Bands find large Web fanbase doesn't equal big money

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A pair of 20-year-old kids from Everett, Wash., who make up the band The Scene Aesthetic, are rock stars on the Web -- and virtually unknown anywhere else.

"Internet is where we are," says vocalist Eric Bowley, who along with Andrew de Torres drew up a strategy for promoting their fledgling rock band on social-networking sites like News Corp.'s MySpace.com.

On that site alone, The Scene Aesthetic has had 2.3 million visitors and more than 124,000 "friends," code for people linked to their page. On PureVolume.com, a popular site where bands can post their music, fans have listened to their album "Building Homes from What We've Known" 1.3 million times. Over at YouTube.com, the music video of their first song, "Beauty in the Breakdown," has been watched over half a million times.

Messrs. Bowley and de Torres don't earn any money from the millions of clicks. Fans can't download the music from these sites, but they can listen or watch free as many times as they like. So while the pair of vocalists are scraping by and sleeping on fans' basement floors, their band is getting the kind of recognition in the virtual world that few acts can dream of offline -- all without a major recording label or radio play.

The Scene Aesthetic is one of thousands of bands that exist primarily on the Web. With electronic banners, fan sites and free downloads, musicians promote and distribute their sound on sites like MySpace and PureVolume virtually free. Only a select few bands draw noticeable numbers. About 300,000 bands post music on PureVolume, according to Brett Woitunski, the 26-year-old partner and chief executive of Unborn Media, which runs the page. But only about 2 percent of those have more than 5,000 plays, or the number of times someone has listened to a song.

The Scene Aesthetic earned its spot in that top tier by getting in ahead of the game. Mr. Bowley embedded a song for fans to check out on his MySpace page in early 2005, well before the music masses. By pairing samples of their acoustic sound with pictures of themselves -- shaggy-haired, bright-eyed and fresh-faced -- the band gained popularity quickly.

It was love at first click for Hannah Reichenberger, a 16-year-old from a suburb of Tulsa, Okla., who saw The Scene Aesthetic's video on a friend's blog. "Their lyrics are just" -- she pauses to sigh dramatically -- "amazing. I just love them."

But while The Scene Aesthetic's appeal makes traditional music marketing and distribution look as out-of-date as a cassette tape, its millions of "friends" in the virtual world don't necessarily translate into real dollars.

And that raises the question -- just what constitutes success?

If it's popularity, Internet play provides an ongoing evaluation, far better than traditional measures like landing a record contract, says David R. Bell, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Pure Volume's Mr. Woitunski notes that for a long time, the number of plays didn't mean anything to anyone except the bands themselves. Now, those numbers represent "buzz" -- a tool to gauge effectiveness of promotional strategies.

Traditionally, this is where a record label enters the process. But executives from traditional music companies remain skeptical. The sheer number of artists and the quality of music online tends to solicit scoffs, as does high traffic. "We're not as impressed by, like, huge numbers of 'friends' because that can be gamed very easily," says Adam Farrell, head of online marketing for Matador Records, referring to computer programs that can visit a site repeatedly to artificially boost the tally.

Brandon Metcalf, a friend of Messrs. Bowley and de Torres who signed the duo to his fledgling label, Destiny Worldwide, swears The Scene Aesthetic does nothing of the sort. The band aggressively markets online, with things like electronic banners posted on friends' sites, he says, but has never used a program to raise their numbers.

Virtual fans can translate into money when they morph into real-life ticket-buying concertgoers, a key source of revenue for all musicians. The Scene Aesthetic duo put their electronic friends to the test this summer with a nationwide tour. With the help of an amateur booking agent and promoting concerts on their MySpace page, the duo booked appearances nearly every night in July and August at places like the Wilton (Conn.) Teen Center, Todino's Pizza in Bloomington, Ill., and Blue Ridge High School in Pinetop, Ariz.

On a good night about 200 people typically show up, paying between $5 and $10 a person, Mr. Bowley estimates. Each gig nets The Scene Aesthetic and the two other bands they tour with about $600 total, plus money from T-shirt and a handful of album sales (they sell more T-shirts than albums, says Mr. Metcalf). It's not a lot, Mr. Bowley says, but it's enough to live on. When they run out of money for hotels, the fans usually volunteer a spot on the basement floor.

"Kids at the shows will just offer," says Mr. Bowley.

Such personal relationships are another benefit of being an Internet star. What was once a monologue from musicians to fans is now a dialogue because of message boards and forums, says Mr. Bell. After The Scene Aesthetic concerts, teens immediately return home to the keyboard-fueled comforts of the Web. Following a show at The Living Room in Providence in late July, one teenaged girl posted: "Hey you guys were awesome last night! Make sure you come again!!"

That's why even established bands are going to the Internet, eager to make such connections, particularly with young fans. Continued success depends on a presence in the online arena. "None of them are like '(Forget) this online stuff. It's just a fad,'" says Mr. Farrell from Matador. "They all want to get it."

The Internet can also provide a way to stoke CD sales. Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, who make up the Brooklyn-based band Bishop Allen, built an Internet following with a continual-release strategy. In a move one part ambitious and one part "double-dog dare," says Mr. Rice, the pair decided to release four new songs a month for a year on their Web site. As a result, fans -- from New York and San Francisco to Kentucky and China -- keep coming back for more. They've sold an average of 1,500 CDs a month at $5 a pop. By pocketing $3.70 from each sale, the duo is set to earn nearly $35,000 each this year.

Not riches, certainly, but enough, as Mr. Rice says, "to be able to make a decent living just by recording and playing music."

Success is in the eye of the beholder. As the end of his two-month tour nears, Mr. Bowley remains stunned by what his group has accomplished. "I didn't expect to see myself, a couple years after high school, (to be) touring the country with a band that came from nothing," he says.



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