Musicians looking for a recording deal long have been at the mercy of artist-and-repertoire executives, who send a clear message to rock-star wannabes: Don't call us, we'll call you.
But Universal Music Group is bringing a little democracy to the music business.
Universal's new online record label, Jimmy and Doug's Farm Club, was founded by two of the industry's most influential music executives Jimmy Iovine and Doug Morris (hence the name). Its Web site at provides a platform where unsigned musicians can upload their music and listeners from around the globe can vote on who should receive a coveted recording contract.
The site is the first major online A & R; development effort by a music-industry heavy hitter, and may well stand as a model for future labels.
"As the Internet evolves, the opportunities for music companies to use the Internet to develop their A & R; programs is going to become increasingly important," said Christopher Dixon, an analyst at Paine Webber.
Taking artist development to the Internet seems a natural and cost-effective extension for the music business. The last few years have been sluggish, with lagging sales, consolidation and cost-cutting. As a result, contracts to unsigned bands have been few and far between.
With a booming population of online music sites offering streaming and downloadable music, Universal's parent company has signaled that Internet ventures of all kinds will be a priority. Edgar Bronfman Jr., chief executive of Universal owner Seagram Co. Ltd., is especially passionate about expanding opportunities to reach new listeners via the Internet.
Morris, chairman of the Universal Music Group, and Iovine, founder of Universal's successful Interscope hip-hop record label, developed the idea for Farm Club last September. Morris provided the name and concept and Iovine suggested multimedia distribution.
"We did it very much together, and Edgar (Bronfman) thought it was a great idea," said Iovine, now CEO of Farm Club.
The new company includes a cross-promotional deal with America Online and a weekly cable television show on USA Networks. Revenues will come from both advertising and e-commerce. The USA connection, said Dixon, "provides a platform to gain access to a wide market, and to test market artists very quickly."
Farm Club solicits unsigned artists to upload up to four songs in the MP3 digital audio format to the Web site. Users can download these songs, and then vote for their favorites. Farmclub.com's A & R; executives will also be keeping a careful ear on artists with a good sound and staying power.
Receiving lots of votes won't necessarily translate into a record deal. Selected bands are asked to perform on the TV show "Farmclub.com," airing on USA at 11 p.m. Monday nights.
"An artist anywhere in the world can upload and it's an expressway to a major record company, television program and ultimately to every record store in the world," said Farm Club President Andy Schuon.
At the taping of the first episode of the performance-and-interview show on a recent Friday, rap stars Dr. Dre and Eminem were the star guests. British singer Sonique, the first and only artist signed to the Farm Club label, sang her single "It Feels so Good," which recently hit No. 19 after five weeks on the Billboard charts. Unsigned band Headboard from Petaluma, Calif. flew to L.A. to perform one of its four songs currently available for download on the site.
Headboard nearly won contracts at Universal labels A & M; and Geffen Records before Universal merged with PolyGram and restructured last year. A & M; and Geffen closed and were folded into Interscope Geffen A & M;, and Headboard lost its potential deals.
"We threw ourselves into touring," said Glenn Rubenstein, lead singer of Headboard. "It was actually really depressing. We went from being in one league, where we were supported and backed by a really huge company, to scraping together gas money to get from town to town."
With Farmclub.com, the band is receiving international exposure through the Internet and additional attention through the TV show, and now it's getting calls from managers and booking agents looking to represent the band. Like other unsigned bands appearing on the show, Headboard was given a several-week option by Farm Club, meaning it cannot sign a deal with another label during that time.
While Headboard's fate is in the air, band members already have noticed a different attitude at Farm Club than the other record labels they've dealt with.
"We got to meet the entire record company," Rubenstein said. "With the A & M; contract, they misspelled two of the band members' names. (At Farm Club), they know so much about us and we feel they really know us."
Investing time in new artists is the goal at Farm Club.
"We're going to have much better communication in our record company than we in the industry have ever had," said Iovine. "Artists are going to be able to get themselves known much more quickly and on a bigger scale than ever before. We can spot things earlier and help them create their buzz. I think that's going to help more talent surface."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.