‘Grand Theft’ music a phone call away

Rockstar offers instant downloads through Amazon

For years, it’s been the promise of interactive media: see something on screen and buy it with a single click.

It hasn’t yet worked out on TV or the Internet, despite numerous efforts to let viewers buy Jennifer Aniston’s outfit or the bedspread on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

But while “see it and buy it” never really happened, “hear it and buy it” is about to get its first big test in “Grand Theft Auto IV.”

Music has always been a huge part of the “GTA” games, as Rockstar has used in-game radio stations that players can tune into while driving to help create their world. As the games took off, their soundtracks have become some of the most valuable real estate for record labels and artists looking to get in front of tens of millions of mostly young consumers. The 1980s-set “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” for example, is widely credited with playing a part in the ’80s music a few years ago.

So it’s no surprise that “GTA IV” will have more music than any of its predecessors. While “San Andreas” has 11 stations, “GTA IV” will feature 18 (16 of which are music and two talk). Though Rockstar won’t reveal how many songs are in the game, it’s well into the hundreds and includes tracks from all four major labels plus a variety of indies and unsigned artists.

The music stations, which are meant to represent as wide a swath of the modern New York music scene as possible, also features celebrity DJs (perhaps making up in part for the game’s lack of celebrities voicing characters). Juliette Lewis is the host of indie rock channel Radio Broker, while Ukranian pop sensation DJs Vladivostok FM and DJ Green Lantern hosts and produced the music on a hip hop station.

Putting the song list together is an epic undertaking. Soundtrack supervisor Ivan Pavlovich and his team spent a year and a half narrowing down a list that started with tens of thousands of songs, engaging in “knock-down, drag-out fights” internally to decide which tracks fit the tone of “GTA IV,” and then contracting with over 2,000 different parties to get recording and publishing rights.

The new game presented a different challenge, however, since unlike the last few “GTA” incarnations, it’s set in the modern day.

“Since hindsight is perfect, it was easier to pick the best songs that capture the ’80s or early ’90s,” Pavlovich notes. “Now we have to pick the songs that make New York today what it is, but make sure they won’t feel dated by the time the game comes out.”

As “GTA” and the music in it has gotten more and more culturally and financially important, however, Rockstar faced two challenges with “Grand Theft Auto IV.” The first was letting users access the songs they love outside the game. “San Andreas” had a massive eight-disc $50 soundtrack, but even those who could afford it complained about songs in the game left off.

In addition, the labels increasingly view videogame like “GTA” not as a promotional opportunity, but a core part of their business for which they expect to be compensated.

“With the declines of CD sales, they say to us know that this is where they expect to be compensated,” says Pavlovich.

The solution? Internet downloads via a partnership with Amazon.com that can be accessed in game (though only in the U.S.), thanks to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360’s Internet connections. Players use main character Niko’s cell phone to “dial” a service called “Zit” while listening to music. It gives them song information and sends players information, either via e-mail or on Rockstar’s new website for players, that includes a direct link to download the song from Amazon’s MP3 store.

“Zit is our solution to the labels’ desire to increase fees,” Pavlovich explains.

Though Rockstar will get the same referral fee from Amazon that any partner would, it’s not taking a cut from the labels and artists, who get the same wholesale price from Amazon (typically about 67 cents per 99-cent download).

For Amazon, whose music store has been widely praised but still lags far behind Apple’s iTunes, it’s a huge promotional opportunity to turn “GTA” players into customers and also use the game to lure Web surfers to its MP3 store.

In addition to integrating with its backend technology with Rockstar, Amazon is also building a “GTA IV” storefront that organizes songs by in-game stations.

“There’s so much great music in ‘GTA IV’ that we can expose our shoppers to and then we can also expose ‘GTA IV’ gamers to our catalog,” says Sam Heyworth, group product manager for Amazon MP3.

No doubt everybody in the online music business will be watching closely and, if click-and-download is a success, be gunning to get integrated with every new videogame with a big soundtrack, especially the red hot music genre anchored by “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.”