June 23, 2007 / 6:40 PM / 12 years ago

Digital riches await savvy indie bands

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Unsigned and indie artists for years have sold CDs and tapes from their merchandise table at live gigs to earn a little extra scratch while on the road.

A generic picture of a compact discs. REUTERS/Catherine Benson

How ‘90s, right? Where’s the digital download? How about a ringtone?

There is perhaps no more important moment for an unknown act to make an impact than at the point of initial discovery — which almost always means at a live gig. Until recently, the only way to capitalize on this digitally was for bands to announce their MySpace profile and hope fans would visit later.

Not anymore. A handful of new companies now offer digital DIY resources to savvy artists interested in converting the live experience into an opportunity for profit and promotion.

One that’s been commanding a decent degree of attention lately is DiscRevolt. The company provides artists with customized prepaid cards that fans can redeem for MP3 downloads on its Web site. Here’s how it works: Artists buy in bulk a set of cards that they can design with their own custom artwork and text. Each card has a unique redemption code and holds 15 credits. Participating artists then upload their music in MP3 format to their profile on the DiscRevolt site, which can also accommodate a bio, contact info and artwork. Bands can either sell or give away these cards to fans, who use the redemption code to download individual tracks — one credit per track.

Where pressing CDs generally costs on average of $1 per disc — excluding cover art and booklets — DiscRevolt prices range from 100 cards for $99 (99 cents each) to 1,000 cards for $450 (45 cents each). Larger bulk orders can run as low as 25 cents per card.

There are no further per-track costs for tracks downloaded from the site. Artists pocket the cash they make by selling the cards individually — typically between $5 and $10. And even kids without a credit card can buy them.

With MySpace’s Snocap-run MyStore, meanwhile, unsigned artists are charged 39 cents for a 99-cent song, a credit card is needed, and transactions have to wait until the fan returns home after the show.

“As the world moves to downloads, the artists who are making a living at live shows are getting lost,” DiscRevolt VP of business development Joe Kirk says. “That is the moment a fan is most willing to give their money to an artist.”

DiscRevolt is in beta mode, and counts some 2,000 acts as customers, including Fiction Plane, fronted by Sting’s son and currently the opening act on the Police’s reunion tour.

But what about mobile phones? While cards are great to bring home and redeem for downloads, mobile devices with Internet connectivity allow for an even more immediate interaction. Imagine an unsigned artist announcing a shortcode from the stage so fans could send a message for more information about the band — or for free and paid musical content.

That’s a platform, though, largely out of reach for the unsigned and indie act. Carrier-run music download services like those from Sprint and Verizon Wireless don’t deal with individual indie labels, let alone unsigned artists, for either full-song downloads or ringtones.

Artists can bypass the operator, but it’s expensive. Registering a shortcode that will work with all U.S. wireless operators costs $500 per month, and that doesn’t even take into account negotiating the billing relationship and facilitating the hosting and delivery of content.

But other options are available. The MyxerTone service from mVisible provides online tools for artists to create their own ringtones and wallpaper applications for mobile phones. It also hosts the content for artists on its site, and provides a shortcode service called MyxerCodes.

All artists in the program share the same shortcode (69937, or “myxer”) but each ringtone or wallpaper they’re selling (or giving away) has its unique code. The services do not support full-song downloads for mobile phones.

Though all Myxer services are free to artists, the company keeps 70% of each sale, whether from a mobile phone or downloaded from its Web site. Myxer then sends participating acts monthly payments (the remaining 30%) and a full report on all traffic and activity.

Artists who want to sell their content must be members of the company’s MyxerIndie program, which verifies that artists own the rights to the content, and also offers such services as a short message service contact list tool.

Neither DiscRevolt nor MyxerTone are alone in offering these kinds of services (see sidebar). But undiscovered artists seeking a digital strategy should remain wary of which services they give their money. Companies — digital or otherwise — seeking to prey on the hopes of unknown artists desperate for a shot at fame and fortune have never been scarce. Still, as the digital transition continues, selling CDs out of the van just isn’t going to cut it.

Reuters/Billboard

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