It was supposed to make music more accessible: Last year, John Condolly, a science teacher in Brooklyn, heard a song by a rail-thin 15-year-old named Oliver Ignatius, the lead singer of a band called the Hysterics. Connolly, who had become close to his student over music, loved Ignatius’ song and posted it on Music for Robots, an influential blog he helps run.
Joseph Patel, a producer for MTV News and a regular reader of the blog, heard the song there. The Hysterics also loved it, and he decided to put them on the air, even though they had only practiced at the house of drummer Geoff Turbeville.
MTV broadcast the segment, and the site was flooded with teenage girls declaring their love for the Hysterics. An offer has been made to them from a major label.
Connolly and his fellow Music for Robots members are attempting their own coup now. The blog recently released a compilation CD, “Music for Robots Vol. 1,” which contains 19 unsigned and independent-label bands, among them the Hysterics.
Music blogs typically feature enthusiastic testimonials about bands and free downloads of their music, but no tracks for sale.
“Our fan base knows that what we’re trying to get them to buy is good,” said Blair Carswell, one of the Music for Robots contributors.
The blog began as a way for eight friends, who met at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, to discuss music they liked. More bands began posting their music on the site as readership increased.
“This is a great way for bands that don’t have airtime to get exposure,” said Carswell.
Several music blogs, such as Fluxblog, Stereogum, and Largehearted Boy, have some influence, but even they have a long way to go before they can fundamentally change the music industry. Labels typically view blogs as simply potential sources of free publicity; even a blog comes across to them as a pun. Compared to Music for Robots, which gets about 8,000 unique visitors a day, is little more than a blip on the radar of major labels.
However, blogs are serving as incubators for new talent, such as the Hysterics. Otherwise, MTV would not have discovered the band as quickly.
“It was a really moody, old-school pop music – the kind of thing a lot of bands aim for but never quite achieve,” Patel said of the Hysterics. The same cannot be said for many adult bands, let alone teenagers in Brooklyn.”
It is common for bloggers who post songs to be in ambiguous legal territory, even when they have the permission of the band or label. The more-established bands are wary of embracing blogs, fearing that they will hurt sales. Portland, Oregon-based band The Decemberists recently complained about songs from its new album that were posted on blogs before it was released. The band urged bloggers to remove the songs.
Blogs and peer-to-peer networks differ in that the former relies on anonymity, while the latter fosters a sense of community. Bloggers often urge their followers to buy CDs of bands they like, and their enthusiastic posts can raise the profile of unnoticed bands.
“Music for Robots has the credibility of a hip record store,” said Glenn Peoples, owner of the popular music blog Coolfer. Consumers can learn about bands that are legitimately good through good music blogs, he told me.
Composition CDs do not pose a threat to the music business as a business venture yet. Although Music for Robots produced 1,000 CDs, only 150 have been sold in the two weeks since they became available.
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The people behind Music for Robots know that charging $10 for an actual CD is a risk, since music fans expect bloggers’ favorite bands to be free.
For labels, blogs can be fertile testing grounds. Vice Records label manager Adam Shore said he fell in love with Annie, the Norwegian pop star at the time, but was hesitant to release her in the United StatesVice Records label when she was released in the United States
After that, I knew that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, that there was a whole community that felt the same way. “It made me feel more confident moving forward. Blogs are such a valuable resource for us.”
The most significant force to emerge for unknown bands, however, has nothing to do with the Internet. Starbucks, the coffee retailer, has begun selling CDs in its stores, and the experiment has proved to be a success. Starbucks recently cut a deal with a band called Antigone Rising that will allow it to sell its latest CD exclusively through Starbucks stores. Since it was released on May 11, more than 35,000 copies have been sold, according to a Starbucks spokeswoman.
However, CDs are old news to many blog readers. Music blogs are usually checked to avoid physical objects like CDs and corporate machinery, said Hua Hsu, a Harvard graduate student who writes about music for the online magazine Slate. However, he added, “If everyone else is making horrible CDs, then why not buy something from someone you can more or less trust?”