Crashing the Charts for Independent Music

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Today might be a bigger day than usual for an unsigned California band called Black Lab, whose song "Mine Again" has become an anthem of sorts for podcasters hoping to make a point.

The goal is to get enough music fans to buy copies of "Mine Again" to land the song on Apple's iTunes bestseller list -- and in doing so prove that bloggers and podcast hosts have market-moving power.

The online campaign is called Bum Rush the Charts by its organizers, who hope to demonstrate that online audio shows, or podcasts, are as influential as established media in introducing audiences to music. The campaign comes as a response to recording-industry efforts to make podcasters pay royalties that AM and FM radio broadcasters do not have to pay, according to Neil Bearse, one of the organizers of the event.

"We want to make a statement that we have a community of listeners who are willing to spend money on music," said Bearse, a Web designer in Ontario who hosts an online show dedicated to independent music. "We're able to market music in the same way as radio."

Bearse said he originally tried to get the word out about his grass-roots campaign by telling his podcaster friends. Since then, word of Bum Rush has also been spread through blogs, YouTube and social networking sites, he said.

Christopher Penn, a podcaster and another of the campaign's organizers, said he hopes that the efforts will result in more than 30,000 purchases of the track, which, he figured, could be enough to propel "Mine Again" to the No. 1 slot. Penn's daily podcast, focused on the topic of student financial aid, reaches about 3,000 listeners every day, he said.

Derick Mains, a spokesman for Apple, declined to comment on the campaign but said the bestseller list is compiled using proprietary methods that the company doesn't disclose. "It's much more complicated than taking a snapshot of the previous 24 hours' worth of sales," he said.

Music critics have compared Black Lab to bands like Coldplay and U2, and its music has been featured on the soundtracks of movies like "Spider-Man" and on TV shows. At the moment, one of the band's songs is featured prominently in a commercial for the cop show "The Shield."

The band has been pushed out of a couple of deals with major labels in its 10 years of existence; now, it publishes and sells its music through its Web site. At the request of a fan two years ago, the band decided to make its music available to podcasters for free, without royalty payments.

The band's lead singer, Paul Durham, said yesterday that podcasts have become an increasingly important way to reach people with his music.

Durham said he had nothing to do with the online scheme and that he was surprised when he heard about it. Durham said that Black Lab will donate half of the money it takes in from today's stunt to charity.

"It's another example of people who listen to music and who are passionate about music saying there must be an alternative, there must be another way for people to hear music and turn other people on about music," he said.

Durham said that the recording industry is in trouble partly because it doesn't understand or pay much attention to new outlets like podcasts. "There aren't going to be major labels in five years, and this is one more tiny representation of that," he said.

Estimates of the number of podcasts vary widely, but many claim there are millions of podcasts online. The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that 12 percent of Internet users have downloaded a podcast.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company