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.
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.