders' Tattooed Love Boys rose from 5,000 to 16,000.
• Only Danzig's Mother showed a drop, from 28,000 to 16,000.
"A lot of it is the classic guitar-type rock stuff form the Skynyrds to the new big monster bands like Queens of the Stone Age and Wolfmother," says Mike Davis of Universal Music (Bon Jovi, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Who). "Old and new with the classic rock sound seems to be the stuff that is doing super well. … It's a pretty hot subject these days."
Rich Williams, guitarist for the classic rock band Kansas, says that after the release of Guitar Hero II, which included the band's song Carry On Wayward Son, "the front row of almost every show we did was filled with young teenagers. It's all due to that. It's brought us a whole new fan base."
Digital sales of the song rose from 119,000 in 2006 to 297,000 in 2007. "It's been a positive influence for us," he says. "It brought a younger crowd to us that otherwise might not have come in."
The Guitar Hero effect has been sharpened in Guitar Hero III, which features original artist recordings for more than three-fourths of the songs. Every GH III song tracked by Nielsen SoundScan (62 of the 70) saw an increase in digital sales during the post-holiday week, and nearly all saw boosts immediately after the game's October release.
"It's such a dark time for the record business. This is one of the bits of truly great news we've seen in a long time," says Marc Reiter of Q Prime management, whose clients Metallica, Muse and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have songs in the game.
Sales of Metallica's One increased from just more than 2,000 weekly before GH III's release to more than 6,000 in the weeks afterward and spiked at 27,605 in the post-holiday week. Muse and the Chili Peppers saw similar but more modest hikes in sales of Knights of Cydonia and Suck My Kiss.
"Those tracks didn't have any (other) activity surrounding them at the time," Reiter says. " I really do believe we have only begun to scratch the surface of the impact (video games) can have on artists and instrument sales."