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Technology Repaves Road to Stardom

Internet Gives Music Business Cheap New Avenue to Find Talent

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2004; Page A01

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.

The New Zealand group Steriogram was signed by Capitol Records based on a homemade demo CD and a video. (Mark Seliger)

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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."

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