Melissa Etheridge sits inside her living room surrounded by guitars hanging on walls, a piano and a variety of percussion instruments. Instead of picking strings, however, she is pecking on a smartphone. "Oh, I got the right number!" she said, laughing with surprise.
The Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter is playing her new mobile game, "Melissa Etheridge's 'Take My Number' Phonebook Challenge."
Sure, Kim Kardashian is making a killing branding a mobile game. But Melissa Etheridge? Do her fans play games?
"Yes," she said without hesitation. "I can play a solitaire game in a minute and 20 seconds."
And thus begins a great experiment in using games to sell music.
Etheridge has teamed with mobile game start-up HyperJamz, part of HyperPower Game Group, to create a game that's not only addictive, but also streams her music. The game is based on "Take My Number," the first single of Etheridge's new album, "This is ME."
In it, players basically do two things: earn points by clicking on the right groupings of falling guitar picks, while also trying to remember the phone numbers of people in their contacts file. All the while, the song "Take My Number" streams, and players are also directed to iTunes to buy the song.
"The app is free," Etheridge said. "You just pay $2.99 if you want the ads removed."
How did such an outside-the-CD-box idea happen? How did Etheridge and HyperPower Game Group come together? CEO Clark Nesselrodt said it was the result of an "aha" moment.
"Music and games live together on an ever-shortening list of things that can lift us out of the preoccupation of our own minds," he said. Nesselrodt is hoping that combining the two will create something better—and maybe more profitable—than the sum of its parts.
Once he heard Etheridge's new song, Nesselrodt said HyperJamz developed a phone book game concept in a few days that targets Etheridge's core demographic, "one of the most sought-after demographics of mobile gamers—the middle-aged female."
Think "Candy Crush." Mutual contacts put Nesselrodt in touch with Etheridge, whom he calls a "pioneer." She signed on in exchange for half of all revenue.
"I feel my career had kind of flatlined in the way that businesses can," said Etheridge. "I look at my career as a small business."
A year ago, she left Island Records and went independent, hiring new management and looking for new ways to monetize her music. "Not only have I seen the record sales plummet—I mean serious plummeting every year, like an avalanche of plummeting," she said, "And yet I can go out and I can still play and fill halls."
The singer hopes a mobile game can reach not only core fans but new listeners. "It raises my awareness to people, and it also leads to the song," she said. "Then maybe they like the song, they might buy the album, and if they like the album, then maybe they want to come see me live."
While she's excited about being independent and producing her own album, Etheridge said it's also scary, "because all the risk is on me, and everything's upfront, and the money is different."
HyperJamz hopes to find other celebrities who can lend their star power to other games. It has reached an agreement with Tapinator, which has a catalog of games, including "Balance of the Shaolin," which Nesselrodt is reimagining in a tie-in with an upcoming Nik Wallenda special for the Discovery Channel. Also, "We have a new game coming out in a few weeks with rising star Cris Cab, who is Pharrell's protege."
It's all very early stage, very early funding, with no guarantees that it will work out. Kind of sounds like Etheridge's start in the music business itself. Decades later, and after much success, she's taking risks again. Melissa Etheridge said people still want music.
"How they get it," she said, "has changed."