Like a lot of guys who spend their lives toiling away in the oft-thankless world of unsigned local bands, Chuck Tinsley is looking forward to the day when music will make him rich -- or at least provide him with a comfortable income. But as a guitarist in the Denver bluegrass outfit High Plains Tradition, Tinsley isn't holding his breath for a major record deal to make this dream a reality. Bluegrass is a niche market at best, he says, and even if he signed to a record label, major or otherwise, it would yield only a meager living for him and his bandmates. Tinsley thinks he's better off keeping his day job as an environmental engineer and leaving his music relegated to part-time status.
So how's he going to make this fortune? The same way everyone else gets rich these days: the Web. More specifically, through the MP3 digital audio format, which promises to rewrite the rules of the music business by allowing bands to reclaim power -- and profits -- from music-industry honchos by delivering their product directly to fans. One Web site in particular, www.MP3.com, has established itself as the leader in the music biz's newer, flatter paradigm. Currently, it hosts 18,000 artists and offers 100,000 songs that visitors can download for free.
When bands like High Plains Tradition sign up with MP3.com, they can upload MP3 versions of their songs to the site. Fans who discover them can download the near-CD-quality songs to their computer -- or to a portable, Walkman-like MP3 listening device -- and enjoy. Listeners can then order more comprehensive and longer works from the band -- EPs, CDs -- directly off of the site. The Web site splits the profits of the sale evenly with the band, an unheard-of equity arrangement in traditional label-artist relationships. Sounds great -- until Tinsley says that since February, his band has probably sold only fifteen or twenty CDs via MP3.com.
Tinsley may get rich yet, however -- but not off sales of his own CD. When MP3.com held an initial public offering last month, the $7 billion it raised left even those jaded by this go-go Internet-fueled economy with a ringing in their ears. And MP3.com offered the bands that had been on their site for three months prior to the IPO the chance to get in on the ground floor. The company reserved stock for the bands and allowed them to buy in at $28 per share, the opening price. The stock immediately quadrupled before easing down to less astronomical figures. Today, after a slowing of last month's initial boom, the company is worth approximately $2 billion.
"I made more money off of that site in one day than I will being in a bluegrass band for six years," says Tinsley. He demurs when asked how aggressive his stock position is in the company. But while he says he clearly didn't become an overnight billionaire like MP3.com's founder, Michael Robertson, he's also not complaining. "We look at the CD sales as gravy," Tinsley says. (Representatives of MP3.com, which is still in a quiet period after the IPO, declined to comment for this article.)
John Hedtke, the Seattle-based author of MP3 and the Digital Music Revolution, says it's easy to account for MP3.com's success among the many similar Web sites. "They're far and away the biggest. They have the best domain name you can have. It simply has more of everything -- a lot of news, a lot of editorials and opinions, and boatloads of MP3 files that are, number one, legal, number two, well-indexed, and number three, well-described."
But it's really MP3.com's promise of exposure -- if not necessarily huge record sales or stock options -- that attracts local artists to it, and those toiling in the Denver music scene are among those flocking to the wonder of the Web site. Denver-based rap, country, metal, Christian, rock and pop artists are all represented on the site. For music fans who can't bear trudging out to smoky clubs to catch local acts, it's a blessing. For the bands themselves, it allows them to beat the system.
For example, Arvada's Dan Treanor, a 52-year-old roots rocker who performs under the names Arc Light and Mr. Downtime, says that MP3 has given him worldwide exposure and global marketing power. "From an independent point of view, it's a good tool. Big companies want to have total control over who is being distributed and who isn't. MP3.com takes that control out of their hands."
Treanor is amazed at MP3's broad appeal. "I'm selling in Europe and South America. Where else would they get a chance to hear my music?" After recently doing several shows in Holland and Belgium, he found a Web presence was essential. "In Europe, everyone wanted to know, 'Where's your Web page?'"
Robert Eldridge, lead guitarist of Zeut, agrees. "It leaves out the middle man. It's making record companies scared because they can't get a piece." His band has been on MP3.com for about four months. In July, he says, the band had 968 views of its MP3.com page and 338 downloads of its songs. "We're amazed people are downloading the music and they've never even heard of the band," he says.
Like Tinsley, Eldridge feels that MP3.com has taken away the urgency to sign to a record label, which usually demands that a band tour extensively to support its albums. But for Eldridge, who is a stockbroker when not jamming with the band, a strict label alliance can be quite a gamble. "Being signed is the easy part, but a label will drop you on a dime," he says. "MP3.com is like a buffer zone. You get distribution without giving up anything."
While the MP3 format may eventually translate into increased sales for the little guy, for major record companies and music publishers, the free-for-all frenzy represents a threat to copyright protections and profits. For instance, anyone with a Ricky Martin CD and a piece of software called a ripper can make MP3 copies of the songs and distribute them on the Net, circumventing the record industry's usual revenue streams to record companies and performers. And unlike tape dubs, these copies are close to CD-quality.
That's why the Recording Industry Association of America has come out in favor of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, which hopes to develop a competing MP3 standard. SDMI would achieve the same CD-quality sound of MP3, but it would electronically prevent limitless copying and distribution of files. Although author Hedtke believes that the recording industry is "on the side of the angels" when it comes to efforts to protect copyrights and artist royalties, he says "they're fighting a losing battle. They need to adapt."
For small, unsigned acts, digital piracy isn't a problem. Without publishing royalties to worry about, these bands are only too happy to let people hear their music for free. Treanor says that providing a free MP3 song is akin to radio play. "It's a great way to give people a taste of what I do, to say, 'Yeah, this is pretty good. I want to buy the CD,'" says Treanor, who has sold fifty CDs through MP3.com.
A more immediate concern, according to Tinsley, is how to make your band stand out among the 18,000 others on the MP3.com site. By design, any tone-deaf fifteen-year-old kid armed with a Casio keyboard and the desire to become the next Yanni shares equal billing on the site with seasoned, skilled musicians. For the casual surfer, this democracy can become infuriating; it means spending a lot of time torturing one's eardrums before finding an even halfway decent song. "You've got to put on your hip waders and be prepared to listen to a lot of things that suck," Tinsley says.
Tinsley thinks that MP3.com needs to hire a staff to separate the wheat from the chaff to give better bands the exposure they deserve. Right now the site lists and offers rankings for the most frequently downloaded songs on the entire MP3 site, splitting them into specific genres and geographic locations. But since most of the bands behind the songs are unknowns, it's hard for them to get MP3.com visitors to download their music. Many performers have figured out various tricks to overcome this problem.
"Some bands don't like to label themselves," explains 27-year-old Thaddaeus Wecker of the Westminster Christian speed-metal band Ruptura. "But that could hurt them as far as MP3.com is concerned. You'll be lost at sea. You want to be real specific."
This target marketing has worked for Wecker's band, which spent several weeks this summer as Denver's most-downloaded act when it performed under the name Advocate, a moniker that had built up a following among Christian-metal fans. It was also ranked fourth-most-popular download in the entire rubric of heavy-metal bands, a category that encompasses 8,000 performers.
Another way that bands can get noticed is by uploading new songs often, as the latest songs to be uploaded in any particularly category are highlighted on the site. It's a method not everyone agrees with; Tinsley maintains it gives an unfair advantage to bands that prefer quantity over quality.
"I've listened to some of the songs in the MP3.com Top 40," says Zeut's Eldridge, "and I'm like, 'Oh, no! No way can this be number one!'" But it's a problem that he thinks will eventually disappear. "It will self-correct based on the merits of the music. By promoting the site at performances, by word of mouth and press releases, you'll get people who are looking for music. I don't think it's about working harder; it's about working smarter."
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Chuck Fishman of the funk band fONKSQUISh agrees that just shooting a few songs to MP3.com isn't enough to get noticed. Bands need to be aggressive and savvy with promotion. fONKSQUISh, which has been on the site for several months, maintains an e-mail list that it uses to alert fans when a new song has been uploaded to the site, as well as convey the latest news regarding the band. "We hit newsgroups like rec.music.funk and promote the band online," says Fishman. "Through a little bit of effort, we've seen two of our songs to the top ten of the funk genre chart on MP3.com."
Other Denver artists have found still other uses for MP3.com. DJ Derrick Daisey, AKA Vitamin D, is using the site to link people to his own Web site, djmixtapes.com, where he sells -- you guessed it -- mix tapes. "I just put [the MP3 files] up, but I really haven't followed the statistics."
And it's hard to follow statistics when you don't even now you're listed on the site. Rapper Alex Cowans, who performs under the name AK Love, didn't know he was listed on the site until he was asked to comment for this article. Neither he nor his Webmaster is quite sure how he got on MP3.com. But it's cool by Cowans. "I think it's real good. It's good for the future. It's easier for people overseas or in different states to find you."
So while many Denver music scenesters feel that living here is a handicap in their struggle to hit the big time, MP3.com may make the journey a little easier.