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The Beatles' Rock Band: How The Fab Four Went Digital

September 04, 2009

aul DeGooyer is tired -- for good reason. It's about two weeks before the release of MTV's The Beatles: Rock Band, and DeGooyer, senior VP of electronic games and music for MTV Networks Music Group, has been traveling to New York, Boston, Los Angeles and London since 2007 to work on the project. He's conducted delicate negotiations with surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with Yoko Ono Lennon and Olivia Harrison; hammered out essential licensing deals with executives at Sony/ATV and EMI Music, which treat the Beatles catalog with almost reverent care, and overseen the development of new technologies to meet the high expectations of all involved.

"It's been a bit of a blur," he says, the fatigue obvious in his voice as he speaks from his New York office.

To all involved -- MTV, its game development subsidiary Harmonix, EMI, Sony/ATV, the remaining band members and the families of all -- the end result of all this time, effort and frustration is much more than just a videogame. It's the latest contribution to the hallowed cannon of what many consider to be the world's greatest band.

"It's really about a new way to play with the Beatles' music than it is a new Rock Band game," DeGooyer says with quiet humility. "If we did our jobs right, it is an authentic piece of the Beatles' catalog of work, and that sounds kind of crazy because it's a videogame.

This point became crystal clear to DeGooyer when, after first pitching the concept to the band and surviving family members two years ago, they insisted on including music from every stage of the Beatles' career -- something that wasn't as easy as it sounds, given the primitive way the band recorded its early work.

On "Taxman," for example, the drums and guitar were recorded on the same track. But Rock Band needs to devote a separate audio track to each instrument, so MTV had to figure out how to split those tracks into separate files in order to include the earlier songs in the game. Failure would mean losing the band's blessing -- and thus the project.

Thankfully, MTV and Harmonix were able to enlist the help of Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, who had access to the Beatles' master recordings and had just cataloged them while working on the Grammy Award-winning "Love" project for Cirque du Soleil. He developed a filtering method that split these instruments into separate tracks.

With that hurdle passed, MTV could have just plowed forward with the simple act of licensing. Instead the team brought in Martin Bandier and Peter Brodsky, Sony/ATV's CEO and executive VP of business and legal affairs, respectively; and Cynthia Sexton, executive VP of global brand partnerships at EMI, into the planning and development process along with the Apple Corps shareholders.

"While it was critical to work with Apple and the Beatles, we didn't want to take for granted the other rights holders would go along with them," DeGooyer says. "They all needed to understand exactly what we were doing and have input. When you have that many rights holders involved in a catalog, it's not obvious that their interests align at all points."

The results of this process are evident in the game. In addition to the 45 songs from the band's catalog -- more from one act than any other music-based game yet released -- the title brings a level of detail not yet seen in a music-based game. Each band member is animated in striking detail, down to the way their eyes and hair move while playing. Scenes of the Beatles' performances in Liverpool's Cavern Club and New York's Shea Stadium include the actual crowd noise from each venue. The game's re-creation of the Beatles recording in Abbey Road's famed Studio 2 includes never-before-heard banter among the band as it recorded its later work. Trivia about the act is included as unlockable bonus material, along with previously unreleased photos, audio and video.

Perhaps most remarkably, the Beatles will allow fans to buy at least a portion of their music in digital form as extra downloadable content for the game, starting with Abbey Road Oct. 20 and followed by Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Rubber Soul in November and December, respectively.

"Everyone realized doing this game was really a significant event in bringing the Beatles into the 21st century," Sony/ATV's Bandier says. "This is an enormous opportunity, because for a moment in time, it will be the only legitimate place where you can get the music in a digital form." 

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