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Did Viacom Sell Rock Band Developer Harmonix for $50?

File this under “who knows?” but Peter Kafka over at All Things Digital’s Media Memo blog is reporting that Viacom sold its Rock Band developer unit Harmonix late last year for as little as $50.

Now that’s a hook-worthy but somewhat misleading figure. The story notes that the buyer, Columbus Nova, took on far more expensive elements as well, such as the liability for all music rights payments and unsold inventory of both game and controllers. The music licensing issue alone is worth in the millions (more on that later).

Another interesting point is that the deal apparently is structured in a way that lets Viacom save $150 million in tax benefits. Whenever there’s a sale of assets, a tax benefit arises when a company takes a loss and is allowed to offset regular income by the amount of the loss. Viacom paid $175 million for Harmonix back in 2006. It’s unlikely Viacom will get a $150 million tax benefit on the deal — that would imply around a $500 million loss from the sale (assuming a 30% tax rate). One possibility is that Viacom will take $150 million write-off on the deal, which implies a tax break in the area of $50 million.

Overall, none of this points to a particularly glowing endorsement of the music game field. Which is rather surprising because even though the genre has shrunk in recent years, Rock Band is a respectable-selling franchise when viewed in the big picture of the videogame market, and its new Dance Central game for the Kinect is looking like a bona fide hit (although official sales stats aren’t in yet).

So if Harmonix is not making enough in revenues to muster more compelling sale terms, it’s not due to lack of sales. It’s due to the cost of developing the game. And that cost isn’t coming from paying its developers. It’s coming from paying for music.