LOS ANGELES — "This song is dedicated to Debbie Harry," Lisa Hsuan purrs into a microphone on the red-lit stage of Hyperion Tavern. It's a cozy dive where patrons drink Coke and beer from bottles and a fading chandelier dangles overhead.
Her tribute is intentionally ludicrous: The 30-year-old veterinarian is about to belt out Call Me, which Harry — fronting the group Blondie — released 28 years ago. Accompanied on fake guitars and drums by three Web programmers who drove in from the refinery-dotted coastal suburb of El Segundo, Hsuan launches in as a smoke machine puffs nearby.
They're playing the video game Rock Band 2, which, along with Guitar Hero, is rocking bars and living rooms across the country. Many songs' sales have more than doubled after release in one of the games, and well-known bands have started lining up to provide new music direct to the gamemakers. Now record labels — noticing what they are missing, and struggling as CD sales tumble — are looking for a bigger piece of the action.
Although labels get some royalties from the play-along games' makers, they are often bypassed on image and likeness licensing deals, which the bands control and which account for a rising portion of musicians' income. Meanwhile, the Recording Industry Association of America pegged its U.S. members' sales at $10.4-billion in 2007, down 11.8 percent from the year before, with a further drop expected for 2008. By comparison, sales of music video games more than doubled this year, hitting $1.9-billion in the past 12 months, according to NPD Group.
Aerosmith made more money off the June release of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith than either of its past two albums, according to Kai Huang, co-founder of RedOctane, which first developed Guitar Hero.
Artists from Nirvana to the Red Hot Chili Peppers have seen sales of their music more than double after being released on the games.
"It's a way to save the music industry," said Grant Lau, a 40-year-old bar worker who started the play-along night at the Hyperion three years ago for a friend who owns the bar.
The addictive play-along games are a cross between karaoke and open-mike night. Players hear an approximation of a song and try to match colorful visual cues by pressing buttons on a guitar-like plastic controller, pounding touch-sensitive rubber drums and singing into a specialized mike. Successful performances sound quite like the originals.
"As soon as you play it, you like it a lot more, and then you buy it," said Tan Doan, a 26-year-old Web developer from Long Beach.