By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the early days of punk, about a quarter-century ago, bands realized that they didn’t need major record labels. Wanted them, maybe. Coveted their attention. But needed them? Not anymore. The self-pressed or small-label single — promoted with one-eighth-page ads in fanzines and semi-obscure magazines like New York Rocker, Trouser Press and Bomp, and sold at gigs in cramped basement clubs — gave every garage band access to the dream of do-it-yourself stardom.
The Internet makes the DIY process much quicker and cheaper than it was 25 years ago. No cost of pressing vinyl, no hassle about getting it into stores. A single song, usually in the form of an MP3 file, instantly becomes available to an audience of millions.
Or no one.
Distributing music online is not a matter of “If you upload it, they will come.” Writing and recording is the easy part. The grinding, frustrating labor of publicizing your band so that it stands out among the thousands battling for the same slice of cyberspace makes the days of selling home-pressed LPs out of the back of a van seem painfully easy. The competition ranges from slick, could-be-on-MTV outfits such as South Pasadena’s Red Delicious, to the guy-in-his-basement-with-a-Casio productions that constitute a large portion of the clatter.
Bring it on, you say!
The first step, of course, is converting your recording to an MP3 file. This once-mysterious procedure has become extraordinarily simple — almost any sound-editing software package will allow you to save your finished recording as an MP3. That’s important, because MP3 files are small, quick to download and anyone can play them. They are also the only type of files that most sites accept for upload.
As a general rule, files should be encoded in stereo at a frequency of 44.1kHz and a bitrate of 128 kbps. Most software encoders will set those specs by default, but check to be sure. It also helps to upload from a fast computer — and if you’re recording your music digitally, you probably already have one — over a high-speed connection such as a DSL, cable modem or, if you are so blessed, T1 line. Otherwise, uploading can take a long time.
There are close to a dozen major sites where unsigned musicians can distribute their music online. The basic functions of each site are similar, and many bands have posted songs on more than one, thanks to the “non-exclusive” agreements the sites offer. However, each caters to different needs. Are you trying to make money directly off your music? Get discovered by a major label? Get signed to an indie? Or are you simply trying to share your sounds with the world? Below are four sites, each of which meets one of those needs better than the others do:
By sheer force of its own publicity machine, this San Diego–based company became the biggest and most influential of all online music sites. You have to give founder Michael Robertson a lot of credit for seeing ahead. Grabbing the domain name mp3.com back in 1997 was a move only slightly less brilliant than, say, taking out a patent on sexual intercourse. Several lawsuits and countersuits later, mp3.com is now the property of the multinational entertainment conglomerate Vivendi Universal, which bought out Robertson’s beleaguered, behemoth brainchild on May 20, for $372 million.
Mp3.com is the site to go if you’re looking to make a few quick bucks (though it’s never been easy, and it seems the new ownership will make it even less easy) and be affiliated with a site that’s oriented almost entirely to making lots of bucks — though so far it has mostly lost lots of bucks. The new ownership hasn’t changed the basic service, which allows artists to sign up for free and upload MP3-format tunes, along with biographical info about the bands and their influences. You can throw a graphic or two up on your page as well, all through a simplified process that requires no more than a five-minute learning curve.
All of the sites here offer a similar uploading and sign-up procedure. Only on mp3.com, however, can the aspiring (fast-buck) artist find the “Payback for Playback” program. A common complaint among bands is that posting online music fails to generate much in the way of CD sales. Mp3.com, at least in theory, lets bands get paid without selling squat. Every time a song is downloaded, the artists collect a small fee, calculated according to a confidential formula. A few cents, maybe. But like Richard Pryor in Superman 3, musicians can find that pennies add up. According to mp3.com’s charts, in May alone Burbank pianist Ernesto Cortazar’s Mantovani-ish ivory-tickling grossed him $7,107 in “payback,” while L.A.-based alt-rockers Linkin Park pocketed $3,966 toward their total of nearly 25 freaking grand.
Until recently, this “P4P” deal was open to anyone who could put a track online then somehow tease a few thousand people into downloading it (or tease a few people into downloading it a thousand times each — except, uh, that’s against the rules). Well-placed advertising and word of mouth are standard promotional tools, but some artists have found intriguing methods by which to induce downloads. The Blue Jay, California, band Erotic Trance (actually just one woman — albeit one with enough libido for several) shot a couple of porn videos that can be viewed on the erotictrance.com Web site only after downloading one of her tunes.