Independent Musics Voice

March 12, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — In a recent interview with Fast Company for a profile on Musictoday — a rapidly growing company that markets musicians through the Internet — R&B superstar John Legend shared a startling insight about the future of his industry.

“In the not-too-distant future, this could mean you won’t need a label anymore,” he said. “That’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Whether the music industry likes it or not, the Internet is rapidly eroding its traditional business model through peer-to-peer piracy, online sales at Apple Computer’s iTunes portal and guerilla marketing on social networking platforms such as MySpace. This means independent artists are coming to the forefront, able to connect with fans and promote themselves like never before.

Selling the music, however, can still be a problem.

“The goal is to make sure that every artist has a conduit to sell their music,” said Benjamin Gott, founder of Grand Rapids-based Internet music store INDISTR (indistr.com). “We want to drive that income back to the artist.”

Frustrated at watching friends in his native Chicago struggle to sell mixed tapes and homemade CDs, Gott set out a year ago to develop an online portal with the buying convenience of iTunes, but without any barriers to small artists.

“Selling mixed tapes is like hand-to-hand combat,” Gott said. “You can only sell them as far as your feet will walk. But most artists know that they’re not going to get on ‘American Idol,’ so they have to find some way to sell their music.”

Gott, a veteran of the Internet industry since high school and one of the first employees of Grand Rapids-based Supply Chain Solutions, first brought his idea to NuSoft Solutions, a local technology firm that had just finished a high-profile portal for the film industry, Spout.com. NuSoft introduced Gott to Carnevale ID, another local firm that has built Web sites for music networks VH1 and CMT.

Rather than compete with iTunes, eMusic, Napster or any of the other Internet download ventures at launch, Gott’s idea was to cater to artists. Traffic to the site would come through the musicians’ marketing efforts, such as a Web site, MySpace page or word-of-mouth.

The artists receive an industry-leading 75 percent of the sale, roughly 68 cents per $1 track after transfer fees. All tracks are priced at $1, but artists have free rein to package tracks into albums at whatever price they choose — they could sell 10 tracks for $8 or 50 tracks for $5. Artists are paid instantly and can add or delete tracks and album covers in real time.

In future versions, the site will look more like its competition, with sophisticated search tools and social networking features.

Micro-funded by local investors, INDISTR launched its beta version in January and has already amassed a stable of hundreds of artists. Chicago artist Joshua Wentz was one of the earliest members of the site. He currently has 58 tracks and seven albums available on INDISTR.

“I had let the promotion aspect of my career slip away for a while, but this has helped me revitalize it,” said Wentz, who has been selling music online since 1996. “I used mp3.com until that was bought; then I built my own Web site and online store. It was too much to manage, with the shipping and electronic distribution, and too hard to just point people to my music and give them an easy way to buy it.”

Wentz was introduced to the site through a write-up on thebrilliance.com, the “taste-making” portal Gott launched three years ago with friend Chuck Anderson, principal of Chicago design shop NoPattern. As a further example of the state of the industry, Gott cited Atlantic Records artist Lupe Fiasco’s recent debut “Food & Liquor,” for which Anderson designed the cover. Declared GQ magazine’s Breakout Artist of the Year, Fiasco sold only 85,000 copies of the debut in its first week and barely over 100,000 copies overall. Fiasco received only 23 cents per album, roughly $23,000.

“By industry standards, that’s not good at all,” said Gott. “But if he sold half that independently, he wouldn’t be too concerned about his situation.”

On the local level, INDISTR is in discussions with the Division Avenue Arts Cooperative for a joint promotion. To protect it from possible copyright infringement lawsuits, INDISTR requires all artists to sign an indemnification release written by local law firm Warner Norcross & Judd.    

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