Friday, April 10, 2009

If the business model of Brite Revolution, a music-download site launched last month by entrepreneur Winn Elliott and singer-songwriter Billy Cerveny, proves successful, the digitally mutating species known as homo musicus had better learn to produce on deadline.

Brite, based in Nashville, distinguishes itself from online behemoths such as iTunes and Rhapsody by demanding from its roster of artists one brand-new, exclusive song per month, plus an “artist’s choice” selection — something previously recorded, such as an acoustic demo or live performance, with unique value.

“We’re trying to respond to fans who expect new music more often,” says Mr. Cerveny, one of the site’s resident artists as well as its chief operating officer. “They want to be part of an artist’s career — part of the social microcosm that an artist creates on his Web site.”

Releases will be staggered throughout each month, ensuring a regular flow of new material from Brite’s initial slate of 18 recording artists, whose genres range from rock to Americana to contemporary Christian.

Brite has a forum for “emerging talent,” but Mr. Cerveny says that’s not the site’s primary goal. “We’re trying to take artists who haven’t waited for the industry to validate their careers - guys who have a grass-roots following, who’ve sold 20,000 or 50,000 CDs out of the back of their trucks.”

Even more important: “We’re trying to cross-pollinate careers.”

The Brite model is, of course, unproven, but it has obvious potential as a convergence of online social networking, with its vaunted capacity to link like-minded people, and the revenue generation of traditional music downloading.

“We’re not a Facebook or a MySpace,” admits Mr. Elliott, Brite’s chief executive officer. Nevertheless, the site’s users “will be able to interact with artists and nonprofits in a social-networking-esque way.”

“Everyone’s scrambling,” Mr. Cerveny says, referring to the hivelike activity of an industry, a large portion of which is undergoing extinction.

“I don’t know what the grand resolution to this problem is going to be.”

There probably won’t be one — or, to be more precise, only one.

There will be lots of micro-resolutions, one of which, as this reporter has said repeatedly, is this: Recording artists are going to have to abandon — or at least no longer rely exclusively on — the post-Beatles tradition of releasing an album every two or three years.

Instead, they need to alter their work habits to conform to the patterns of online consumers who have been trained to expect fresh updates from the multimedia world.

As industry gadfly Bob Lefsetz noted in a recent edition of his widely circulated newsletter: “A true fan wants more and more music by his favorite artist. But he doesn’t want it dropped like a bomb all on one day; he wants it … spread out over time.”

Despite its status as a watershed online business model, iTunes Music Store is, at bottom, a replication of the old, new-albums-every-Tuesday model of the vanishing bricks-and-mortar industry.

It has been wildly successfully, to be sure. (And, to be fair, iTunes does offer its share of exclusive content, ancillary though such content may be.)

But Mr. Cerveny is right when he says that iTunes — and the music-download establishment more broadly — is “catalog-oriented.”

Brite could be the thin end of a wedge: the first integrated download outlet that delivers the same timeliness in music as, ahem, The delivers in news.

“What we wanted to do was create a platform where artists can have all the benefits of an album and a cohesive musical statement, without the burden of dropping it all at once,” Mr. Elliott says.

Indie-pop singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton has embraced an even more onerous output regimen than Brite requires — he composed and released online one song per week in 2006. “In terms of exposure and traffic, a steady stream of new content is the only way to do it on the Internet,” Mr. Coulton says. “Now, the very idea of saving up songs until I have enough for a CD feels absurd; people buy single MP3s, and it just makes sense to me to make them available as they happen.”

Brite certainly offers both artists and subscribers unfussy transactions: By agreeing to sign up, artists get a small pot of money to use to record each month. They keep the master tapes of whatever they record. They can maintain existing recording contracts or licensing deals if they have them. After two months, too, they can do whatever they please with the songs they record for Brite.

A flat monthly fee of $4.99 offers subscribers access to the entirety of the site’s content, free of digital-rights-management (DRM) restrictions.

Nearly half of the proceeds of the site will go back to the artists or to a passel of nonprofit organizations chosen by both artists and subscribers.

“We really believe that success and philanthropy are two sides of the same coin,” Mr. Cerveny maintains.

Will the songwriters be able to deliver the goods?

Mr. Coulton, for his part, says 2006’s “Thing a Week” project, as he called it, was “an extremely valuable experience.”

“It was a reason to keep writing, which is sometimes all it takes to get started,” he says. “It was an excuse to let myself off the hook a little, too — it made it a lot easier to allow myself to finish writing something that I knew wasn’t perfect. And sometimes the imperfect ones became my favorites.”

One of Brite’s artists, Christian pop singer Joy Williams, says the one-song-per-month release schedule allows her to “work out the creative muscle.”

“Chasing the muse,” she says, is an often elusive process. “Creating fresh music every month will make us better artists, and it will keep people interested.”

As Nashville treasure George Jones famously sang, the race is on.

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