Outtake from ‘This Video Game Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar’ #2: Licensing music for Rocksmith


Note: this is an outtake from a longer story for Backchannel, This Video Game Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar, published on 4 May 2015. This outtake concerns the complicated process whereby Rocksmith 2014 game developer Ubisoft licenses popular music for guitarists to learn in-game.


In order to appeal to a mass market, music game creators rely on acquiring permission to use popular songs for players to imitate on-screen. This was the formula that had worked so well for the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band; both games would have been considerably less attractive if their setlists were stocked with the efforts of little-known bands or, even worse, original music written by the game developers.

In this respect, Rocksmith was no different: from the beginning, Ubisoft placed heavy emphasis on licensing well-known artists and songs in order to appeal to as many people as possible. The first game launched with 51 songs on-disc, including tracks by Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, David Bowie and Soundgarden. Its total library since the release of Rocksmith 2014 has recently surpassed 500 songs, and its number of total arrangements is nearly triple that number, given that most tracks can be played on lead, rhythm and bass guitar.

The process to license these songs from the artists so that Brian McCune and his fellow note-trackers can get to work, however, is rarely short or straightforward. Navigating the music publishing business is a complicated beast at the best of times, and Ubisoft is no stranger to this unfortunate reality. It starts with Cross and his team choosing tracks that they think would work for the game. Importantly for the on-disc songs, these had to be arrangements which would still be engaging and interesting to players on the fifth or sixth run-through. It becomes a question, says Cross, of “which songs do you start skipping because you’re like, ‘Oh god, that voice is annoying now’? Which has happened; there were a few tracks that didn’t make it, even though the guitar riffs are pretty cool, but you don’t want to keep hearing it.”

Ubisoft’s music licensing department is then charged with establishing the owners of each song. There are always at least two owners, often including the master owner, the performance owner, and the publisher. Within each of these groups may be multiple individuals, some of whom may no longer walk the earth, yet every single person who owns a portion of the intellectual property has to give their approval before a song can be used. Cross cites the example of ‘Angela’ by British artist Jarvis Cocker, which was an on-disc track in Rocksmith. “The track wasn’t clearing,” he recalls. “The final 2% of the master side hadn’t cleared yet. What happened was, the person who performed and owned that 2% had actually passed away, and now they didn’t know who owned it. So they were trying to track it down and figure it out, to find someone who was then going to go, ‘I didn’t even know I owned this! Sure, yeah, okay!’”

Conversely, and frustratingly, that minor owner still had the power to veto the track from being licensed. This seems to be a common enough experience within the world of Rocksmith’s labyrinthine music licensing process that Cross winces as he says, “Many of the artists we haven’t featured yet, sometimes we’ve have 70, 80, 90% of it cleared — and then one guy, somewhere, because he either wants a lot more money, is spiteful, doesn’t like video games, or just isn’t interested — pick a reason — says ‘no’, and that sinks the whole thing.”

McCune turns to Cross and says, “Sometimes I think not even getting a response at all is worse than that,” which prompts the pair to revisit the drawn-out process of how they eventually secured music by one of the biggest — and most obvious — modern guitar heroes: Tom Morello. “Rage Against The Machine, man,” says Cross, with a twinge of exasperation. “We requested them for Rocksmith, back in 2009 or 2010. It took years. They never denied; they just didn’t get back to us.” He can laugh about it now, since they released a seven-song DLC pack in December 2014. (I purchased it immediately, and love it dearly.)

Once Ubisoft’s music licensing department gets clearance on both sides, however, it’s a “high-five moment”, and the team begins gathering the assets, including the master audio, album art and official lyrics (which appear on-screen above the virtual guitar neck). Then it’s up to McCune and his merry band of note-trackers to work their magic, unlocking the four- and six-string secrets of each song so that players around the world can add it to their repertoire if so inclined.

There are gaping holes in the game’s library, naturally. Every week, as the team announces the new DLC on their social media accounts, fans inevitably request music by several enormously popular rock bands, a short list which usually includes the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Metallica, Pink Floyd and Guns N’ Roses. The game’s Facebook page has an app which allows players to formally suggest songs to Ubisoft; in the year leading up to June 2014, the app yielded nearly 20,000 song suggestions by over 4,000 artists. An infographic published by the San Francisco studio shows that every single one of the top 40 most requested artists has been contacted, and that the shortest time from request to clearance was three months.

“It’s not like we’re not desperately trying, either,” says Cross with a bemused look when I mention a couple of the missing big-name artists. “The sad reality is it’s not even necessarily a matter of money. We’ve had those conversations: ‘Well, what would it take?’ Do you throw money at the problem? It’s not even the solution, as a lot of the time they don’t want to, or they’ve got ties with other people; Metallica have very strong ties with Guitar Hero, and with [rival publisher] Activision, so maybe that just won’t happen… this week,” he says with a laugh. But the team has learned to never say ‘never’, as they managed to land a major coup in time for Christmas 2014 by offering their biggest-ever pack of 12 songs by a famous guitarist who had been at the top of their list for as long as the game has been in development: Jimi Hendrix.


Click here to read the full story for Backchannel, This Video Game Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar, published on 4 May 2015.

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