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Indie Bands Jump on Brand Wagon

Area musician Kidgusto works on a new composition in his homemade studio. He licensed a song to American University for a presentation. (Post)
Area musician Kidgusto works on a new composition in his homemade studio. He licensed a song to American University for a presentation. (Post) (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

"I can't tell you how many times I hear, 'I want things playing that no one's ever heard before,' " said Lori Hon, founder of Gray V. "The indies are much easier to deal with, and they have great stuff."

This trolling for new sounds is making it easier for artists to earn a living off their music, industry experts say, and is encouraging more hopeful musicians to give it a shot.

Kidgusto, an aspiring global grooves musician from Silver Spring, said most artists understand that the goal is getting their music out any way they can. Kidgusto licensed one of his songs to American University earlier this year to use for a Flash presentation on its Web site. He would not discuss terms of the deal but said the proceeds have helped support his musicmaking since he was laid off from his tech support job at a law firm in April. He has also been liberally licensing his eclectic music to bigger record labels for other musicians to use in their remixes.

The financial benefits of these smaller deals have been eye-opening, and Kidgusto is eager to sell his work for commercials, to retailers to play in stores, to television shows or, even better, to film producers.

"Definitely, that's the jackpot right there -- to get it on multiple movies," Kidgusto said, dreaming of the kind of deal that might well go into six figures. "Licensing deals are the way to go now."

With the explosion of music downloading online, artists are already looking past the radio and MTV for a chance at success, which comes at 99 cents per download. But while online music waits for consumers to find it, corporate buyers take a musician's song and expose it to a wide audience filled with desirable consumers.

Retailers have often played background music, but often it was whatever the store manager brought in from home. Today, retailers want tailored music mixes to enhance the "brand experience."

A teenager browsing in Hot Topic, a 650-store punk clothing chain, for example, is treated to a well-honed list of songs from around the world chosen because of their likely appeal to that chain's audience. Much of the music is from new or tiny producers, found by Hot Topic executives or PlayNetwork, the chain's music service. A shopper in the store can find out what music is playing from an electronic box that lists the artist and song.

For musicians, that can be desperately needed exposure to a target audience.

"Here you are talking to artists, or little labels, who are looking for opportunities," said Jeff Heiman, senior director of licensing and label relations for PlayNetwork. "With radio the way it is, with playlists as tight as they are, with nobody wanting to promote some independent artists, these guys are looking for any and all opportunities."

How much an artist gets paid for licensing depends on how much a song gets played. A musician might get a few dollars or a few thousand dollars every month, Heiman said. But the exposure can lead to more album sales and more touring gigs.

"Oh, gosh, does it give you credibility," said LeRoy Bell, a Seattle-based acoustic performer who formed a relationship with PlayNetwork and whose tracks have since been played extensively in Starbucks and other retail chains. Two years ago, Bell was struggling to get his self-produced CD off the ground, but now he is touring with legendary bluesman B.B. King. He credits that success, in large part, to the exposure that began through retail channels.

Bell said someone will hear his music in a store, look it up online and then may see that he is coming to town on tour. That person might go with a few friends, who might all buy his CD after the show. "It really does work that way," Bell said.

In his cluttered, third-floor office overlooking Rock Creek Park, with Mojito the cat trolling underfoot, Hawken of ESL Music rattles off some of the biggest deals he has landed, such as one with Jaguar last year. The automaker hired ESL to create eight promotional CDs, including a mix of ESL's own artists, such as Thievery Corporation and Ursula 1000, to put in the glove compartment of new X-Type cars. It was just shy of a six-figure deal, Hawken said, and made a big impact on the company -- in many ways.

"That was a flat fee, and it was a huge deal," Hawken said. "We're getting paid to promote our music. . . . It's kind of flipping the old model on its head."

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