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Music Ally‘s Stuart Dredge reports on one of MIDEM 2011’s most-anticipated panels…

Social games are high on the agenda for the music industry this year, with labels and artists wondering how they can get a piece of the lucrative revenues being generated by games like FarmVille and CityVille. Today saw a panel session focusing on how music can get more involved.

The panel: Keith Lee, CEO of Booyah; Juha Hynynen, CEO of SongHi Entertainment; Albin Serviant, CEO of MXP4; Anne Driscoll, VP of business operations at Ning; and Charles Hudson, co-author of Inside Virtual Goods. The moderator was Ralph Simon.

Social games are marrying into music and into the daily lives of the very people and fans we’re trying to reach,” said Simon, by way of introduction.

Hudson kicked off the discussion by providing some context on the social games market. “Overall when we look at the US market, my guess it’s probably around $800 million for 2010,” he said, while admitting a lot of that revenue comes from one company – FarmVille-maker Zynga. Hudson also said that social gaming is becoming popular not just on Facebook, but on iPhone too, where games are the most popular category on Apple’s App Store.

What does it take to build a really good social game? It has to start with the idea, stressed Hudson. “These are games that are optimised for fairly short session times on the internet – around five to 15 minutes – snacking games.”

On to Ning, which helps artists build their own social websites, tying into Facebook and Twitter, but driving fans back to the artist’s own site. It’s not a social games company, per se, but Driscoll gave an example of the way Ning works with Linkin Park.

Everything you do when you think about game is to take action, get a response and get a reward,” she said, citing a campaign where Linkin Park got their fans to go and tweet about the band’s new album, with the reward being the chance to unveil another piece of album artwork – although this could be a secret track or virtual goods in other cases.

On to Keith Lee from Booyah, which runs the Nightclub City musical social game on Facebook, and the MyTown social location game on iPhone.

Nightclub City, a Facebook game where players run their own virtual clubs and hire friends as DJs, is hugely successful. “We’ve had 20 million users play our product, and at its peak we had 1.2 million daily users,” said Lee. “We were able to draw in more than two million Likes for a lot of the artists that came into the game.”

Nightclub City players can choose music to play in their club, from Lady Gaga and Daft Punk down to independent artists. As the songs play, players can mark the song as Liked – which in turn signs them up to the fan page of that particular artist. “What really excites us is working with a lot of independent artists, and we’ve been able to really garner a lot for them.”

Booyah is looking to work with artists to put virtual items into Nightclub City, which will be sold to players for real money. Booyah already attracted 1.3 million Kiss fans to the game when it offered Kiss makeup for their avatars, showing the potential popularity of these items.

The discussion moved on to Albin Serviant from MXP4, which has worked on a Facebook game for David Guetta. He talked about artists realising that they need to engage with their fans on a daily basis. MXP4’s game has attracted one million monthly active users, who are interacting with Guetta’s track Who’s That Chick? in a musical game, competing against their friends and other Guetta fans. “They don’t just play the music: they play with it.”

Serviant says the next step is how to make money from these kinds of games. “We believe the opportunity is in monetising the fanbase, and using something that has been working for games like Nightclub City, creating virtual goods.”

Finally, Hynynen talked about SongHi, which launched a couple of months ago, combining social gaming with the ability for users to create and share their own music. It has worked with UMG on campaigns around Justin Bieber and Rihanna already.

“Registration in the service is all free, and you create yourself an avatar,” he explained. People might then buy clothing for their avatar from the SongHi shop. They can also buy branded virtual instruments like Fender guitars to create music with.

If you want to be a serious musician and really appreciated in the community, then you can buy the instruments… The sound of the guitar is actually recorded in a real studio. If you buy a Fender guitar, it is a real Fender guitar sound.

Hynynen said that SongHi works well as a way for big stars to promote their new music, letting fans use (for example) the vocals of a hit song in their own tunes on SongHi. The company has 40,000 registered users, and songs have been listened to half a million times already, with close to 70,000 songs having been created.

“It seems the community is quite eager to use that kind of functionality,” he said. “We do have a mobile application connecting into the service as well, so you can watch how you do on the charts.”

Why haven’t the biggest publishers in social gaming – like Zynga – done much with music? Hudson said that most big social games companies have been hesitant to involve third parties of any kind – brands and music included – because it slows down the process of making constant changes to the game: something that’s key for social game development.

In other words, social games firms make constant tweaks to their games and virtual item models throughout the day, in response to player usage. Having to clear those changes with one or more music rightsholders is what’s put off the Zyngas of the world from doing more in this area.

Serviant said MXP4 knows from experience that clearing rights – particularly on the publishing side – can be tough. However, he said these companies are more receptive than they ever have been.

Lucie Caswell, from PRS for Music, asked how possible it is for collecting societies and publishing representatives to be more involved at an earlier stage with these social games. The panel all shifted nervously in their seats, although Driscoll said that Ning tends to work through managers.

Hudson: “If we knew for sure that we could count on having accessible, affordable rights going forward, and we could have that conversation up-front…”

Over to you, publishers and labels!


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About Author

Stuart Dredge

Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist, and a regular contributor to Music Ally, The Guardian and more... including midemblog :)