- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

Everyone knows the Web is a marvelous device for sharing — or, if you prefer, stealing — music. Until recently, though, it has been primarily an outlet for the mass delivery — licit and illicit — of music. Now it may be morphing into something new — a vehicle for the discovery, exposure and popular winnowing of new musical talent.

Think of the scores of thousands of MP3 files that aspiring pop stars have uploaded in the hope of discovery that lie dormant in the proliferating junkyard of free online music. Think of the ease with which music can be self-produced — and then just as casually ignored by a public overwhelmed by electronic media.

For a few technologically savvy songsmiths, at least, that’s about to change.

The London-based singer-songwriter Sandi Thom just landed a record deal with RCA/Sony BMB after Webcasting performances from her basement for 21 consecutive days. By the end of her three-week run, Miss Thom, 24, was playing for up to 70,000 Web surfers.

“As Web sites get more and more advanced, they offer more things,” says Aaron Novak, who markets Stickam, a comprehensive multimedia tool that enables artists to host music and photographs as well as stream live performances on their Web sites.

“It’s becoming more of a social space than a place to just share music,” Mr. Novak says. “The bands themselves can directly communicate with the fans. It’s a much better experience, and there’s an audience out there that wants that.”

Stickam, which is free of charge, was introduced in February and already boasts more than 30,000 users. The Los Angeles-based company expects that number to swell to 150,000 by summer’s end.

“The Web is increasingly becoming a place for new music to be discovered. We’re only at the beginning,” says Ali Partovi, chief executive officer of GarageBand.com.

Internet-based music is “better than it’s ever been, and there will be more of it to come,” says Geoff Byrd, a singer-songwriter from Portland, Ore.

Mr. Byrd, 29, caught a draft of Internet-generated buzz when his debut album, “Candy Shell,” drew enthusiastic reviews on the Internet radio station Live365.com and on Microsoft-owned GarageBand.com, where four of his songs topped the site’s listener-feedback chart.

Mr. Byrd, who warmed up for Hall & Oates last month at the Warner Theatre, is touted as “the world’s first Web-born pop star.”

“I was on the Internet 12 hours a day,” recalls Mr. Byrd, whose music blends melodic pop-rock, soul and funk. A former high school history teacher, he says he poured as much energy into developing his Web site (www.geoffbyrd.com) as he did into songwriting.

“I printed up cards with nothing on them but the Web site — a white card with black ink,” he says. “I went through 50,000.”

He also made copies of “Candy Shell” available through CDBaby.com and established a presence on MySpace.com. “It starts to get exponential after a while,” he says.

In two years, Mr. Byrd’s success online translated into a traditional record deal with Granite Records, an indie distributed by a subsidiary of Universal Music Group.

What’s happening may, years from now, be seen as the second phase of the Internet revolution in music. The first phase mortally threatened traditional music retailers; this one is poised to challenge the way labels discover artists.

GarageBand.com’s Mr. Partovi explains that whereas labels once applied the “invest first, test later” method of artist development, the Web is forcing them to do the reverse. He says Mr. Byrd succeeded “not because of what I said but because hundreds of randomly assigned listeners liked his music.”

To an extent, that should worry record label artist-and-repertoire representatives — the “golden-eared” progeny of famed talent scouts such as Clive Davis — because the Web takes a lot of the guesswork out of artist discovery. Music that already has found an audience stands a pretty good chance of finding an even bigger one.

Yet beleaguered Big Music may not have as much to fear from this second revolutionary phase as it did from the first. It is not simply a wild frontier in which users need to wander for hours (although they certainly can) to find interesting new music.

On sites such as GarageBand.com and UnsignedBandWeb.com, one can see a new promotional hierarchy settling into place that, perhaps ironically, mirrors the structure of the old-media industry. The sheer volume of music that’s continually uploaded to the Web compels MP3 host sites to at least partially filter their content. Still, those filters, often created in part by listeners themselves, are more democratic than the hurdles an artist must have to clear at a major label.

For his part, Mr. Partovi doesn’t see the Internet ever completely overthrowing the traditional music industry — and certainly not FM radio. He predicts the likes of GarageBand.com will become feeding grounds for disc jockeys. Moreover, he predicts record labels soon will treat Web strategy less like an afterthought and more like a vital mission that seeps into every aspect of the business, from artist development to distribution to promotion.

“It won’t be long before the Web is as crucial as MTV or radio airplay,” he says.

Mr. Byrd is even more old-fashioned. As bullish as he is about the marriage of high technology and music, he still counts on word of mouth to buoy his career. He says, “There’s no better advertising than that.”

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