Whoring for downloads

Desperate for attention, aspiring musicians will stop at nothing to get fans to listen to their online tunes.

By Janelle Brown

Published November 30, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

Liz Galtney knew exactly where she wanted to be. As a novice musician, she'd been tracking MP3.com's meteoric rise for almost two years. She carefully observed the company's launch of its Payback for Playback program -- in which it set aside $1 million a month to compensate the most popular bands on MP3.com. But roughly 109,000 bands host their music on MP3.com, and Galtney knew that if she wanted to earn some of those dollars she'd have some stiff competition.

So Galtney did what any entrepreneur out to make a buck off the Net would do: She made a porn music video.

Galtney's one-woman band, Erotic Trance, has two songs hosted on the MP3.com site: "Guilty as Sin" and "Sexual Fantasy." She describes her music as "racy pop songs" -- basically, synthesizer pop with explicit, come-hither lyrics -- and says that the porn music video fit naturally with the kind of music she was recording. Using a budget video-editing program, Galtney and her husband filmed some graphic porn using actors they knew, intercut it with video of herself breathily singing "Sexual Fantasy" and uploaded it to her personal Web site.

Galtney then publicized the video at a number of adult Web sites. The catch, however, was that if you wanted to watch the porn, you first had to download the song from MP3.com. The concept hit the jackpot: By mid-November, Erotic Trance had climbed into MP3.com's Top 40 chart for pop music, boasting up to 2,500 downloads a day and earning Galtney some $100 a day in payback money.

"You've got 100,000 artists on MP3.com," says Galtney. "How do you break out from the pack and generate interest? You've got to have something special no one has ever done before. With all this free music around, how do you make money?"

Galtney isn't the only person asking this question. It's the central problem plaguing just about every band and music business that has an online presence. MP3.com's innovative solution -- and savvy promotional hook -- was to directly compensate bands every time a visitor to MP3.com's artist pages listened to a song; the Payback for Playback program, which began in May, disburses a few pennies directly to the band every time a song is downloaded.

The program has become immensely popular -- MP3.com is now one of the few sites on the Web where posting your music for free can actually earn you hard cash in the bank -- and hugely profitable for the most popular bands. The top-earning band, 303 Infinity, has raked in over $150,000 this year already.

But the program has also intensified competition between bands jostling for those dollars. On MP3.com, bands are no longer just musicians; instead, they are becoming viciously cutthroat entrepreneurs. Each band strives to come up with the most novel way to drive traffic to their music and make it into the Top 40 charts. There are plenty of artists who are simply doing good, traditional marketing and promotion; but there are also unique ideas like porn videos and sexy come-ons, a proliferation of "download trading" and "download clubs," artist plagiarism and a variety of other tricks that smack of snake-oil salesmanship more than they do of pure artistry.

From a distance, the download traffic at MP3.com looks like a new kind of radio payola, writ for the digital age. This time, however, it's artist- rather than label-driven: It's the poor downtrodden artists who are now taking advantage of the system, and of each other, instead of letting fat-cat record companies take control of them. Like eBay entrepreneurs selling auction success kits or spammers selling DIY e-mail marketing kits, MP3.com's savvy bands are simply taking advantage of a system that's finally giving them a leg up.

Or, to be more cynical, they are learning that success on the Net simply requires a new kind of hucksterism, and that the quality of their music has little to do with making money.

The holy grail for any band on MP3.com is the Top 40 chart. High placement on the chart guarantees popularity and cash for at least a brief period of time. MP3.com hosts both a Top 40 chart for the entire site, and genre-specific charts; these charts are the first stop for most new visitors to MP3.com, where they figure out which of the thousands of unknown bands are worth listening to. The Top 40 charts have become a self-fulfilling prophecy -- once you manage to work your way up to the top of the pops, you'll probably stay there for a while, since curious MP3.com visitors will click to hear what the fuss is about.

But being in the Top 40 doesn't guarantee you'll be there forever; unless you come up with savvy ways to promote yourself, you'll eventually slide off the list. That was the lesson learned by Alex Smith, an 18-year-old student who produces trance music in his bedroom and has made over $78,000 in payback money for his band The Cynic Project." His first hit was a song called "Matrix," which he suspects originally made the Top 40 because its name leeched off some popularity from the movie "The Matrix." The song dominated the No. 1 spot on the Top 40 chart early this year, but eventually started to slip.

At that point, Smith says, he realized that being popular requires "continuous promotion" and he began collecting names and e-mail addresses of fans. He now sends out regular newsletters and promotions to over 1,000 Cynic Project devotees. One of his more savvy recent moves was to take out targeted ads at Goto.com, paying 1 cent each time someone visited his site (and, in turn, profiting a few cents every time they downloaded a tune). "But everything I've done is legitimate," Smith says.

Others, however, are resorting to more unusual measures to make it to the top of the charts. Galtney was just one of many people to take advantage of the appeal of smut to drive traffic to her site. There's also a popular nymphet named Tiffany who includes airbrushed nude photos on her home page, and whose blatantly smutty songs include one called "90 Seconds of Ecstasy." She describes her creation as "90 seconds of my ecstasy as I make myself come. This is the real thing! When I scream as I come loud with the mic near my face, you can even hear the sounds of my breasts slapping against each other and I go wild with pleasure."

Who could resist clicking on that? Apparently, not many: Tiffany has already made $4,652.75 in payback money. But smut has its price. Galtney and Tiffany have both fought to avoid being banished to the "adult" section of MP3.com, a hard-to-find ghetto on the site that is death to hopes for commercial riches. Once you're classified as adult, your music is no longer allowed in the Top 40 charts. Although Tiffany has managed to avoid the dread label, Galtney's music video eventually got her banished. Her listenership has plummeted ever since and Galtney is currently acridly battling MP3.com in an effort to be reinstated in the pop section. Citing legal issues in the Galtney case, a spokesperson for MP3.com declined to comment on the issues surrounding her exile to the adult section.

When it comes to tricking the system, though, the most popular endeavor by far is download trading. MP3.com's Artists Forum bulletin boards are crammed with bands that are offering what is basically a "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" scam: If you download one of my tunes, I'll download one of yours. Some more enterprising bands even offer up to 10-1 ratios, in hopes of sending one song up the charts. There are also private "download clubs," mailing lists with tens or hundreds of members who every day swap lists of songs that they want the other members to download.

You can also find "stream-while-you-sleep" online radio stations, which any MP3.com member can launch using the music that's available on the site. Any music that is streamed in these stations also nets the bands payback cash; so enterprising radio station owners will offer to include your music in their broadcasts as long as you promise to stream the station every day. Just turn on the station and leave it running on your desktop in the background day or night: You don't even have to listen!

Although this would seem a tediously slow way to work your way up the charts a few cents at a time, the more diligent followers of this practice swear by it. "We have gotten close to 2,000 plays on our songs this month. More than likely half of that is from download trading," says Andrew Karl Viver, whose acoustic rock band Tito and Swan is one of the most active download traders on the Artist Forum boards. His guess is that 10 percent of all MP3.com bands participate in download trading. "People who are checking out MP3.com are going to listen to the songs that are at the top and if you spend enough time trading it can help you move up quite a bit ... I'm sure in due time we will be sitting at the top." In the meantime, he spends several hours a day downloading music from the bands who take him up on his daily offer of download trades. For all those hours spent, the band's total take in payback so far is a mere $83.33.

The spirit of MP3.com entrepreneurialism is also evident if you do a search on the names of popular mainstream bands: MP3.com is teeming with copycat tag-alongs, who hope that a me-too name will confuse a misguided fan or two. Search for Massive Attack and you'll turn up Massive Naked Yoda Sheep Techno Attack. Britney Spears brings up TheBritneySpear's. And there's also Em in Em, Korn on da Kob, Backstreet 98 Boys Degrees and so on. There is even a rip-off of 303 Infinity: 303 Infinity and Beyond. The idea, it seems, is to lure rabid fans by a copycat name and hope that they download a song out of curiosity or stupidity; based on the bands' paltry payback numbers, though, the trick doesn't seem to lead many astray.

There are also rumors that successful bands are taking advantage of programs that automatically download their own music thousands of times. This may or may not actually happen. Considering how many hackers are out there, odds are good that some bands probably have figured out how to do it. But what's for certain is that artists who are enraged at their own lack of success are finding it easy to accuse popular bands like 303 Infinity of having somehow unfairly engineered their own acclaim.

For every fan of download-brokering and tricking the system, however, there are plenty of purists who feel such practices are polluting MP3.com. Ideologically, many argue, download trading simply means that people stop valuing music for its artistic value and use it as a commodity instead. "When you download hundreds of songs a day, probably redundantly, people just aren't listening to this stuff," says one MP3.com artist who likes to go by the name Blue 2 Blue. "Sure, some people listen, and to that extent I don't have a problem, but I think a lot of these people aren't interested in exchanging music, they're just brokering download transfers to elevate their chart position and their share of the limited Payback for Playback pool."

In fact, other self-righteous artists believe that many of the bands on MP3.com aren't "legitimate" musicians at all, but merely cobbled-together opportunists out to make a buck off the system. "When Payback for Playback came around, it brought up a whole slew of people out of the woodwork; it seemed everyone in the world who had a sound card was recording stuff, and put it in MP3.com, and was in turn doing download exchanges for Payback for Playback," says Steve Haugh, who heads the band Paisley Face. Although his band had been hosted on MP3.com for a long time, Haugh eventually pulled his music off of the site because he believed that none of the most popular artists were getting there by legitimate means. As he puts it, "If I'm going to compete for money, and more importantly for the image, I want to know how people are doing it."

Meanwhile, artists complain that MP3.com hasn't made clear whether download-trading, sexy come-ons, download clubs and other more dubious endeavors are legitimate.

MP3.com's own explanations of its policies are vague. A company spokesperson calls practices that try to take advantage of the system "gaming" and says: "Gaming is certainly not acceptable. Any illegal activity meant to bolster numbers to increase pay for play would be not acceptable."

But is download-trading "illegal"? MP3.com's murky official stance, again, is that "while this activity does not generally result in removal from the site, MP3.com does recognize the activity and account for it." But there are some indications that the company does scrutinize the bands that hit the Top 40 charts and punish them if they appear to be trading downloads. A metal band called Sekora (current payback loot: $5,974.20), for example, managed to work its way into the Top 10 of the metal charts last month with one song at No. 1 and several others farther down the chart thanks to aggressive download trading on the MP3.com bulletin boards. But MP3.com unceremoniously and without explanation yanked Sekora's artist page in order to investigate how the band achieved that feat; the page was quietly restored 22 days later, with no explanation.

But regardless of MP3.com's official stance, it's also getting more difficult to play the system. As hundreds of bands join MP3.com every day -- including high-profile musicians like David Bowie and the Offspring -- it's becoming even more difficult to tap into that pool of cash. Music that's posted for free on MP3.com eventually shows up on Napster, and what garage band can compete with the novelty of all-you-can-eat free Madonna on Gnutella?

So once again, dreams that the Net might cut through the distribution and marketing bottlenecks that keep so many bands from earning a living from their music seem doomed. Fans of Net-distributed music once believed that the even playing field of the Net would give them a chance to take on the record labels' well-marketed pop-schlock and finally win -- based on the merit of their music. But now, as the download battles at MP3.com attest, bands are simply struggling against new kinds of independent, well-marketed pop-schlock. Success on the Net still doesn't have much to do with the quality of your music; instead, it's all about hawking your tunes right.

"Almost everything I've listened to on MP3.com is unimaginative, uncreative crap with no feeling or style to it, with a few exceptions here and there," complains Viver. "As it is in everything in the world, it comes down to how you market yourself. All we're looking to do is get heard."

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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