Same as it ever was; corporate sponsorship is a key to “indie” pop success. That’s not the new and horrible part. The new and horrible part is the smarmy business buzzword talk from the musicians.
Bands, online brands win big with crafty contests
Sun May 28, 2006 11:55 PM ET
By Antony Bruno
SAN FRANCISCO (Billboard) – Six months ago, the Parlour Boys were just a Lexington, Ky.-based bar band aspiring to a career in the music business. They had little more than talent, hope and a MySpace profile.
Then the band stumbled upon an advertisement on MySpace for Verizon Wireless’ “Calling All Bands” contest, offering unsigned acts the chance to have a song featured as a ringtone, ringback tone, music video and full-track download on the new VCast Music service.
Out of 4,000 songs submitted, the group’s “Lovers” won the grand prize. The effect was immediate. Before the winning song was even converted into a ringtone, record labels began flying out to meet the band, and Verizon featured the act at its South by Southwest Music Festival showcase.
It was a double win for the band and the telecom. The Parlour Boys received much-needed attention, and Verizon generated some of the indie cred it has been working to cultivate since the January launch of the VCast Music service.
BRAVE NEW SYMBIOSIS
MySpace, with its 75 million members and 38.4 million unique monthly visitors, pioneered the symbiotic relationship between a service aiming to build a community and the developing artists who are looking for fast, cheap exposure. But MySpace is no longer alone.
Today there are many emerging, well-financed new-media and telecom services that are happy to help launch a struggling artist’s career in exchange for a chance to beef up their brand’s presence in the music scene. And contests are helping these acts — and services — stand out from the pack.
Among the digital services offering music contests are Bodog Music (bodogmusic.com), which is conducting a nationwide battle of the bands for $1 million and a recording contract via peer-to-peer voting; American Idol Underground (americanidolunderground.com), where the TV phenomenon invites aspiring artists to compete for cash, equipment and professional services in twice-yearly listener polls; and Guitar Hero II (beaguitarhero.com), with video game creators picking a winner to be included in the game’s soundtracks.
Vivendi Universal Games recently awarded indie music artist Kazy a spot on the soundtrack to its “Scarface: The World Is Yours” game after he received more than 70,000 votes from a MySpace contest. Kazy and the two runners-up also had the opportunity to open for red-hot Interscope act Wolfmother in Hollywood during the E3 videogame convention in May. RedOctane, publisher of the popular “Guitar Hero,” is taking submissions for the chance to have a song featured in the game’s sequel, “Guitar Hero II.”
And TagWorld — a startup, music-focused social-networking site competing with MySpace — is working with New Line Cinema to offer unknown bands the chance to land a song in the soundtrack to the upcoming camp thriller “Snakes on a Plane,” which hits theaters in August. Any act with a TagWorld profile can submit a song for consideration, and the TagWorld community will narrow the contest to 25 finalists. The movie’s producers will select the winner in June.
“It’s a great way for us as a company to get exposure and get artists to submit their music to our site,” TagWorld spokeswoman Jenny Gould says.
With only about 5,500 music acts as members, TagWorld still pales in comparison to the behemoth MySpace, which touts more than 1 million. After the promotion’s first week, TagWorld reported a 21 percent increase in new profiles.
DRAWING THE LINE
But there’s a fine line between offering a digital platform for new acts to promote themselves and exploiting their hopes and dreams for a short-term publicity stunt. MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson says he is very careful about which contests he’ll let tap the site’s artist community because there is no shortage of companies looking to prey on the ambitions of naive young artists. In particular, he won’t allow contests that offer recording contracts or require artists to pay anything for their services.
“If you’re good, you’re not trying to win a record deal,” he says. “Any good band can sign a record deal. You wouldn’t enter a contest to get locked up into a contract. That should be a matter of negotiation.”
Instead, Anderson limits virtual battle-of-the-bands promotions to services that offer some type of exposure, like the Verizon contest.
“They’re not there to exploit the artist,” he says. “They want to associate their name with music and do something cooler than just putting an ad up.”
Early evidence indicates that the tactic is working for the bands involved.
“We know we’re basically their guinea pigs to see how this indie vibe they’re trying to push is going to work,” Parlour Boys drummer John Buckman says. “But it’s already been great press and publicity both locally and nationally. Our hits on MySpace have gone through the roof.”
Traffic to TagWorld’s “Snakes” contest remains steady at about 8,000 hits per day after a high of 14,000 the day the contest was announced. In comparison, the band Jet was getting 80 hits per day during this same period on its TagWorld page.
“It’s a great platform for creative people to get word out there about themselves without having to sign their lives away to a major label or never get beyond their local radio station,” Gould says. “This is a way to get beyond their physical space and gain exposure on the Internet.”
STEPPING IN FOR LABELS
Perhaps more important for record labels, a lot of these services are serving as extensions to their A&R (artists and repertoire) departments. At a time when the economics of the music business make it more difficult than ever to commit to long-term artist development, these digital music services have emerged as a surrogate incubator. And contests help to select the good eggs.
“We’re scouting for the labels, it seems,” TagWorld’s Gould says. “We’re doing their A&R jobs.”
The challenge for the acts is to leverage this digital attention into a recording contract. Collecting 10,000 MySpace friends or winning a TagWorld contest may aid greatly in getting a foot in the door, but it’s only a start.
Neither the Parlour Boys nor Kazy, or any of the other contest winners, have converted their success into label deals yet. But that’s not to say it hasn’t had any effect. The Parlour Boys, for instance, say they’ve had to hire a full-time manager to oversee their increasingly busy schedules. They plan to self-release an EP in two months. Kazy says he’ll evaluate the impact of his contest prize once the “Scarface” game hits stores in the third quarter of this year.
But these acts realize it takes a lot more than simply winning a contest to establish a long-term career.
“We weren’t sitting here twiddling our thumbs before this, but we also don’t want to be sitting here twiddling our thumbs a year from now either,” the Parlour Boys’ Buckman says. “We’re lucky that this has happened at a time when we had other things going for us. In some ways, we’ve gotten better connections on our own than what the Verizon thing has brought us. But it’s been a kick in the ass that added to all the other things that were going on.”