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Technology Repaves Road to Stardom

A week later, Jobs, whose iTunes Web site is the Internet's most popular online music store, called Carter and promised to help promote the band. Recently, Apple's Web site posted a lengthy feature on Steriogram.

Meanwhile, once signed, the group began to reap the rewards of the industry's traditional personal network as well. The group's first video, "Walkie Talkie Man," a piece of fanciful animation, was made by Michel Gondry, whose critical hit, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," is in theaters now. Gondry directed the video because he was asked to by his friend -- the president of Capitol Records. E-mailing from the band's tour van last week, somewhere between Englewood, Colo., and Omaha, Carter wrote: "We are all stoked cause we just heard our song Walkie Talkie Man on the radio for the first time in the US."


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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Even if a band is found by an A&R guy hanging out in a club, as with emerging alt-rockers stellastarr*, new technologies let labels and artists end-run traditional promotion channels, such as commercial radio.

New York-based stellastarr*was signed to a five-album deal in May 2003 by RCA Records. But five months earlier, deejay Billy Zero broke the band on satellite radio after he got hold of stellastarr*'s sole CD, recorded on the cheap in New York.

Zero works at XM Satellite Radio in Northeast Washington. For about $10 per month, the pay-radio service beams more than 100 channels of music, news, sports and talk to special receivers in cars and homes. Zero runs XM's "Unsigned Bands" channel, which exclusively plays bands that do not have record contracts. He left Washington's WHFS (99.1 FM) for XM in February 2000, after growing frustrated that the Infinity Radio station would not play enough unsigned bands to suit his tastes.

When the channel launched, Zero had to solicit CDs from unsigned bands. Now, he receives 50 to 100 CDs a day from hopeful bands, beseeching him to play their songs. "On my desk," he said, "I've got nine 'Property of U.S. Postal Service' mail bins and another six on my intern's desk full of [CDs]."

Zero received an e-mail from an unsigned band called End of Me, which he added to the Unsigned Bands channel in March: "Our management has been contacted by several major labels that heard our music on your station," the band wrote. EMI's McCarroll listens to XM's Unsigned Bands channel and, though he hasn't signed any bands he's heard, several have piqued his interest, he said.

Shawn Christensen, stellastarr*'s lead singer and songwriter, said the XM exposure combined with play on college radio stations and articles in the alternative music press "generates the buzz, which is ultimately the foundation for a band getting signed."

RCA President Richard Sanders said XM did not play a direct role in stellastarr*'s signing, but said XM and its rival, New York's Sirius Satellite Radio, are vital to building recognition for new bands and, more important, album sales. XM was launched in 2001 and now has nearly 1.7 million subscribers. Sirius came the next year and has more than 300,000 subscribers.

"XM is a taste-making station," said Jonny Kaps, stellastarr*'s manager. Now that the band has a record contract, XM has moved stellastarr*'s songs to the XMU channel, which has a college-radio sound. Zero is starting a new show called "Inked," which will play songs from bands that landed a major label deal but either got dropped or never had their record released, the fate of many signed bands.


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