By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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In April, however, mp3.com altered the terms of the P4P deal. Perhaps realizing that they were giving money away without taking any in, the site now charges bands for the potential of being paid. You must subscribe to the site’s “Premium Artists Service,” at a cost of $19.99 per month, in order to be eligible for download payment.
The Internet Underground Music Archive started in 1993, long before mp3.com (or even the World Wide Web as we know it today) was created. Since then, the site — founded by musician Jeff Patterson (“IUMA is the one place to post your music where actual musicians are watching out for you — not weasels watching the numbers,” says IUMA’s mission statement) — has lived and died only to rise from the dot-com grave with its full hipness quotient intact. IUMA has the purest heart of the online music sites, and is a happy home for independent musicians — though that could change under the site’s new corporate ownership.
IUMA was bought out in 1999 by EMusic, with high hopes to hit it big as sort of a for-pay version of Napster. Unfortunately, the original, free Napster was still offering a more economical alternative. Meanwhile, the rest of the dot-com universe was imploding. In February of this year, EMusic shut down IUMA. But as it lay dormant, European digital-music purveyor Vitaminic swooped it, bought the site and reopened IUMA in early April. The new IUMA includes a pleasantly dumbed-down “artist uplink” process, resembling a Microsoft-style “wizard,” allowing musicians to create personal Web sites with a few minutes’ worth of mouse-clicking.
While mp3.com is better-known and offers potentially wider exposure, its “Payback for Playback” program attracts an inordinate degree of hucksters, and mp3.com even features a porn (sorry, “adult content”) section, most of which isn’t music at all but merely recordings of moaning, groaning and slapping sounds. Very progressive. Suffice to say, San Francisco–based IUMA is the hipper place to hang. For musicians who actually might care about music, IUMA offers a more receptive community, and without the crass moneygrubbing.
Somewhere in between those two is the elaborate and professional music community at Garageband.com. The company takes its name from the place where it was founded (a garage in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district), rather than the level of bands it attracts. Garageband is designed for the band that wants to be discovered — or at least evaluated — by Garageband’s roster of music-industry pros, with a chance to earn a recording contract on the company’s own label.
The registration and uploading process on Garageband is similar to IUMA’s. But Garageband offers a number of commercial services not found on IUMA, foremost among them the “New Deal,” in which bands compete for a recording contract with a non-refundable $250,000 advance. The competition is based largely on listener ratings of each song.
Garageband was co-founded by former Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison and features an “advisory board” of Harrison, Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite and an impressive roster of music-biz luminaries that even includes George “That Guy Who Produced All the Beatles Records” Martin. Board members take turns offering constructive criticism of songs that have already earned high listener ratings. The comments are posted on the site. Bands can specify which board member they feel should review their song, if they’re good enough to make it that far.
Slicker than mp3.com and far more commercial than Garageband, BeSonic was founded in 1999 by German multinational Bertelsmann Ventures, an arm of Bertelsmann AG, one of the world’s largest communications firms. A much higher level of professionalism is in evidence at this Hamburg-based site than at the Vivendi Universal–owned mp3.com. Most sites accept just about anything encoded in MP3 and post uploaded tracks right away. Mp3.com is so full of garbage that it even includes a “Worst of the Worst” chart, where listeners can access the most horrendous pieces of crap of the million or so tracks on the site. BeSonic, conversely, approves each track before anything is placed on the site — and that process can take a week or more.
BeSonic is not designed solely for the unsigned artist. Unknowns make up the bulk of the site’s population, but there are some big names mixed in. BeSonic is already the top legal download site in Germany and aims to become the same for the rest of the world. It’s hard to do that with nothing but four-track hobbyists. Independent bands may want to keep in mind that they’ll be competing for downloads with the likes of Beck and other big-name performers.
Any band should be able to meet its digital distribution needs at one of the above four sites, although musicbuilder.com, avamusic.com, ampcast.com and peoplesound.com are also worth a look.
Finally, there is the evermore essential step of building a promotional site for your own band. In an era where publicity is perhaps more important than melody for up-and-coming acts, a band without a Web site might as well go onstage without guitars and microphones. Online music sites will host one page per artist, but they will link to a band’s own Web site — so you’d better have one if you hope to realize your rock-star dreams in the Digital Age.