Local bands make it big on the Web
February 2, 1999
by Jimmy Guterman
(IDG) -- Nowhere is the "think global, act local" notion more alive than on the Internet. While countless new companies leap onto the Web bent on world domination, most know that you have to convince people in your neighborhood that you have a great idea before someone an ocean away will pay attention.
This is especially true for rock-and-roll bands, which can use the Net to do something they haven't been able to achieve for a generation: release songs that become solid regional hits.
Back when Elvis was making lousy movies, bands could record songs that made a huge impact on local radio stations and in area record stores but were mostly unheard outside a small region. Sometimes performers who scored regional hits would become national stars – Waylon Jennings, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, and Bob Seger are prime examples. More often, the performer would enjoy local celebrity for a few weeks, then go back to his or her day job.
This hasn't happened much in a generation: Can you imagine any locale that would be willing to admit it gave the world Vanilla Ice? Thanks to the demise of independent labels (now merely farm teams for the major labels), the rise of national radio networks and MTV, there have been no music outlets sturdy enough to drive regional hits. But one of the many surprising trends accompanying the rise of the supposedly global Internet has been the creation of a format in which regional songs – both traditional ones based on geography and virtual ones built on communities of interest – can thrive again.
Let's say you're in a punk band called something charming, such as "Hate." You're just starting out and you want to share your powerful demo tape with your small-but-devoted fan base and local promoters. The Net is a cheaper, easier way to distribute your music than pressing your own discs, even if you're using a CD-ROM drive on a borderline-obsolete PC. Hate doesn't have money to press CDs, wrap them in rudimentary packaging and mail them. Using the Web, with its easy encoding methods, free servers for small players and enormous audience, you can put products in people's hands for a fraction of what it would have cost you before the Net.
This scenario already happens in some niche genres, including some that will never get the floor space at the local Tower Records that ugly white-power bands get. It can happen just as easily for music closer to the mainstream.
The Web-distribution opportunity will become even more attractive over the next year as the bloated rosters on major labels shrink. The MCA buyout of PolyGram is expected to result in the forced departure of more than 100 performers from their combined roster, and this will spread through the industry. The shrinkage will force many performers to smaller labels, and that will trickle down to the point at which many worthwhile acts that have a shot at making an impact in their regions, if not nationally, will have no other cost-effective choice but the Net. They won't be indulged with major-label-size advances, but they will be able to present themselves to their world without the daunting, royalty-draining infrastructure of a major label separating them from a modest, but potentially sustaining, audience.
In the near future, this is not a large-scale solution. Once you're selling large quantities of independent CDs, you need to operate through a more traditional distribution structure (Ani DiFranco has managed this well; the former Prince hasn't), but the Net is, potentially, a quick way to get to that level. And bands in this lower commercial tier can operate without the constraints under which better-known performers need to operate. For example, no one will worry about unauthorized copying of MP3 files because these bands are desperate to be heard. Indeed, they'd encourage copying.
Net distribution of music by local bands is an outstanding opportunity for local portals, particularly those associated with radio stations. The local portals would get free content, promotion and traffic, while the bands would get free or low-cost distribution. Both sides might attract new audiences that they'd never reach without the other. It's a form of synergy that even the guys in Hate might be able to support.
Jimmy Guterman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the Vineyard Group, an editorial consultancy. He has produced CD boxed sets for every major record label, including a couple that no longer exist.
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