Singing their way to stardom

Auditions (and just goofing around) on MySpace and YouTube vault amateur rockers into gigs with storied bands.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    FAR FROM HOME (DEPOT): MySpace tribute made store worker Tommy DeCarlo a rock singer.
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Most amateur singers are told to keep their day jobs. Tommy DeCarlo, a Home Depot worker in Charlotte, N.C., is an exception.

Mr. DeCarlo, a fan of the band Boston, was so devastated when singer Brad Delp died in 2007 that he recorded several Boston songs in tribute and put them up on his MySpace page.

"I just happened to get an e-mail one day from a gal on MySpace who had some information on how to get my music over to Tom Scholz," recalls DeCarlo.

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DeCarlo didn't think anything would come of contacting Mr. Sholz, the band's founder. So he was stunned to receive an invitation to participate in a Delp tribute show. Afterward, he received a thank-you note from Scholz – "I thought I should be the one thanking them," exclaims the father of two. Then DeCarlo got something more: a request to join Boston's summer tour and sing on a new album. For DeCarlo, the gig is more than a feeling – it's an overwhelming emotion: "I still get jitters," he says.

A number of other major rock bands – including Velvet Revolver, Anthrax, and Journey – are turning to the Internet to search for replacement singers. Social-networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube are democratizing a try-out process once largely limited to the old-boy rocker network – and to the United States. By hiring unknowns, these groups have generated fresh interest in their bands and have made themselves appear more accessible to fans.

"The broader trend is that YouTube and the Internet is enabling fans to play a bigger role in the music they love," says Greg Kot, rock critic for The Chicago Tribune. "You're seeing Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead and other bands inviting fans to submit videos and remix songs. It's all part of this, 'let the fans in on the creative process, become co-conspirators – collaborators, almost.' This is kind of the extreme version of that."

In recent years, social-networking sites have allowed unknown artists to build their fan bases from scratch. Big-name musicians have used MySpace to connect with listeners. More often than not, though, that relationship resembles Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco of God and Adam: The fingers don't quite touch. So the move to hire fans as band members is something of a surprise.

Just ask Dan Nelson. The amateur rocker from Long Island contacted Anthrax guitarist Rob Caggiano through MySpace last year and struck up a rapport. He was invited to fill a spot in front of the microphone stand.

Nelson isn't the only Cinderella invited to the headbanger's ball. Journey guitarist Neal Schon hired a singer from the Philippines named Arnel Pineda after discovering him on YouTube.

"When I came across Arnel he was in this little Hard Rock Cafe in Manila being recorded through a little stereo condenser mike on a [video camera], and he sounded great!" says Mr. Schon, who adds that viewing live performances on YouTube appealed to him because it's harder to fake talent on video.

"Stories like these only confirm the idea that the Internet can level the playing field," says Charles Allen Bargfrede, who teaches Creative Promo in New Media at Boston's Berklee College of Music. "While chances still remain one in a million that something like this will happen to you," he says, "it's certainly created a new outlet."

Singer Alicia Keys has a contest on MySpace to find a backup singer. And Slash, the guitarist for Velvet Revolver, has told Billboard magazine that the band will audition singers online after splitting with frontman Scott Weiland.

"Granted, it's not the best way to judge somebody," says Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian. "But I think it's a good enough way to be able to do the weeding-out process."

Some view the practice as a gimmick. The Tribune's Mr. Kot calls recruiting singers over the Internet a "shotgun marriage" aimed at reviving interest in older bands.

Mr. Ian and Schon dismiss such criticism. They insist that they're warmly welcoming their new talent and that fans are, too. Schon recalls Mr. Pineda's first show at a South American festival in front of 20,000 people. "The audience is known as 'the monster,' " says the guitarist. "If they don't like you, they … boo you off. He went on and just captivated everyone, and he was like Elvis when we left."

For his part, DeCarlo is grateful to have coaching from Boston's other new member, current Stryper guitarist Michael Sweet, who will share vocal duties on tour. "I don't think the crowd is expecting me to go out there and do back flips and stage dives," says DeCarlo. His co-workers have been aware of his talent ever since they innocently invited him out for karaoke. But they're as shocked about the tour as DeCarlo, who is taking a leave of absence from work. "I'm 43 years old. I don't think it would ever have happened had it not been for the Internet."

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