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E-bands grow in the music scenario

December 14, 2006

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Like many aspiring musicians, Sebu Simonian longed for the day when he would sign a contract with a major record label, giving him at least a shot at rock stardom.

But the 28-year-old lead singer of Los Angeles band Aviatic said he recently ended discussions with several record companies, including a major label, that had expressed interest in working with his band. They couldn’t agree on the terms of a contract, he said, so Aviatic opted to become an “e-band,” peddling its music online.

“Most musicians, when they start out, think you’ve got to get signed in order to succeed,” Simonian said. “But now that the Internet has developed to become a really powerful tool to sell yourself, it’s not as necessary.”

It’s nice to have the deep pockets and clout of a major record company. Without them, the guest shot on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” the music video, the spot on a radio playlist and the headlining concert remain longshot dreams for most artists.

Nonetheless, the Web is turning into a viable alternative with which bands can develop a following and earn some money while still pursuing fame and fortune. Such popular groups as Britain’s Arctic Monkeys used the Web extensively before getting a break. Indeed, music companies are embracing the Internet as a convenient way to scout new talent.

“Labels will start to treat e-labels as farm clubs,” said Aram Sinnreich, managing partner at Radar Research, a media consulting firm based in Los Angeles. “The Internet is going to become a market testing bed.”

Bands like Aviatic know it’s risky to depend only on the Internet and concerts to promote their music. But as more Web services provide artists a venue to make a name for themselves online, bands are realizing that signing with a label is no longer a make-or-break proposition.

“It used to be that a record label was the only way you could go,” said Jay Frank, head of programming and label relations at Internet giant Yahoo Inc.

Opportunities are ample at such sites as Yahoo Music and at digital distributors like Tune Core, Orchard and Digital Rights Agency. Social networking site MySpace, which hosts 3 million bands online, recently partnered with Snocap Inc., a company that helps artists sell their music online.

“Artists are increasingly being offered a broader set of tools to distribute their music online,” said Alex Rofman, director of business development at Snocap.

Portland, Ore.-based CD Baby features the work of more than 155,000 artists who earn a combined $35 million a year through the service. The independent distributor takes a $4 fee per album sold on its site, giving artists a bigger cut of their record sales than they would get through a label.

“Now, artists can give the finger to the labels and just do it themselves until the situation is really right,” said Derek Sivers, president of the company.

Some artists say they like using CD Baby because they don’t have to sign away the rights to their music. Others don’t like feeling as if they are the property of a label.

“I am trying to make records that I’ll be proud of for a long time,” said Michael Andrews, a 38-year-old Glendale-based artist.

Andrews has worked on albums released by labels as a session musician and producer. But when he made his own album, “Hand on String,” this year, he decided to release it over the Internet. Doing so, he said, gave him more creative freedom.

With a label “you have to moderate your music in a way that’s going to be deemed acceptable to the mainstream,” said Radar’s Sinnreich. “It’s very difficult for an artist to feel like they’re doing something innovative that also has a fair shot at getting stocked on the shelves of Wal-Mart.”

Not that it’s an easy road. A band that sells exclusively over the Internet has to be responsible for promoting its own music, developing a fan base and booking its concert schedule. Aviatic’s Simonian spends half of his time working on the band’s music and the rest dealing with logistics.

“Most artists don’t have that type of work ethic,” Yahoo’s Frank said. “Most artists like to play music and party.”

But self-promotion also helps some artists develop a more loyal fan base. Rather than buying an album because they hear about it on the radio, listeners purchase because of word of mouth. Sites such as Yahoo Music and CD Baby make this possible by recommending music to listeners based on their tastes and interests, allowing a band with an eclectic sound to develop a following of a few thousand fans.

Jim Guerinot, who manages independent band Social Distortion along with such big-name acts as Gwen Stefani, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails and the Offspring, said talented artists ultimately had to decide whether they were content to remain in an online niche market or would rather trade some of their independence for a shot at stardom.

Guerinot, a former senior executive at A&M Records, said that although an increasing number of artists were opting to stay small and make a sufficient living from online sales, those who desired more still had to go through a major label. Barely any bands — New York-based Clap Your Hands Say Yeah being an exception — are able to generate much buzz without a label, he said.

George White, Warner Music Group Corp.’s senior vice president of strategy and product development, said labels offered promotion and marketing capabilities that far surpassed those available to independent artists. They include lucrative opportunities such as selling an artist’s songs as mobile phone ring tones, which make up half of Warner’s digital revenue worldwide.

Although self-distributing artists may make more money per album sold, labels can help sell more albums by getting them on the shelves of big retailers, generating more income for the artists in the long run. Labels also are usually crucial in developing bands into successful touring acts.

Still, growing via the Web has appealed to the Manchester Orchestra, an Atlanta-based band that is selling music on its MySpace page through Snocap.

“Sometimes it takes time for a band to develop and turn people onto them in an organic way, instead of jamming it down their throats with some marketing tool,” band manager Jay Wilson said. “That’s the whole power of MySpace — people find music and they tell their friends about it.”

The labels are at least watching Web bands, using musicians’ sites to nab artists who are building momentum.

“If we were to remain the kind of company that record companies have historically been, this might hurt us,” Warner Music’s White said. “But we have either completely reinvented how we’re structured or are in the process of changing it.”

Even some independent artists agree that the Web alternative has its limits. Gary Jules, a musician who, with Michael Andrews, wrote the song “Mad World” on the soundtrack of the cult movie “Donnie Darko,” knows the business from both the label and Net perspective.

Jules worked with A&M Records on his first album, released in 1998, and Universal Music Group on his second, in 2001. He is selling his third CD, a self-titled album released in August, on CD Baby.

“It’s shifting so that unknowns can make it, but it isn’t there yet,” Jules said.

The 37-year-old artist recently moved from Los Angeles to North Carolina, where he plans to raise his family on the “decent living” Internet sales generate. Since August, he’s sold about 5,000 records over CD Baby. He earned $10 for each album, generating the same amount of money he earned from his first record contract.

“I figured out I was happiest when I was working small,” he said.

Even for Aviatic’s Simonian, the Web hopefully is a temporary stopping point where the band can establish its footprint. Right now he sees himself in a music purgatory in which he’s achieved some success but not enough to have labels knocking on his door. And despite the freedom of the Web, he said, an eventual label deal still sounds good.

“If there’s big money being offered by a label,” he said, “I don’t think there’s anybody who will refuse that.”

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