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Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails walked into the Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters of Musicane last month and stunned the start-up's employees with his tech knowledge and fierce attention to detail.
Typically, when artists sign on with Musicane, a company that helps musicians distribute their music online, they are satisfied with letting Musicane's programmers, administrators, and designers make the decisions, said CEO Sudhin Shahani. (After all, William Adams, or "Will.i.am," of the Black Eyed Peas is the company's marketing chief.)
But Reznor had his own ideas about bit rates, Web design, and pricing. He even toiled over the text messages customers would receive when their purchases were confirmed. And all this work was for someone else's album. Reznor had hired Musicane to provide fulfillment for The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust a record by rapper Saul Williams, which went on sale Thursday on Williams' site. Reznor was the album's producer.
"Trent is well-informed, articulate and is very knowledgeable about technology," Shahani said. "We had a great meeting, but he didn't hesitate to disagree or say what was on his mind. He was extremely detail-oriented. There's not a word on the site that he didn't read or, most likely, write himself."
Reznor last month left music label Universal Music Group, and the administrative tasks he undertook for Williams could teach him some valuable lessons. Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Oasis, Madonna and a growing number of other artists have fled the big record companies and are taking more control of their music distribution. While striking out on their own offers more freedom, the performers also lose the label's prodigious distribution and marketing muscle.
In the future, these musicians may find themselves being forced to make decisions about technology, customer service, and marketing. That's where companies like Musicane, Indie911, Fuzz, Snocap, TuneCore, and dozens of others come in. They offer to free artists from the music-label yoke by helping them manage the chores that come with selling music online.
In the case of NiggyTardust, Musicane distributes the digital downloads, accepts credit card transactions, and provides customer service. Shahani declined to say what the company charged Williams for the service, but he did say Musicane typically receives a 20 percent cut of all transactions.
The company, founded by Shahani, 24, and Vikramaditya Jain, 25, also provides promotion assistance by providing artists with a media player that fans can embed on Web sites, blogs, and social-network profiles.
The player presents a performer's music, videos, photos, and text, and allows fans to buy music or merchandise without being sent to a new Web page. Snocap has a similar tool, which it refers to as a digital-music vending machine.
Music promotion is vital to Internet music sales because this is the area where the labels are supposed to be strongest. As Shahani pointed out, the "labels are expert at making stars." While the Internet allows anyone to boost their profile by posting a Web page, how is an unknown act supposed to get heard when legions of performers are doing the same thing?
The Internet shouldn't be sold short as a platform to introduce new stars, Reznor said in an interview Tuesday. The Web is starting to replace some of the traditional methods that record companies have used to promote acts, such as radio and music magazines. Yet, he's not totally sold on the popular belief that MySpace.com can help up-and-coming bands find an audience.
"I don't go on MySpace," Reznor said. "I find it chaotic, and it looks ugly to me. I've been going to more and more blogs to discover music. I think they're replacing radio stations and music magazines. I don't trust what Rolling Stone has to say. I don't believe them anymore. I go to a few Web sites that have similar tastes as I do."
Another factor that has irked music fans about downloads is copy-protection schemes. Musicane allows artists to choose whether they want Digital Rights Management (DRM) software attached to their music or not. In Williams' case, he and Reznor chose to deliver the songs in an MP3 format free of DRM. This allows users to play the songs on iPods, Zunes or any digital-music player.
Musicane also enables performers to offer music at different bit rates. Williams and Reznor decided to offer a choice of bit rates depending on how much fans forked over for the music. NiggyTardust can be obtained for free, but at that price the songs are only available at 192Kbps. For a $5 donation, buyers get music at 320Kbps or the higher-end FLAC lossless format.
The technology is there to make bands their own music distributors, but there is still a learning curve. For some, the transition has not been without its bumps. Last month when Radiohead released a digital version of its latest album, In Rainbows, some fans were miffed when heavy traffic at Radiohead's site caused long delays in downloading music.
And then there's the question of whether Musicane and similar services make sense for unknown acts that are still trying to build followings.
"For established musicians, it's a different ballgame," said Susan Kevorkian, a digital music analyst with IDC. "For bands who have worked with labels over the years and who have developed followings, the technology is in place to reach their fans much more directly without needing labels' marketing expertise. But for emerging groups to leverage the same technology to attract a following is a long row to hoe."