It says something pretty significant when some of the most exciting and promising innovations in the music business are coming straight out of the videogames industry.
On one side, there are the clunking corporate dinosaurs like EMI, which continues to flounder in a post-iPod world, its business precariously reliant on the latest dinner party vacuity from a whiny pseud who likes to scrawl embarrassing slogans on the back of his hand.
On the other, foreign bands can now crack America simply on the strength of featuring on the soundtrack to a top-selling sports game. And established acts are discovering a new lease of life through the medium. Take living-dead shame heroes Motley Crue, whose last single was released simultaneously on iTunes and Rock Band via Xbox Live. It sold five times more copies on the latter.
Meanwhile, Activision is soon to release Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, billed as an interactive history of the pickled cock-rockers, that lets you jam through the key moments of their career complete with biographical insight along the way.
The phenomenon - and make no mistake, that's precisely what it is - of Guitar Hero has started a chain reaction whose next stage, Rock Band, is a game that can turn the musically illiterate into a swaggering fantasy covers band in seconds.
Eurogamer has journeyed to Neversoft in California to witness first-hand what promises to be the next major step forward in Guitar Hero: World Tour. With its drums, guitars and mic set-up, a casual observer could be forgiven for dismissing it as little more than a tribute act itself, Bjorn Again to Rock Band's Abba, if you will. This would be a grave mistake.
You'll likely know the basics already - aping Rock Band's classic four-piece structure, World Tour is attempting to usurp Harmonix' stadium filler with the promise of major innovation in both hardware and software.
The drums seem as good a place as any to start; and here we have a classic chicken and egg situation. As far as consumers are concerned, Rock Band did drums first. But the original Guitar Hero was the result of the fertile union of rhythm-action specialist Harmonix and peripherals master RedOctane.
Harmonix, of course, was swallowed by MTV and went on to create Rock Band. But, according to Neversoft, the die was already cast.
"A few years ago there was this whole Drum Hero/Drum Villain rumour out there," director Brian Bright notes. "Well that wasn't just a rumour. We were working on a drum game about two years ago - but we weren't ready."
Even though RedOctane already had prototypes knocking around, the Tony Hawk studio wasn't ready simply because it had to create Guitar Hero III from scratch in under ten months. And while it's late to the party. Neversoft reckons World Tour's drums are far closer to the real thing.
"It's less about what Harmonix were doing and more about getting input from real drummers," Bright states. "I want to cross over my cymbals; I want to hit some elevation changes. That was key in coming up with the design: let's make it the way it should be."
To Neversoft that means: three coloured pads (red, blue and green), two raised cymbals and a kick pedal; wireless connectivity; softer, velocity-sensitive pads; and a one-piece collapsible stand for ease of storage.
We huddle round as the in-house drumming pro (incidentally also the resident Tony Hawk master) goes hell for leather on a Foo Fighters song on Expert. It's breathtaking to watch. Rather, it's like real drumming in a way that Rock Band hints at but never quite achieves. Amazing what a difference a couple of pizza slice-shaped bits of rubber can make.
"We started messing around with different kits, but we knew we wanted the cymbals elevated," Bright reveals. At this point it's important to note that the demo drumkit is a USD 1,200 beast with all kinds of techy boxes with flashing displays and wires attached. But the layout is essentially the same as the unconnected retail prototype in the corner.
It's here that RedOctane's significance in the gaming battle of the bands becomes clear. "The good think about RedOctane is they've got their s*** down when it comes to hardware," Bright claims. "So we give them comments and a week later the comments basically materialise into a piece of hardware I can play with."
For available evidence of RedOctane's expertise one need look no further than the disappointment many GH veterans feel with the standard Rock Band guitar - switching to the latter is like breaking your vintage Gibson only to find your mum's bought a replacement from Argos.
The threat to Rock Band is clear: if the World Tour kit delivers what is promised, Rock Band is left flat-footed with a lesser-featured model it cannot update without alienating every gamer who shelled out for the original.
Elsewhere in the World Tour kit bag the mic - again, wireless - works exactly as it does with SingStar and Rock Band. But there is further innovation in store for the guitar, although we are denied a sight of this during our visit.
Subsequent leaks suggest it will feature a touch-sensitive element: either way, Neversoft sees this as a "bonus extra" and the game will be otherwise fully playable with a standard plastic axe. One other point of note is the horizontal line across the bass guitar display, which denotes an 'open E', achieved by strumming without holding a button.
So, you've got your band kit, and you've found some suitably rock'n'roll additional members: now it's time to create your colourful virtual personas. No wait, come back! World Tour is a multi-featured product and the character and instrument creation mode is one many gamers will never use; but it underlines how comprehensive Neversoft wants World Tour to be from the very first iteration.
Create-A-Rocker uses tech purloined from the Tony Hawk series. "We wanted to try and compete with the Tiger Woods out there on facial deformation," says Bright. Thus, for instance, you can change the age of a face from fresh-faced teen to microwave-shrivelled Keith Richards; change the depth, position, bridge angle or width of the nose; individually tweak the thickness of each lip; plaster on detailed make-up and body art, layering tattoos which can incorporate text; and play fancy dress with outfits covering a menagerie of unfortunate fashions.
This tweakers' paradise extends to instruments, too: once you've picked out your axe of choice you can change everything from the fretboard and head stock, to pickups, knobs and bridge. With drums, a dizzying array of skins, shells and sticks await the irredeemable percussion bore; and spotlight-hogging vocalists can indulge their narcissistic sense of entitlement by pointlessly mulling over mic and stand models.
Again, you may shudder at the thought of such fastidious absurdity, but it doesn't change the core game experience, and you don't have to go anywhere near it. The point is, it's there if you want it.
One area where countless hours of incessant poking, pressing, prodding and perfecting will make a huge difference is in the Music Studio - unquestionably Guitar Hero World Tour's star attraction, and quite possibly the most exciting thing to happen to the genre since, well, the original Guitar Hero.
The premise is intoxicatingly simple: in Rock Band you pretend to be the band and play the music; in World Tour you are the band and you're making the music. In essence, the game features a comprehensive multi-track recording facility that lets you record music note by note, instrument by instrument, play it back in game and share it online.
This feature - or "game within a game" as Neversoft has it - owes its existence to the ultra-hardcore Guitar Hero community which has flooded YouTube with videos of axe-wielding braggadocio, and at its most extreme, amazing feats of hacking. That's how Travis, the chap heading up development on the Music Studio feature, got his job: he hacked into Guitar Hero and got it working on a PC. "It's jail or a dev job for pennies, son." Something like that, anyway.
It's left to straight-shooting Neversoft president Joel Jewett to hit the nail on the head: "It's a f***ing s***load of work to hack the game and make a video, note-track it yourself and get it on YouTube. If there's that many people doing that, and we give them tools that make it easy to do it at home in the living room... s*** man, it could be cool." As if to emphasise the point, Jewitt's huge, fluffy white dog has curled up and gone to sleep on our feet.
"We've embraced the whole custom community and we're giving fans what they want," adds Bright. "It's a full recording studio and an online repository; a library for people to post their songs."
So, you're probably wondering how it all works, right? The studio offers a four-track recording facility for guitar, bass, drums and a keyboard-like melody line. Perhaps the only obvious disappointment is an inability to record vocals - it's restricted to karaoke over-the-topping only. "Adding vocals to a four-to-five minute song would make it 10-20Mb, so it would bloat the file-size incredibly large," reasons Bright. And, more to the point, "it could be full of bad words that would piss off Microsoft and Sony". Best not let your boss near it then, Brian.
Let's start with the guitar. Using the buttons, strum bar and fiddling with the settings you can basically play any note you like. A scales menu lets you switch between blues, pentatonic and so on, or create a custom scale. On the rhythm side you can choose chords based on harmonics (e.g. a Maj7), or by style (distorted, acoustic, power etc.) A palm-mute can be effected by hitting the back button with, yep, your palm.
You have a three-octave range to play with, choosing either the upper of lower two in advance and switching between them by tilting the guitar.
Stick-men and women, meanwhile, can pick from a range of kits, including classic rock, modern indie, South American percussion and congos. Music Studio is also where the velocity-sensitive drum pads come into their own. The velocity range allows for up to four separate samples to be assigned to each pad: which one plays depends on how hard you hit it. Touch sensitivity also gives a "really sweet sound" in solos, apparently.
If your puny mind is struggling to comprehend such nuances, or you're just bone-idle, you can lay down a live recording. But if you take this sort of thing seriously, Advanced Recorder gives you a midi sequencer in which you can set tempo, record notes step by step, copy and paste sections, and make use of a nudge tool for fine-tuning. You can even lay down specific markers to time your on-stage light show.
Aware that it's been all talk and no action so far, Travis and crew perform a live demo of the recording studio. Okay, they're experts, but in under five minutes they've bashed out a perfectly respectable cover of the first verse of Smells Like Teen Spirit which can be played back in the game. We can be cynical buggers at times, but right now, like, wow.
So what to do with all this creative expression? Time to introduce GHTunes. It's an online service where you can upload your creations and download the best efforts of the rest of the World Tour community.
"We're using a ratings system similar to Amazon and YouTube," reveals Bright. "We've done a lot of research on user ratings and how good stuff pops up to the top." So expect to be able to search by Song of the Week, Showcase Song of the Day, All-Time Best, Rising Star. "We'll be able to measure it like the Billboard Hot 100 - how fast people go up and down the charts.
Remember that Create-A-Rocker nonsense you turned your nose up at earlier? How do you fancy using those tools to create your own cover art, which you can then 'publish' online? And Neversoft will give the very best artists their own 'record deal', awarding special promotion of their tracks.
You'll be limited to uploading four-to-five tracks at any one time, each with a limit of around five minutes in length. (Note to Neversoft: this means we can't waste months of our life trying to record Paranoid Android. This makes us weep inside).
"This could get f***ing huge," Jewett casually notes. At this still early stage, we wouldn't necessarily disagree. Even if you can't be bothered to use the studio yourself, chances are that someone out there will knock up a cover of your favourite track.
That's the Big New Stuff dealt with. As for the core game, there'll be careers for each individual instrument, a full band career, and online co-op career. Those infuriating boss battles in Guitar Hero III, Neversoft admits "didn't work so well". These will be "very different" in World Tour, but that's as much as we get, aside from a pledge of more star cameos.
As for the track-listing, Bright can't resist a gloat at the competition. "There'll be considerably more than 73 tracks" out of the box. "The most tracks you've ever seen in a music-based videogames on disc" in fact. We'll hold you to that.
Artists confirmed so far include Van Halen, Linkin Park and The Eagles. We see others during our demo, but we're not allowed to talk about them. Especially not the really exciting classic track by that massive popstar who had a really high profile court case a few years ago. Move along, nothing to see here.
Oh, and Neversoft is going to "support the game in a big way with downloadable content. We are fully committed." We sincerely hope the commitment is fuller than it has been for previous Guitar Hero titles, because Rock Band has wiped the floor with them on DLC so far. Must try harder. Vicarious Visions, developer of the Wii version, incidentally, is "looking into DLC on Wii".
Exciting stuff, we're sure you'll agree, Eurogamer music fan. There's one big problem: what if you've already broken the bank for Rock Band? Unless you're rolling around in cash and free space, or a bit mad, would you really want to buy another full kit?
Neversoft doesn't really have a convincing answer to this. "Given the investment that's required from the consumer, I want mine to be the best," insists Jewett. "I try to imagine that maybe they would buy both if I can make it good enough."
And there's no concrete info on the price yet - upon which, much will depend. "There's a lot of things there that will be worth whatever the price it comes out at - which I don't know yet," says Bright.
One Activision staffer, with a nod and a wink, suggested off-the-record that World Tour will be cheaper than Rock Band, especially, they noted, after the PR disaster that EA suffered in Europe. But whispering and doing are two very different things, and with so many factors to consider, we'll retain a healthy dose of scepticism until there's official word. Although it should go without saying that it would be forehead-slapping business stupidity of Gizmondo proportions if it came out more expensive.
As impressed as we undoubtedly are with World Tour, we must stress that during our visit we don't get a full hands-on, the drum kit isn't finished, and the new guitar is nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, in concept and demonstration it's a brutal and compelling riposte to Rock Band.
As our Neversoft experience draws to a close we suddenly recall that chatter about a Beatles version of Guitar Hero. "Are you doing it?" we ask.
"We would love to do it," Bright dodges.
"Have you spoken to Sony about it?"
"Well, if we did, we couldn't tell you about it,"
"Well, you could..."
"Well, we could, but she'd freak out..."
He gestures at the unimpressed PR lady. Death Stare. Still, Bright does add more broadly: "In terms of the band games stuff, the Aerosmith one is really, really fun. If people have their own favourite band, be it The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or AC/DC, we could totally make a game for them. It'd be amazing."
Over to you, Harmonix.
Guitar Hero: World Tour will release on PS3, 360, Wii and PS2 this autumn.