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Band lands record contract through the Net

Pop singer Kathy Fisher didn't win a Grammy last week, but after promoting her music on the Net for less than a year she does have reason to celebrate: She just signed a major record deal.

    Pop singer Kathy Fisher didn't win a Grammy last week, but after promoting her music on the Net for less than a year she does have reason to celebrate: She just signed a major record deal.

    Fisher is the first unsigned artist to seal a contract with FarmClub.com, an online record label founded by Universal Music chairman Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine, co-chairman of Universal's Interscope Geffen A&M banner. The new label has signed two other acts--Sonique and Deep Obsession--but both had previous record deals.

    Of the tens of thousands of unsigned acts marketing themselves online, Fisher is among the first to score a major record contract.

    Although Fisher and her band performed at Lilith Fair in 1998 and garnered a gold record through their single "Breakable" on the "Great Expectations" soundtrack, they had not yet been recognized by a major label. So Fisher set up a page on MP3.com to prove to the big-timers--and even smaller independents--that she has an audience. It seems to have worked.

    "We have a major record deal--the contract we signed was on Universal Music stationery," Fisher said. "We had clout on the Net; this will take what we started to a new level."

    Fisher said she will still offer songs through MP3.com, but not as many. She's been making money through MP3.com's "Payback for Playback" program and through singing jingles and producing children's music. Now she'll work with her band full time.

    A FarmClub spokeswoman confirmed that Fisher had been signed, but executives were not available for further comment.

    FarmClub is a new organization that will be run like an independent, but it has the distribution and firepower of a major label because it's aligned with Interscope and its parent, Universal--one of the so-called Big Five record companies, which also include Sony Music, Warner Music, EMI Recorded Music and BMG Entertainment.

    Building on the digital music wave, FarmClub aims to build a converged soundstage that cultivates artists online, invites some to perform on its weekly USA Network TV show alongside popular bands, and then offers some a contract. FarmClub will promote the bands online, and Interscope will handle offline distribution and tours.

    FarmClub's standard recording contract has drawn some criticism, however. Before artists can appear on its TV show to perform just one song, they have a small window of time to sign a contract that gives the label an option to enter into a recording agreement with the artist within 30 days. The contract lays out a six-album deal with advances ranging from $275,000 to $650,000 for each record, but it also claims all rights to a musician's "official" Web site and online distribution.

    Some music industry lawyers and at least one band that spoke out against the contract say FarmClub's tactics fly in the face of the MP3 revolution, which is rooted in empowering artists through self-promotion. But FarmClub has maintained that the contract is flexible, and Fisher's experience speaks to that.

    "We still control our Web site and its content," Fisher said. "We kept a lot of our digital rights. They knew we were Net-savvy. It's a perfect marriage because FarmClub understands the viability of the Net.

    "We look at this as building a business," she added. "We didn't want to merge with anyone that would come in and acquire us and liquidate."

    As it happens, Fisher got the contract Net music waits for its cue (year in review)without ever being on FarmClub's show, perhaps because the band was already a hot property on the Net, with more than 1.2 million of its songs downloaded from MP3.com and other sites since April.

    While the band basks in its success as it prepares to go to work in the studio, other bands are holding out to see if they will be signed by FarmClub.

    Headboard, an unsigned Petaluma, Calif.-based pop band that appeared on the show's first episode, is about halfway through its waiting period. The band's past negotiations with labels have all fallen through.

    "It was awesome being on the show," said Glen Rubenstein, 24, the band's lead singer. "Unless you are in a bidding war, you're not going to get something much better than FarmClub is offering."

    Even if Headboard doesn't get signed, the exposure was worth it, Rubenstein said.

    "If someone really wants to work with you, they don't beat around the bush," he said.