Record labels are embracing new technologies in search of music’s next big thing
Joe Berman looks for new bands. Typically, that means hanging out in dive bars, enduring hours of unlistenable music by groups whose rock-and-roll dreams far exceed their talent, praying for the occasional act that shows promise.
About 16 months ago, however, the Los Angeles-based talent-finder sat at home scouting the globe for groups. He typed “New Zealand indie rock bands” into his computer search engine and found Steriogram, five lads from the town of Whangarei in New Zealand. They had a song and a video posted on a Web site but no record contract.
Excited by what he heard, Berman e-mailed Steriogram frontman Brad Carter asking for more music, sparking a swift chain of events. Carter mailed a demo CD of about five songs. Berman played the songs for Dan McCarroll, senior creative director for EMI Publishing. Impressed, McCarroll played the music for a friend, who happened to be the president of Capitol Records.
Two weeks later, Steriogram had a five-album deal with Capitol, home of the Beatles and Garth Brooks. Now, the band is touring the United States and has a video on MTV.
“It’s really interesting the way a lot of people are looking for new bands,” McCarroll said. “It would be a real Cinderella story if five kids from New Zealand that no one knew made it.”
It may be a Cinderella story today, but it could be the norm in coming years. Beset by a drop of more than 30 percent in music sales over the past three years, ongoing piracy, industry consolidation, thousands of layoffs and bottom-line losses in the multimillions of dollars, the music business is searching for novel – and cheaper – ways to find and nurture talent.
For many years bands were discovered in clubs and signed by record labels, with eye-popping advances and massive promotion budgets to plug their singles on radio. But tough times call for tougher deals – the biggest advances are gone and labels are less likely to rubber-stamp the bloated expense accounts of bar-dwelling scouts. Likewise, the record companies no longer spend the thousands they used to invest to get a new song on big radio stations. The stations themselves can no longer afford to turn over their airwaves to acts that are not proven hit-makers.
All of which opens the door to a new breed of scout like Berman, a freelancer who spends his days trolling the Internet for the next Steriogram – “It’s actually what the [talent scouts] who make six figures should have been doing all along,” he said – and for new promotion channels, such as satellite radio, to expose new bands to listeners and build the all-important hype.
Steriogram, whose music is a combination of hip-hop and thrash metal, used 21st-century tools to luck and charm their way into the hiperati and, perhaps, to success.
About six months after Steriogram was signed, lead singer Carter faxed Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs, telling the computer-maker of the band’s affinity for Apple products. They used a PowerBook G4 laptop and Logic Pro software to record and edit their songs and iMovie software to make a tour video. Carter branded his group “a geek band.”
A week later, Jobs, whose iTunes Web site is the Internet’s most popular online music store, called Carter and promised to help promote the band. Recently, Apple’s Web site posted a lengthy feature on Steriogram.
Meanwhile, once signed, the group began to reap the rewards of the industry’s traditional personal network as well. The group’s first video, “Walkie Talkie Man,” a piece of fanciful animation, was made by Michel Gondry, whose critical hit, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, is in theaters now. Gondry directed the video because he was asked to by his friend – the president of Capitol Records. E-mailing from the band’s tour van last week, somewhere between Englewood, Colo., and Omaha, Carter wrote: “We are all stoked cause we just heard our song “Walkie Talkie Man” on the radio for the first time in the US.”
Even if a band is found by an A&R guy hanging out in a club, as with emerging alt-rockers stellastarr*, new technologies let labels and artists end-run traditional promotion channels, such as commercial radio.
New York-based stellastarr* was signed to a five-album deal in May 2003 by RCA Records. But five months earlier, deejay Billy Zero broke the band on satellite radio after he got hold of stellastarr*’s sole CD, recorded on the cheap in New York.
Zero works at XM Satellite Radio in Northeast Washington. For about $10 per month, the pay-radio service beams more than 100 channels of music, news, sports and talk to special receivers in cars and homes. Zero runs XM’s “Unsigned Bands” channel, which exclusively plays bands that do not have record contracts. He left Washington’s WHFS (99.1 FM) for XM in February 2000, after growing frustrated that the Infinity Radio station would not play enough unsigned bands to suit his tastes.
When the channel launched, Zero had to solicit CDs from unsigned bands. Now, he receives 50 to 100 CDs a day from hopeful bands, beseeching him to play their songs. “On my desk,” he said, “I’ve got nine ‘Property of U.S. Postal Service’ mail bins and another six on my intern’s desk full of [CDs].”
Zero received an e-mail from an unsigned band called End Of Me, which he added to the Unsigned Bands channel in March: “Our management has been contacted by several major labels that heard our music on your station,” the band wrote. EMI’s McCarroll listens to XM’s Unsigned Bands channel and, though he hasn’t signed any bands he’s heard, several have piqued his interest, he said.
Shawn Christensen, stellastarr*’s lead singer and songwriter, said the XM exposure combined with play on college radio stations and articles in the alternative music press “generates the buzz, which is ultimately the foundation for a band getting signed.”
RCA President Richard Sanders said XM did not play a direct role in stellastarr*’s signing, but said XM and its rival, New York’s Sirius Satellite Radio, are vital to building recognition for new bands and, more important, album sales. XM was launched in 2001 and now has nearly 1.7 million subscribers. Sirius came the next year and has more than 300,000 subscribers.
“XM is a taste-making station,” said Jonny Kaps, stellastarr*’s manager. Now that the band has a record contract, XM has moved stellastarr*’s songs to the XMU channel, which has a college-radio sound. Zero is starting a new show called “Inked,” which will play songs from bands that landed a major label deal but either got dropped or never had their record released, the fate of many signed bands.
Sanders and others in the industry have come to realize that XM and Sirius, both of which have teetered near bankruptcy, now combine to reach a national audience of more than 2 million listeners.
“It took us a minute to say, ‘Wow. Okay. There really is something here,” Sanders said. “None of us knew what [satellite radio] was other than a couple of dishes floating around in the universe. Now, it’s ‘Wow – they have an impact on sales.'”
Sirius, has two ways to help unsigned bands get major label deals.
As with XM, unsigned bands can submit their CDs to Sirius for play. If selected, instead of being played on one channel, Sirius plays the unsigned bands on the music-format channel each fits best.
Sirius also has something called the Working Artists Group (“WAG”; Sirius’s logo is a dog.), which invites unsigned bands into Sirius’s Rockefeller Center studios to record songs free – up to an entire CD’s worth. The band can shop the demo CD to record labels. If they get a deal, Sirius gets a cut of the band’s contract for a specified time.
In the past, record labels would spend thousands of dollars to get a new song on big radio stations, paying independent promoters, or “indies,” who gave much of that money to a radio station’s promotion budget in exchange for, they hoped, putting the label’s new song in the station’s airplay rotation. Critics call the system legalized payola.
“The big radio promotion budgets of yesteryear are gone,” said Bill Burrs, vice president of rock music for RCA, the man in charge of getting the label’s artists, such as stellastarr*, on radio. “Before, you could just load the gun and shoot. But no one’s spending $200,000 or $300,000 to blow out a single anymore.”
Some such promotion still goes on, but record companies no longer have as much money to throw around, and radio stations are more reluctant to play songs from artists who are not proven hit-makers, because their research shows that listeners mainly want to hear artists they know. Unfamiliar artists cause most listeners to switch stations, and each lost rating point at a radio station translates into lost advertising revenue.
“As much as people say, ‘We’d love to hear new music and local music,’ whenever anybody’s attempted that in the past couple of years, we’ve fallen flat on our faces in the ratings,” said Joe Bevilacqua, operations director of Washington rock station WWDC (101.1 FM), owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc. “Putting too much unfamiliar music together is dangerous.”
Unsigned bands have an even tougher time cracking the big over-the-air radio stations such as WHFS and WWDC.
“Other than localized specialty shows, it’s pretty tough if not impossible to get any commercial airplay,” Burrs said. “And those [unsigned bands] shows are typically Sunday night from 11 p.m. to midnight.”
WWDC has such a one-hour show, “Local Licks,” that airs on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. Bevilacqua said he plays some local unsigned bands as often as he can, but there is a chicken-and-egg problem: The bands must prove that they consistently can draw concert crowds and have a CD – even homemade – that can be bought somewhere.
“There’s nothing like a major commercial radio station getting behind a band and giving them the push,” Bevilacqua said. “People say, ‘Well, that never happens anymore now with corporate radio.’ I disagree to a point. You can’t just pick every local band that comes out and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to throw them into regular rotation.’ “