SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - "We like living in Little Rock," says Jason Weinheimer. "It's laid-back and beautiful. But it's not the greatest place to try to get attention if you're in a band."
Weinheimer and his band, the Boondogs, had been playing their Wilco-esque brand of country rock around Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas since 1996 and were itching to attract a major label. They posted tracks on MP3.com but had gotten little more than a trickle of downloads, much less a call from an A&R executive.
The Boondogs were unhappily deciding where they should move to get discovered - Los Angeles, Nashville, Austin - when a new opportunity presented itself. In September, Weinheimer read a New York Times story about a startup called Garageband.com that invites unsigned bands to post their music as free MP3 files.
What impressed Weinheimer was that one of the company's cofounders was Jerry Harrison - an original member of Talking Heads and a successful record producer. Also, the company was promising a $250,000 recording contract to the band that ranked highest among listeners. Weinheimer uploaded two songs to the site that day.
Now, four months later, the Boondogs have won the prize with their song, "Carbon or Gold." The band will begin recording this month with producer Jim Dickinson, who sits on Garageband.com's board of advisers. (Dickinson initially earned fame as a keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin before going on to produce albums, including Toots and the Maytals' Toots in Memphis.) As the first band to get signed to a recording contract solely on the basis of their MP3 downloads, the Boondogs are living the dream of most unsigned bands that post their music online with one of Garageband.com's many competitors, including Riffage.com, MP3.com and RollingStone.com.
Garageband got some buzz at its September launch mostly because of its star-studded management. Besides Harrison, former Beatles producer Sir George Martin is chairman of the board. But it has been eclipsed recently by the major labels. Universal launched its own MP3 discovery site in December at FarmClub.com; its opening page boasts, "Someone's gonna get a record deal."
Artists discovered there will get not just a recording contract but a spot on a planned FarmClub TV series that will air on USA Networks.
Record giant BMG is jumping into the game as well. Besides investing in Riffage.com last month, the label is working with Universal to transform the companies' joint e-commerce venture GetMusic.com into a kind of online zine covering unsigned bands. GetMusic will launch its "grassroots channel" initiative late in the first quarter, which executive VP Sandy Smallens describes as an editorial space that will "cover the evolution of an artist from a grassroots hit to releasing an album on a major label" - in other words, generating buzz for Riffage and FarmClub.
The competition doesn't faze Garageband.com, which may partner with one of them to help distribute the Boondogs' forthcoming album. Tom Zito, cofounder of Garageband.com, argues that Universal doesn't get it when it comes to discovering bands online.
While FarmClub will sign artists based on the likes and dislikes of its A&R staff, Garageband takes a different approach. To make sure that songs don't get buried, the way they do on MP3.com, Garageband.com offers three new songs for you to review every time you log on, and those songs may not be ranked in the top 10. No band gets signed until every band on Garageband.com's roster has been reviewed - multiple times. Says Zito: "We believe a music fan can tell you so much more than a professional."