A few years ago, Ashleigh Flynn wouldn’t have dreamed of playing Bonnaroo, the premier musical festival held annually on a farm in Manchester, Tenn. She had not yet collected enough press attention, for one, or the apparatus of stardom: the agents, PR specialists, and managers that often guide so-called premium acts to the biggest venues.
“It’s not really an open process. You’ve got to have bookers that are well networked, and for most indie artists, that’s just not the case,” says Flynn, an Americana singer based in the Northwest.
And yet this spring, there she stood, on a sweltering Bonnaroo stage, surrounded by a festival crowd thick with reporters, label execs, bloggers, and industry cognoscenti. Her ticket to the big show: OurStage.com, a website that allows mid-level artists a chance to post their music and win an assortment of prizes, including cash, gear, and gigs at various big-name concerts across the country.
Ever since Elvis first swiveled his multiplatinum hips, the American pop paradigm has remained the same: record label signs young artists, young artists sell their soul to the label, and never the twain shall part.
Sites like MySpace and PureVolume, which provide a free platform for artists of any caliber, have helped level the playing field to some degree. The Internet, experts often argue, is the great democratizer: It allows artists to disseminate and publish their music on their own terms.
But the Web has also ushered in a sonic traffic jam of monstrous proportions, says Ben Campbell, CEO of the Chelmsford, Mass.–based OurStage. Faced with the prospect of digging through a gazillion middling acts on the Web, many talent scouts resort to traditional channels of recruiting such as word-of-mouth recommendations, thus missing out on those “musicians capable of going to the next level.
“Think about the folks who capture that amazing disaster and post it to YouTube,” Mr. Campbell says. “Those people have no intention of becoming the next Steven Spielberg. Serious musicians, on the other hand, the ones who post their music on the Web – they care a great deal about this, because they’ve just quit their job and are playing shows fulltime. [At OurStage] we’re trying to be a consolidator of the really great artists – the high end of the emerging talent. We have no interest in building a catalog of 2 million musicians.”
OurStage’s frontend is a fairly simple affair: Artists post their music, which is handed over to web-savvy fans for voting. The most popular acts, like Ashleigh Flynn, bubble to the top; in a best-case scenario, they get seen by the right people and scooped up to play festivals such as the Radio 92.9 City Steps Music Series at City Hall Plaza in downtown Boston. (Among this month’s prizes for high-ranking acts: a slot at the visitRaleigh Benefit Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a mentoring session with Sirius DJ Stefanie Scamardo, and $5,000 in cash.)
“It really has raised the bar on the level of recognition that artists get,” says Flynn. “The people at OurStage are so well networked with the national music business community. MySpace is all self-promotion to some degree; OurStage is a chance to get on and compete among folks in your genre, which is more meaningful.”
Last month, OurStage announced a partnership with LiveNation, the massive concert promotion company based in Los Angeles. The deal, Campbell says, will increase the opportunities for OurStage artists exponentially, by offering them a chance to compete for opener duties at 300 LiveNation concerts.
“At the same time, we have a tool set that allows the artist to communicate directly with the fans, which is harder and harder to do on the big social networks,” he adds, citing an array of Web 2.0 features from live chat sessions to a video feature where fans can request songs.
But significant hurdles remain before OurStage can lay claim to the title of premier music platform. For one, just as there is a glut of artists on the Web, there is a glut of sites like AmieStreet.com, each offering its own “unique” services. And as Mike Worthington, a scouting and artist development executive at the New York label Tommy Boy Entertainment points out, many bands still list their MySpace page as a primary URL.
“Everyone’s figuring out how to monetize these social networks, and of course the new guys are going to talk about why they might be better,” Mr. Worthington says. “There’s a lot out there, and kids are less brand conscious.”
Still, he adds, “We’ve got to give OurStage some props.” He points to one of Tommy Boy’s most recent acquisitions, a Brooklyn-based pop act called Plushgun, which won the attention of the label after charting on OurStage.
“Kids these days seem to be turned on by the live experience of music, rather than the prerecorded setting,” Worthington says. “And OurStage is tapping into that. Because essentially, what we’re looking for first is music that connects to people.”