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Players only

A peek inside the world of Harmonix
By MATT PARISH  |  August 24, 2009

WEB TECH + ROCK ANTHEMS Thanks to Harmonix’s policy of “tour leave,” IT guy Bryn Bennett (left, with the rest of the Bang Camaro line-up) can work part-time to accommodate his band’s heavy schedule.

Jessica Smith has spent years booking death-metal shows around Boston. On top of loads of meat-and-potatoes nights at O'Brien's in Allston and Dee Dee's in Quincy, two of her shows — Origin and Malevolent Creation — actually sold out the Middle East upstairs. You likely haven't heard of her, but she's playing one of those vital, unheralded roles in the music industry.

At her day job, she's a Web-release engineer — which means that when someone encounters a bug at the Web site, a crew of coders create a fix and she plugs it in. That might sound like the sort of thing that leads to iffy sick days and clandestine searches on Craigslist job boards during work hours. But her office doesn't quite have that effect on people.

Smith landed a job two years ago at Harmonix Music Systems, the Cambridge video-game company behind the Rock Band franchise and, prior to that, Guitar Hero. You may have seen the ad for Harmonix's upcoming Beatles game — it was playing on 100-foot screens behind Sir Paul at Fenway. Harmonix is staffed top to bottom by local musicians, from the dudes in the Luxury to the dancing guy in the Bosstones. As corporate cultures go, it's resolutely atypical.

"This is a job where I actually hate being sick and not getting to go in to work," says Smith. There's a band rehearsal space in the basement that anyone can use; one employee offers drum lessons. Wikipedia has a long list of all the musicians who work for the company. Workers can take "tour leave" the way most companies offer maternity leave.

On August 20, they're shifting the base of operations across the street to the Middle East downstairs for Harmonix Night, Smith's first attempt at booking a full-on kitchen-sink company rock show, where every outfit has members with desks at Harmonix. There's mega-indie-noodlers Thief Thief, and warp-speed grind dudes Abnormality. The headliners are rock-anthem gang Bang Camaro, who're led by Harmonix game coder Bryn Bennett.

This isn't the first-ever bill filled out by Harmonix bands, but it is the first in a room the size of the Middle East's downstairs, and it comes as part of a flurry of Harmonix-connected events across town, like the more experimental poetry/DJ/electronics show (dubbed "Oxytocin") at Enormous Room this past Monday.

I catch Bennett, who's working part-time thanks to Bang Camaro's heavy touring schedule, on the phone in his office. "The difference between this office and places I've worked before is huge. Not only can I come in and say something about Lightning Bolt and everyone in the office actually knows who that is, but [Harmonix illustrator] Brian Gibson is sitting right there, like, 'Oh yeah, that's my band.'"

Photo: Giuliana Funkhouser
MEGA-INDIE-NOODLERS: Thief Thief will be part of the Harmonix show on August 20 at the Middle East downstairs.

It's hard to overestimate the cultural heft wielded by that modest office on Mass Ave. After blowing up worldwide in 2005 with the first Guitar Hero game, Harmonix set its sights on full-band cooperative play in Rock Band. (The Guitar Hero franchise was bought by Activision and has become Rock Band's chief rival.) The company is now owned by MTV; Viacom reports it's shipped 10 million units of Rock Band, and the more recent addition of downloadable songs (50 million sold this year) is threatening to poke another big hole in the already sinking ship of the music business. When Mötley Crüe released its single "Saints of Los Angeles" last year, the Rock Band version of the track outsold the one on iTunes. The company now has more than 300 employees; last year it popped up on the Globe's "100 Best Places To Work in Boston" list.

In store for this year is The Beatles: Rock Band. But Harmonix is also rolling out the Rock Band Network, kind of a DIY coding platform that gives anyone in the world the ability to code and upload songs of his or her own for distribution to gamers everywhere.

It's cool to imagine something this big coming out of our backyard — I mean, I know there's a history of stuff like the genome project, disposable razors, and Good Will Hunting here, but this is something I can use to impress my nephews. That a video-game company focused on music-themed games employs a ton of local musicians seems almost too good to be true.

I'm talking to Smith and Harmonix publicist Stephanie Meyers over lunch in Central Square. Meyers moonlights as Green Line Greta, a wrestler in the Boston League of Women Wrestlers (BLOWW), and she shows up in a tangle of medical wrap and slings, having broken both wrists at a match two weeks earlier at Great Scott. "I tried to get a job here for two years because of what I'd heard about it," she says. "Everybody's really, really good at what they do, and the interview process is super-selective. It herds together people who aren't only involved in this stuff professionally but who mesh well and live their lives the way we do."

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Related: Mob rules, In a bit of a jam, Guitar Hero: Metallica, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment, Music, Lightning Bolt,  More more >
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 See all articles by: MATT PARISH

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