Almost Famous

 
 
By Glenn Rubenstein  |  Posted 2001-01-29 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A diary of a musician who's been banging his Headboard against the wall

Before we had even played our first concert, in the winter of 1995, my band, Headboard, had a Web site. Back then, music on the Internet was uncharted territory; there was no MP3, and not every musical act from wannabe rock gods to your local accordion quartet had a flash-laden site. In fact, personal home pages were still sort of a novelty. To the outside world, the site looked as good as those of the handful of major-label groups that had them at the time, and Headboard vaguely resembled a "real band," rather than the group of suburban misfits in a garage that we were. Little did I know that in the end, the Internet would be the key to the bands "almost famous" status — pushing the songwriting, touring and hard work to a happy level somewhere above obscurity, but well below superstardom.

Version 1.0 of the original Web site (now at www.headboard.com) was coded in Windows Notepad, and it contained information on our upcoming shows, band-member bios and poor-quality .wav files of songs, which wed recorded as we wrote them, using my old 4-track tape recorder. It was my first band, years before rap-metal was big, and the idea of doing alternative rock with white-boy rap and female vocals was practically unheard of. In many ways, having a Web site helped me feel like Headboard had some credibility and foundation. A few people saw the site, and we did get some e-mail, but if anything, the site looked far too slick for the band that I had assembled.

In the next year, the Headboard site developed along with the band. I brought in new members, and we started playing more shows and touring. As the Web site expanded, it actually started to serve a purpose: People who had seen us live or heard of the band were going to the site for more information and checking in regularly to see if we were playing near them. We started to get e-mail asking where they could buy CDs, and after awhile the Headboard mailing list was up and running. It couldnt have come at a better time, as I was spending hundreds of dollars sending postcards to the snail-mail list wed accumulated at shows.

It was shocking, but people were checking out the site in significant numbers. I even started posting a band-related diary so people would have fresh information to read when we werent touring.

Then in late 1996, a friend of mine turned me on to a new technology: MP3. At the time, I was blown away by the idea of such a small file being able to hold so much music, and it seemed like a fun idea to put some encoded Headboard songs on the Web site and see where they went from there. If it caught on, the idea would be incredibly cost-effective; like many groups, we were spending considerable time and money giving away free sample tapes to spread band awareness.

Originally, I put up only two songs — a track off our first CD, "Tell Me How," and a live recording of a freestyle rap, a song basically made up on the spot. To my surprise, within weeks both files had found their way onto a few hundred sites, alongside a plethora of illegal MP3s by major-label acts. People were actually coming to shows requesting we play the improvised song Id posted.

Even the major labels I was talking to at the time were aware that these songs were spreading, and everyone was curious about what would happen from there — for us, for the Internet and for music in general.

For the next year or two, the Web site and a handful of MP3 tracks added up to an "Internet presence" that benefited Headboard greatly. People who came to shows were checking out the site constantly, and other bands and promoters used it to contact me about arranging shows. In a grassroots, do-it-yourself kind of way, it was as good as I thought it could get. By the end of 1997, we had logged 250 shows in two years, the e-mail list was at 10,000 names and major labels were showing interest in taking Headboard to the "next level."

But as the VH1 series Behind the Music has taught us, all good tales of the music biz have a few unfortunate twists and turns. In my case, it was the merger between Seagrams and Polygram. Two of the labels I had been talking to were shut down in the merger. Consolidation was running rampant. It would mean another few months of touring with a constantly changing cast of band mates — sometimes it seemed as if Headboard was a revolving door — sleeping in a van, and playing in a variety of clubs, theaters and teen centers. Thank God I was only 21 and was able to write off the experience as my chance to see the country. If anything, the Internet made much of this hectic time bearable, and the one-on-one contact I maintained with the audience that supported us made it all worthwhile.

It was in late 1998 that I first heard of MP3.com in an e-mail from someone Id met at a show. As an avid fan of MP3 technology, my first visit to the site was to find information on the latest players and encoders. Then I saw that the site was allowing unsigned bands to upload their music for hosting, and I figured moving some tracks there would greatly free up the 20 megabytes that my Internet service provider allocated for the Headboard site.

A few weeks later, the person who had introduced me to the site sent me another e-mail. Apparently a couple of songs were in the top 40 of their respective genres. This surprised me, since I knew there were thousands of other bands on the site, and the only real promotion I had done was to let the people on the Headboard e-mail list know that the tracks were out there.

Around this time, MP3.com started its Digital Automated Music (DAM) CD service, allowing bands to upload songs that could be ordered through the Web site and burned on demand. I put together a disc of the songs that were popular on the site, and was shocked to see that I had made a few hundred dollars in a matter of weeks through sales of the CD. This really gave the band a much-needed sense of momentum. Most of the songs hit No. 1 in their genres, and MP3.com asked us if it could use one of our tracks on its first promotional compilation CD, which had an initial run of 500,000 copies.

At the same time, other new MP3 sites, such as Riffage and AMP3.com, were e-mailing me, asking to put Headboards music on their sites. In >> the summer of 1999, it was hard to keep up: New sites were launching, new opportunities were presenting themselves and everyone was predicting that these empowering MP3 sites would put the major labels out of business. I even heard stories about bands turning down demo deals from major and independent labels because the dot-com future looked so bright.

And while I never went that far, I do remember using the number of reported downloads of Headboard music — close to a million — to try to negotiate a better deal with one independent label. Like everything else, music got caught up in the dot-com hype that took 1999 by swarm. All I remember is that a lot of people were predicting that Headboard would ride that wave into something colossal.

When all was said and done, a lot did happen that year: A few Headboard tracks ended up on promotional compilations made by various sites (adding up to a few million copies of our songs), our e-mail list grew to 30,000 and we sold a few hundred CDs. I didnt strike a huge deal with a major label. Ironically, though, since MP3.com allowed bands to buy shares of its initial public offering, many of us ended up making substantially more in the first day of trading than we would have ever seen at the end of a major-label advance.

Late in the year, MP3.com even went as far as to pay artists for downloads through the Payback for Playback program. Basically, MP3.com cut artists in on its advertising revenue, and still gave away the MP3 files for free, ensuring that popular MP3.com artists could afford to keep making music. Many bands, including Headboard, earned anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on how many people downloaded their songs.

Popularity Peak

The height of Headboards widespread popularity had to have been in January 2000, when I received an e-mail from Farmclub.com that said, "Do you want to be on television in a few weeks?" I had uploaded some tracks the month before, right when the site had launched.

Next thing I know, former MTV VJ Matt Pinfield was on my doorstep, and my band was whisked to Southern California to tape a performance on the debut episode of Farmclub.com, which also featured Dr. Dre, Eminem and 98 Degrees. The show was seen by millions of people — great for exposure.

We had agreed to give Farmclub.com the option to sign us, in exchange for the appearance on the show. However, after asking for a few demos, Farmclub politely passed on offering a record deal. I remember being extremely jealous that Fisher, another MP3.com artist, was signed to the label, but I was sure there would be other opportunities.

Then, almost as quickly as MP3 technology had spread, and legal MP3 recordings by unsigned artists seemed like a worthwhile alternative to the hard-to-find, harder-to-download unauthorized files by major-label acts, Napster arrived and took almost everyone off guard. This isnt to say that Napster is responsible for the lack of success among unsigned bands on the Internet, but it definitely took the media and general consumers focus away. In fact, almost every call or e-mail I received from the media for the second half of the year 2000 was to ask, "What do you think about Napster?"

For unsigned musicians, Napster presents an interesting situation: Sure, its great that people are downloading our music, but dont our modest record sales count the most to us, since we dont have major-label backing? Hell, itd be better if they were downloading our tracks from MP3.com, because we are compensated there.

Friends and folks at record labels have told me that you can find a lot of my songs by searching for Headboard on Napster, and I admit that I use the service frequently. Still, its nice to be in such esteemed company as Lars Ulrich and Dr. Dre by griping. On the other side of the coin, Ill be griping a whole lot louder if BMG decides to limit Napster, so that it compensates only the music of its artists, or takes unsigned bands off Napster completely.

As it stands, the reason most of the bands that have done well on the Internet arent signed is because they rely too much on it, rather than using the tried-and-true methods of touring and promotion in conjunction with the Net. Yes, there is some money to be made via MP3.com and selling CDs, and some people dont want the elusive "major-label deal." A lot of people thought that an Internet presence was enough, but with companies like Riffage going out of business, and even Farmclub laying off a portion of its staff, you have to wonder at times whether the "new music revolution" is already over. Given its current financial situation, and the shift toward relying on the My.MP3.com service, will MP3.com even continue to pay out a million dollars per month of its advertising revenue to unsigned artists via Payback for Playback?

With both the landscape of digital music and Headboard, things are as up in the air as ever, and no one knows what the next chapter will hold. I am in the middle of another lineup revamp, and all the people I know who sign new bands keep switching labels.

For me, one thing is certain: There is no such thing as downtime. I can keep promoting my music through the Internet, and earn enough money to keep things going for the time being — and thats better than the majority of bands out there that have been signed to major labels. Only one out of every 15 major-label acts ever goes on to sell a substantial number of records or achieve any sort of popularity, so I feel that I have more to show for my musical career than most. To most people who have seen the site, downloaded the music or caught the Farmclub performance, Headboard vaguely resembles a "real band."

In addition to his work with Headboard as vocalist, manager, songwriter and producer, Glenn Rubenstein works as a journalist in Petaluma, Calif.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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