Oct
10

An Artist's Journey: The Guitar Hero Story

The story of the entrepreneurial journey of Guitar Hero creators Eran Egozy and Alex Rigopulos is one that really struck a major chord for me. Their journey is filled with failures, self doubt, an unwillingness to stop ” the addiction” and the ultimate “underdog- wins-it-all” fairy tale ending. While it is a long article, that appeared in Inc Magazine in their October issue, written by freelance writer Don Steinberg, I think their story offers many parallels (except for maybe the amount of money they raised by angel investors) of an artist’s entrepreneurial struggles to artistically and financially succeed.

As artists, this article may truly embrace most of our own fears, doubts and disbelief about how much is required from us for the love of art. But since we are never going to stop “the addiction” we might as well try shooting at entrepreneurial success, just like these guys did.

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Alex Rigopulos promised he wasn’t going to treat this as some kind of victory lap, as a fist-pump in the sky to proclaim that his long-struggling company had gutted out a decade of failure to explode in unlikely success. But, man, he could have. On a sweltering evening this July, the Who (yes, that the Who) was about to play a private concert for his company’s 1,500 invited guests — press, partners, investors — at the rented-out Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. Harmonix Music Systems, the company Rigopulos co-founded 13 years earlier, was on fire. He and co-founder Eran Egozy and their patient investors had made millions of dollars, and millions more were on the way. The company’s video games, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which let players perform real rock songs on fake instruments, were pumping life into a panicking music industry, an industry that just a few years back only occasionally took the time to return Harmonix’s phone calls. Tonight, the company was introducing Rock Band 2, in advance of its official release in September.

Rigopulos didn’t dare think of this event as vindication, though. “You always feel like you’re on the brink of failure,” he had said in his office a week before the Who concert. Failure, after all, had chased his company for so long. He and Egozy had launched Harmonix in 1995 fresh out of graduate school, with a cool piece of demo software they had written, a dreamy business plan about bringing the bliss of playing an instrument to nonmusicians, and no truly marketable ideas.

Could you design a better blueprint for years of frustration? It came like a slow beating: a decade of scraping by as the founders struggled to turn their idea into a viable product and began sacrificing pieces of their vision (and their company) to stay afloat. A decade of learning that ingenuity comes in two flavors: the kind where you invent mind-blowing technology (that was the easy part for two guys with master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the kind where you build a legitimate business around it.

The aroma of a rocking party — booze and sweat and perfume — drifted across the Orpheum’s lobby as Rigopulos schmoozed and tried to be everywhere. The Harmonix CEO, 38, is tall and fine-featured, his uniform an untucked dress shirt and a suit jacket over slim-cut jeans. Until seven years ago (when a receding hairline made it look too silly), he had a ponytail. At open bars, businesspeople squeezed shoulder to shoulder for drinks, and many lined up to play Rock Band 2. They sang and jammed like teenagers on plastic guitars and drums, performing songs like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.”

And then…Rigopulos was nowhere.

Downstairs, past a security guard and a velvet curtain leading into a VIP-only area, then through another doorway in a back barroom, there he was, alone, lost in thoughts and a bit of bourbon, pacing, looking at the floor, his arms folded over his chest. It was quiet. In 15 minutes, he would be getting onstage to say a few words before the Who came on.

“I’m not introducing the band,” he said. “I just want to take a moment to thank everyone for sticking with us.” Maybe this was an emotional night, after all.

Soon, up in the theater, the houselights dimmed, the background music faded, and silhouettes appeared onstage. It wasn’t Rigopulos — it was Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and the rest of the Who. Townshend cranked four staccato power chords to begin “I Can’t Explain,” and the crowd erupted. Rigopulos didn’t get to make his thank-you speech.

“The band was ready to go on,” he said afterward with a shrug. “I didn’t want to hold things up.” The night had been 13 years in coming, after all.

If you weren’t among the people whose money Harmonix had been burning through, the company appeared to burst onto the scene with a billion-dollar success. In late 2005, Harmonix and RedOctane (a company that briefly ran out of money while funding Harmonix’s creation of the game) released Guitar Hero. The game reached $1 billion in North American sales faster than any other video game in history and became a pop culture phenomenon, with celebrity fans, magazine covers, TV cameos — the whole Hollywood movie montage.

Guitar Hero comes with a plastic guitar that looks like a Fisher-Price version of a Gibson SG. Players press big, colored buttons on the guitar’s neck to try to match colored dots that cascade down a TV screen in time with the music, mostly classic rock songs such as Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” and the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” For example, during the crunking opening of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” the famous da-da-daaa, da-da-DA-daaa, if you don’t hit the blue button with your left pinky and press the strum bar lever at exactly the right time with your other hand, it goes da-da-daaa, da-da [silence] daaa. If you get it right, though, the effect is that you are really playing the awesome guitar riff of a song you have heard a million times on the radio since you were 15. It’s shockingly fun. You score points based on the accuracy of your playing.

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