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Unsigned artists get online break

March 30, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Hard as it is to believe, "American Idol" isn't for everyone. Simon, Paula and Randy have a pretty narrow aesthetic in mind in their talent search.

A much wider range of talent will be taken into consideration in a new hunt for potential music stars that's being initiated by America Online. The Internet company is launching First Break, a competition for unsigned performers and writers intended to discover more than the mere voices found on "Idol."

"It could be hip-hop, singer-songwriters, electronica, anything," says Bill Wilson, vice president and general manager of AOL Music. "But it has to be all original material. You have to write it yourself as well as perform it."

Participants will be able to submit up to three songs between Tuesday and May 15. A panel of three AOL Music executives, including Wilson, will select 10 finalists for the public to vote on (details and timetable are available at AOL keyword First Break). The winner will get a demo deal from Atlantic Records (owned by AOL Time Warner) and an appearance on the "Sessions@AOL" music showcase Webcast.

Wilson sees this as an expansion of AOL's Breakers program, which has worked with record companies to single out new artists. It boasts an impressive success rate for tapping acts that went on to stardom. The first Breaker artist was Michelle Branch, who was featured in July 2001, well before her debut album started to climb the charts. Others have included Avril Lavigne and Josh Groban. Recently featured: Ms. Dynamite and Lucy Woodward, whose debut albums are about to be released in the U.S.

"We named Branch as our first Breaker before anyone had heard of her," Wilson says. "We put up a song and photos and a bio and said, 'This is someone we think you'll hear a lot about and we want your feedback.' We really felt that given our success with developing talent, our next step in evolution was allowing our members to help determine the next stars."

Old videos get Internet afterlife

Rex Smith as the inspiration for an online music video innovation?

As unlikely as it may seem, the '70s and '80s teen idol was the indirect source of an epiphany behind a new venture designed to bring vintage videos to the masses.

"One night I was up at 3 a.m. watching VH1 Classics and they played the Rex Smith and Rachel Sweet video 'Everlasting Love,' " says John Fagot, a longtime music promotion and marketing executive who now works as a consultant.

"I worked with Rex at Capitol Records, I know he had more than a million people in his fan club, was on TV a lot, was on Broadway in 'The Pirates of Penzance' and had a good fan base. And I thought, 'There are a lot of people around the world who would love to have Rex Smith videos.' My son would download every Devo video. My wife said she'd love to have every Cure video."

At the same time, Fagot realized that just sitting around are thousands upon thousands of vintage videos, produced at costs often running into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Since videos were promotional items and were paid for and are owned by the labels, many never recouped their costs," he says. "I know there are two storage spaces in L.A. that have videos just gathering dust."

With that in mind, Fagot and partner Sean Renet have teamed with Los Angeles-based broadband technology company DreamTank to form Music Video Services. The plan is to offer classic videos for download, most likely as a subscription service.

With DreamTank, which took over a large fiber-optic network from a company that originally had planned to build a new phone company, Fagot says there is plenty of bandwidth to make the video downloads practical and efficient. And given that videos on unauthorized peer-to-peer services are much less reliable and harder to download than music-only files, Fagot and Renet believe that competition from pirates is less of a concern at this point.

Music Video Services is making deals with artists not tied to major labels and with a few small record companies in order to demonstrate the capabilities. Discussions have also begun with several major labels

"If you have three people in Dubuque who are into something, it's hard to sell that through brick-and-mortar stores -- the costs are too great," Fagot says. "But if you take all the Dubuques in the world, that could be a mob of people and you can market to them through the Internet."

Small faces

* Win a Grammy, go to Hawaii? That's how it's worked for Jesse Harris, who won song of the year as writer of the Norah Jones hit "Don't Know Why." He's been named to the staff of the Kauai Music Festival, a June 1-4 symposium for 300 songwriters about the craft and business. Harris joins Motown writer Lamont Dozier, Lisa Loeb, Jeff Cohen (co-writer of Evan and Jaron's "Crazy for This Girl") and Dweezil Zappa on the staff, along with Kauai producer David Tickle. Although the daily seminars are for the registrants only, evening concerts will be open to the public.

* Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore has started an online "label," www.protest-records.com, as a place for "musicians, poets and artists to express love and liberty in the face of greed, sexism, racism, hate-crime and war," making topical songs available for free download. Among the four artists contributing the first batch of songs are Cat Power ("Rockets") and Steven Taylor ("Go Down, Congress"), with tracks by Eugene Chadbourne, the Fugs and the Evens (featuring Ian Mackaye of Fugazi) coming soon.

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