Heard It on the Web

Put your music online for the world to hear. Once your potential fans find you, you must keep them returning to your site. Internet Music Distribution

Put your music online for the world to hear.

Once your potential fans find you, you must keep them returning to your site.

Internet Music Distribution

Most musicians are well aware that the Internet is spurring major changes in the music industry. Today digital download and streaming technologies offer musicians ways to distribute and promote their music to an international audience at minimal cost. Besides encouraging greater diversity, these technologies can contribute to a richer and more direct relationship between the artist and the fan. As a musician and producer, and as someone who has been working in the Internet music scene for a couple of years, I take a great interest in these developments. I'm also alternately awed by the potential and put off by the hype that seem to be endemic to this evolving industry.

In the time I researched and wrote this article, a number of events occurred in the industry. Big fish swallowed little fish, and numerous companies folded in the wake of dwindling capital and unrealistic financial expectations. The first wave of Internet excitement crested and crashed, and the companies that emerged intact can provide us with a picture of the industry to come.

Cyberspace offers plenty of opportunities for promoting and selling your music. I couldn't possibly cover all the Internet music distributors working today, so I set up some general categories to examine. Various companies' offerings overlap a great deal; the more informed you are about what's available, the more skillfully you can choose what combination of approaches best suits you.


Peer-to-peer software lets you bypass central servers and connect directly to other users for trading MP3 and other types of files. The software directs you to the users' hard drives that have the desired music files. Peer-to-peer technologies have generated much controversy; the recording industry, including many musicians and songwriters, has tried to stop companies such as Napster, Inc. (www.napster.com) because the users often trade copyrighted material (see Fig. 1).

In 2000 Napster ended up in a nasty court battle with the recording industry. A stunning development in the fall caught the big labels and the rest of the industry off guard. Napster agreed to license its technology to recording industry giant Bertelsmann (BMG), with the intention of developing a commercial version of Napster. Maybe this development follows the adage “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies even closer.” Or maybe it follows the report that CD sales have actually increased since Napster began operating. Either way BMG is poised to use Napster's technology and, more important, its user database for empire building. The other major labels have been relatively quiet since this agreement was reached. Perhaps they are trying to develop peer-to-peer business models too. (For more details, check out Larry Powers's coverage of the ongoing saga at www.newmediamusic.com.)

Most peer-to-peer programs, such as Gnutella, are essentially shareware that isn't associated with any centralized entity that can be challenged in court. So no matter what companies such as Napster do, the bottom line is that fast, free music-file-trading technologies are here to stay.

As a recording artist, you can attempt to protect your material from rampant trading by using a secure delivery format such as Liquid Audio's. But getting your music traded over the Internet is nearly impossible — especially if it's good. If you take the view that any exposure is good exposure, you can choose to become involved in circulating your MP3 files in peer-to-peer communities. If you are not signed to a record label or if you own the copyright to your work, peer-to-peer trading may help you. (If you are signed but your agreement provides some flexibility, peer-to-peer may be an option for you as well.) At the very least, you'll be able to redirect users to your own Web site or your choice of retail site by putting a brief audio tag at the end of your songs, letting listeners know how to find you, how to get more music, and maybe how to purchase your CD. Some musicians who have embraced Napster, such as Dave Mason and Donna Delory, have been rewarded with tens of thousands of visits to their Web sites.

Years ago the Grateful Dead realized that giving away music paid off. The band let fans tape live shows and trade its music freely. That circulation of Grateful Dead music created a culture of devoted fans and ultimately allowed the band to earn substantial revenue from touring and merchandising. Many artists don't make the bulk of their income from CD sales but rather through live performances, broadcast residuals, and merchandise.

The MP3 format and peer-to-peer technologies are part of a transitional phase and are an indication of new possibilities for approaches beneficial to artists and music fans alike. Those approaches take advantage of the convenience and ease of quickly locating and downloading songs on the Internet as well as the ability to purchase single songs at a lower price than the traditional $15 to $18 for a CD that might only contain one good song.


Many sites create online fan communities or music communities that focus on individual artists, music styles, music in general, lifestyles, or the site itself. Most of the sites in this article share at least some of those characteristics. Companies such as Artist One.com; ARTISTdirect, Inc. (www.artistdirect.com); and ArtistEnt.com offer chat rooms and online forums dedicated to specific artists, so that fans can interact and trade with each other.

Pearl Jam released an online album of shows from its summer 2000 tour and has encouraged fans to collect and trade the recordings. This activity is essentially an update of what the Grateful Dead did, and it's what those fan community sites are focused on: creating “digital Deadheads” for bands and artists.


Some of the more prominent music upload sites are MP3.com, Internet Underground Music Archive (IUMA), and Riffage (which recently ceased operation). Those sites generally offer free membership, have nonexclusive agreements, and let virtually anyone upload music and make it available to others for previewing or downloading. They also sell CDs. Users get a page on which they can post songs, biographical information, press reviews, and performance schedules. In most cases, musicians can change and update their pages themselves, and they can link to a more central home page. To maximize traffic and sales, some Web sites offer music from, or partner with sites dedicated to, established artists.

MP3.com (see Fig. 2), the best-known upload site, made its debut in 1996 and continues to be a major player in the Internet music industry. Originally a site where virtually any unsigned musician or band could post songs for free download, MP3.com has expanded and now offers new ways for musicians to gain exposure and earn money. It also offers downloads for sale on custom CDs at brick-and-mortar retail stores through its partnership with Outernet, Inc. One important development is that MP3.com — since settling a suit with major record labels (and in the face of new lawsuits from independent labels) for unauthorized use of content — now charges users for some services. Many sites besides MP3.com sell downloads, but not every site makes such sales a major part of its business model — downloads are actually only a small source of income in the industry at this point. That's because it is still a relatively new approach; it is only available to those with computer access; and free downloads are already so prevalent.

Established in 1994, IUMA (www.iuma.com) was one of the first organizations to explore and develop Internet music delivery. As the company profile says, “IUMA.com is the one place to post your music where actual musicians are watching out for you — not weasels watching the numbers.” IUMA has retained its emphasis on helping unsigned bands and is associated with partners such as EMusic.com, which focuses on independent labels and established artists. How this association will play out remains to be seen.

Riffage was established in June 1999 and lasted 18 months before folding. Prior to succumbing to a volatile market, Riffage specialized in distributing tracks by unsigned artists. The company utilized visitors' feedback to develop artist and song recommendations. Artists could also check out daily updates about sales, rankings, and customer lists.

In 1999 Riffage purchased the Great American Music Hall, a venerable San Francisco nightclub. The purchase was aimed at expanding the Riffage Live Webcasting division, which broadcasted performances by new groups and established acts and presented Webcasts from other venues and musical events across the globe. When the company went out of business, the nightclub went up for sale. Riffage provides an illustration of one business model that left its company struggling to stay afloat. You will see variations on one company's approach in many other Internet music distributors. It is quite important to be aware that the company you choose to work with may fold. As I wrote this article, music companies AtomicPop.com and Spinrecords.com fell by the wayside, too.


Online label can be used to describe sites that invest in producing, promoting, and distributing music in varying degrees. Most of those companies incorporate characteristics of both traditional retail outlets and online businesses. Their online advertising mainly tends to promote Web sites as a whole as opposed to promoting individual artists.

Besides being an Internet music site, Liquid Audio (www.liquidaudio.com; see Fig. 3) functions as an online label by promoting software that lets musicians, record labels, and music retailers deliver music through the Internet. The company provides comprehensive e-commerce logistics services, including digital-rights management. Artists can go to the site, register, download the free encoder, and then upload their music to the Liquid Audio transaction engine. Liquid Audio also offers one of the best-sounding compression formats available.

EMusic.com (see Fig. 4) claims to have the Internet's largest catalog of downloadable MP3 files for purchase. Individual tracks sell for as little as $0.99; entire downloadable albums cost $8.99. The site also offers EMusic Unlimited, a subscription service that lets users download as much music as they want for as little as $9.99 a month. EMusic.com selects artists in the same way a traditional record label would; you can't just upload your tracks as you can on MP3.com. EMusic.com works on an “exclusive” model, which means the company becomes your label for the material that you sign with it, and you're not necessarily free to post that material on other sites. EMusic.com also operates a group of music-oriented Web sites, including RollingStone.com, DownBeat.com, and IUMA.com.

For online A&R in its most basic state, check out DreamWorks Digital (www.dreamworksdigital.com), a division of DreamWorks Records. (For more about A&R, see “Working Musician: A&R Primer” in the June 2000 issue of EM.)

Artists can upload one song submission every three months. DreamWorks Digital plans to showcase selected submissions in the future. The company suggests you carefully read its submission agreement's “exclusive” aspects.

Artists Without A Label (AWAL; www.awal.com) falls into the A&R category as well. The company provides an outlet and services for emerging artists, most of whom are on small independent labels (see Fig. 5). Artists who get the most response from users in terms of downloads and online CD sales can then have their music distributed offline internationally through AWAL's arrangements with traditional retail outlets.

Garageband.com and Farmclub.com combine various qualities of online labels and online A&R. Garageband.com was co-founded by former Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison and boasts big-name, established producers on its board and staff, including producer George Martin of Beatles fame. Bands upload their songs to the site, and users can download, review, and rate the music. Every couple of months the winning band gets a $250,000 recording contract and teams up with an established album producer. Garageband.com produces and distributes the CDs.

Farmclub.com lets unsigned artists upload their music onto the site, where fans can listen to and download the music free of charge. Site users can also download music from some established artists. Users can vote for their favorite acts, and the most popular receives an invitation to appear on Farmclub.com, a one-hour television show that presents the new acts along with better-known musicians. The A&R staff at the Farmclub.com record label chooses bands to sign and develops and promotes their music through the Universal Music Group. Jimmy Iovine, a producer and record company executive, and Doug Morris, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, created Farmclub.com.


Whether you put it up yourself, hire someone to create it, have a friend develop it, or make your online home within an established company's domain, it's important to have your own Web site where users can find out more about you. If the Internet levels the playing field, then the challenge to any online musician is finding a way to be seen and heard among the many artists vying for attention. Moreover, once your potential fans find you, you must keep them interested and returning to your site. Cultivating the relationship between artist and fan is an essential element of success.

Once you have a Web site and you start getting some visits, update your site as often as possible. Notify your fans of new shows, new content, and so on. Promote your URL at all of your performances and interviews. Above all, continue making music and posting it regularly. Take chances. Post works in progress for preview and get vulnerable with your fans. Let them know why you wrote the song. Television shows such as VH1's Behind the Music and Storytellers, and MTV Unplugged are popular for a reason: fans like to know what was going on in the artist's head when a song was created.

Consider dedicating one or two songs to use as free promotional downloads and make them available through any site you can. By giving the songs away, you can generate recognition of and interest in your music and can encourage listeners to visit your Web site and purchase your CD. (You might do an edit so that the free download is a full song, but the complete original version is only available on the CD.) Perhaps add a short voice-over tag to the end of the free songs, letting listeners know something about you.

Putting your music on the Internet is really a kind of shotgun approach to marketing. To maximize results, it's important to work your niche and fine-tune your efforts. Locate your fans through various music scenes and fan communities, try getting your music on sites that feature your music style, and learn from other artists' sites. If you don't know where to begin, visit a Web site such as Musicdistribution.com (see Fig. 6). Through its portal, you can link to thousands of artist sites, which will let you assess how much effort other musicians put into their Web presence. Based on your research, you can decide how much effort you want to invest in your site. Determine how much of your business you want to manage and how much you want an Internet distributor or label to handle. (For more sites that serve musicians, see the sidebar “Recommended Sites.”)


Subscription services are one strong trend that should grow in popularity with artists and fans. Those who want to follow your musical career can subscribe to your world. Many people would gladly subscribe to an artist's work for a monthly or yearly fee. Because digital duplication is not easily controlled, subscriptions allow for a more direct, supportive, and mutually beneficial relationship between musician and audience. People can subscribe to individual artist sites or to an Internet distribution site. Those sites distribute revenue from the subscription income to the artists in accordance with the number of downloads each artist generates. Even MP3.com offers a subscription service for classical music and may do the same with other genres in the future.

Jim Griffin, founder and CEO of Cherry Lane Digital, takes downloads out of the picture. He believes music will be carried in streams, not downloads, and that “the arrival of wireless digital access will permit customized access to music, movies, books, and other media content.” Indeed, personal digital assistants exist that can surf the Net, pick up e-mail, make phone calls, and play MP3 files. So listening to streaming music via wireless DSL seems like a plausible scenario.

As much as the Internet has transformed the music industry, it will still have two major camps: independent musicians and established companies (which focus their promotion dollars on a few artists). Major and minor labels will continue to coexist but in many more permutations and varieties. Minor labels will be more artist controlled and not simply smaller versions of major labels. Continued competition from Internet companies will provide greater opportunities for artists to demand better contracts or to go online and claim a bigger piece of the pie.

The larger labels will continue to exist and will be especially important in developing certain artists. Their resources will be invaluable in promoting and marketing musicians who want to break through to national and international audiences. The major labels will absorb many of the newer music companies, as BMG arguably did with Napster, but they will also have to contend with the growing presence of independent companies prominently positioned on the Internet.


One clear drawback of the traditional record industry system is that it allows relatively few artists to succeed while most flounder in obscurity. The Internet and downloadable technologies, however, provide the tools for an emerging middle class of musicians that has a more direct relationship with its fans. Those artists may have perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 fans and could make $50,000 to $100,000 per year selling music directly. In most cases, those artists perform live. Live performances may become an even more important source of income for many artists in the future.

Last year a number of Internet music distributors rose quickly to prominence and then took a beating as their companies failed to build successful businesses quickly enough. Many in the music industry now believe that combining traditional brick-and-mortar retail outlets with online promotion, sales, and distribution is the best approach.

On the other hand, the volatility of the Internet is apparent, so from a practical as well as a creative standpoint, it is important that you put together your own Web site. Even if you only post a page with song previews and biographical information, you will be making a start and ensuring that your site is around while Internet music companies come and go. If you stick with it and your music's good, who knows what great opportunities may arise?

Robert Powell is a musician, composer, and executive producer of music at ArtistOne.com in San Francisco. He thanks Alex Artaud for his assistance with this article.


Many Web sites are devoted to serving established and emerging artists. The following ten sites merit some attention for the services they provide artists. Check them out and use them as a springboard for your own research.