Exclusive online content - the shape of the future?

P2P, mp3, bittorrent - all words that were meaningless a decade ago but are now part of a major paradigm shift in the music and film industry. Beyond the lawsuits, there is however a possibility for less well known artists to make themselves known and more established artists to give something back to their audience beyond the "official" record label releases.

David Lynch - always the iconoclast modernist - cottoned on to this a few years back. His animations were never likely to be aired on TV and even his TV shows were getting shelved before being shown. So why not create your own pay-per-view website to allow your fans to get a load of your latest creations? Lynch designed it all himself and has been pouring a lot of his creative output into it. On the music front, David Bowie and Todd Rundgren have been offering exclusive downloads for fans for a while but their model seemed to work only thanks to their personal fortunes and musical recognition. Pushing the DIY ethic, comes Bill Mallonee - alt.country/rock musician from Athens, Georgia. His history with music labels has been relatively prickly with almost as many labels as releases. Financially, he's not been rolling in money - getting by seems to be his sole aim but, as a prolific songwriter, he was caught between an avid but small fanbase and having to bear the financial brunt of record releasing.

With the democratisation of the internet, he's changed tack and decided to try his hand at online releasing and hopefully making some money out of it with the launch of BillTunes.com. You pay a subscription (currently $9.99/month circa £6) and you can download a monthly batch of songs ranging from demos of released tracks or remixed live tracks to exclusive songs that are unlikely to make the cut of any official CD.

Says webmaster Tim White: "I got the idea from thinking about how to build multiple revenue streams for really prolific artists that write and record a lot of music. Since an artist like Bill Mallonee writes 50-60 songs a year, including a huge amount of past material, it's a way to give serious fans what they want, while keeping the overall costs of manufacturing down". Keeping in line with fan demands, they are making the downloads available in both mp3 and FLAC - a high quality file format that will burn to CD with virtually no quality loss on the original.

So how successful can this new model be for musicians? According to White, the uptake has been phenomenal - 200 fans have signed up, mostly through word of mouth, in one month and they have already started to break even. The fans are delighted with what they are getting - the quality is artist controlled with all the tracks being properly mixed and most of the profits will be supporting him to produce more music. But doesn't this in many ways negate the need for a music label? After all, what would prevent musicians with sufficient profile simply getting rid of their record deal and releasing everything through their website? White can see this problem as he also doubles up as head of Fundamental Records but sees his approach as fundamentally different from that of the Majors' short-termism: "[Our] long term approach will pay off consistently over time. And it's a proven fact that digital access to music, actually increases the fanbase over time - because more folks can listen instantly and assess whether they like something faster - without having to purchase an entire album to only be disappointed with everything except the song that drew them." A noticeably divergent view from that put out by the RIAA and the BPI. Maybe after the last few years of litigation, a solution may be emerging that will make both musicians and fans happy with the added bonus of snookering major record labels. Now that is what you call disruptive technology...

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