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Digital Submissions to Record Labels:
It's Music to Every Garage Band's Ears

By Bruce Shutan
© 2001 Bruce Shutan. All rights reserved

Online submissions of demos to record companies represent a powerful new model for empowering aspiring musicians at a time when the music industry is discovering that it no longer can thrive - much less survive - by conducting business as usual. Especially in an increasingly uncertain economy.

Consider some of the most recent developments to rock the industry:

  •, a Web site created in late 1999 and subsidiary of Universal Music Group, has discovered and signed half a dozen artists to its record label with the help of rabid music fans. The site includes comprehensive information about unsigned artists who found their way onto the stage.
  • DreamWorks Digital, the DreamWorks SKG record label, has been accepting digital submissions since last July - albeit from U.S. musicians only. While the label still hasn't signed anyone, enthusiasm is running high among record company representatives about the promise of this new technology.
  •, co-founded in September 1999 by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs along with Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, offers $250,000 recording contracts based on the public's response to original material that's posted on the company's Web site in the MP3 format. Rivals include, and
  • In a related move, the Hard Rock Café last year announced plans to use the Internet to promote unknown artists that perform at the restaurant chain. The effort involves a partnership with Microsoft Corp. and talks with five major record labels.

The evolution of this discovery process no doubt holds great promise for musicians everywhere, as the Internet fuels the music industry's democratization. Music execs finally appear to be waking up and smelling the coffee. Luke Wood of DreamWorks recently was quoted as saying "we should be communicating with musicians the way they're communicating with each other." DreamWorks Digital A&R even indicated that it "plans to showcase selected submissions and may stream some of them in a radio-style Web cast."

"If you were to ask virtually any musician about his real goal," according to the Web site, "it would have little to do with a computer in the garage or distributed MP3 files. No, the badge of achievement, the objective that drives almost every musician, is to be signed to a recording contract. This is the first and essential step on the boulevard of dreams."

At DreamWorks, the path to cyber success involves three simple steps. Musicians are asked to fill out an artist profile, accept the terms of the label's submission agreement and upload a track in the MP3 format. One song submission per artist is permitted within a three-month period, after which time an e-mail confirmation notice is sent out upon registration and upload.

There also are familiar pleas from the offline world to remind aspiring musicians not to get their hopes up. In the most benign reminder, DreamWorks Records asks that musicians not inquire about the status of their submissions. Other statements aren't quite so subtle: "Don't just submit a song to DreamWorks and wait for the limo driver to ring your bell with a recording contract," Web site visitors are told. "We are excited about this opportunity to get more music from developing talent, but we can't encourage you enough to pursue every avenue of promotion for your music."

Across town, - founded by Jimmy Iovine, co-chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, and Doug Morris, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group - has been lauded for serving as "the first true interface of a record label with TV and the Internet." Matt Pinfield and Ali Landry host the site's weekly music television series, shown Fridays at 11 p.m., Saturdays at Midnight and Monday at 3 a.m. on the USA Network.

The Web site offers both unsigned and well-known artists the chance to reach a worldwide audience by uploading their music and videos. The company's online record label signs, develops and promotes artists whose music is distributed via Universal Music Group. Label signings include Sonique, Fisher, Dynamite Hack, SEV, Bionic Jive and Alley Life.

As with, artists are discovered by ordinary music fans who review thousands of acts that have uploaded their music and vote for their favorite bands. The ultimate reward: Top vote getters appear on the TV show., started by Tom Zito and Amanda Lathroum, features legendary Beatles' producer Sir George Martin as chairman of its distinguished advisory board, which includes other record producers and engineers from Brian Eno to Steve Earle.

The Boondogs, a band based in Little Rock, Ark., were the first to earn a recording contract from - winning the big prize for their song, "Carbon or Gold." The group last year began recording with producer Jim Dickinson, who played keyboards for the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin and sits on the company's advisory board.

More than a million song reviews have been processed on the site through the power of online audience aggregation. Every two months, the site's top-ranked bands compete for the coveted prize. Unsigned bands from anywhere in the world are invited to upload a track of original material at no cost. Expert advice also is offered for those who click onto a link.

While the Brave New World of digital submissions certainly changes the rules of the fame game, progress may not be nearly as lightening fast as e-commerce.

In response to a DreamWorks Digital surfer's bulletin board question about whether or not anyone had been signed to the label, a record label A&R rep posted the following reply last September: "We have contacted several artists and are really excited about the submissions. Nobody discovered solely though DW Digital A&R has been signed yet but we are moving toward that place. Remember that the site has only been up for two months and an artist getting to know a label and a label getting to know an artist is an arduous process. We hope to highlight several of the submissions soon so you can hear what is connecting with DreamWorks A&R."

Since then, there have been no further bulletin board postings about actual artist signings. But stay tuned. You'll probably be hearing much more about this development in the future.

About the Author: Bruce Shutan, an L.A.-based freelance writer, has been playing drums since 1970.

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