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While big labels falter, indie bands find stardom online

When the Dresden Dolls' record label declined to finance a music video, the Boston band made its own video on the cheap, posted it to YouTube -- and attracted more than 300,000 viewers.

To woo new fans, Brooklyn singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton's digital avatar played a concert last month inside the video game Second Life.

On the website MySpace, Boston punk band The Charms have amassed nearly 9,000 ``friends" with whom the band can communicate about upcoming shows and new releases. The old way of discovering new music was to hear a song on the radio, trek to a record store, and try to hum it for the clerk. The new way of discovering music is a dense swirl of websites, YouTube videos, blogs, MySpace pages, cell phone ring tones, and even video games. For emerging artists, the new technology creates opportunities to reach a wider audience -- especially when used cleverly -- as major labels and big-name artists fumble their way into the future.

``The record labels still don't know how to use the Web as adroitly and adeptly as the young people who grew up with it, who are now in these bands," says Phil Leigh, senior analyst at Inside Digital Media, a Tampa consulting firm. ``I do think that the labels will continue to be the major force in the music industry, but they won't be as dominant as they were in the past."

The Dresden Dolls, a duo who describe their music as ``Brechtian punk cabaret," invite their fans to send in artwork and videos inspired by their songs.

``A fan can send me a beautiful painting, and seven seconds later, it's up on our website , on the fan art page, and it's visible to thousands of other people," says singer Amanda Palmer. ``I love that we can connect with people that way."

That sort of authentic connection between a band and its fans is a relatively new phenomenon. Coulton, who writes quirky, fabulist folk songs about American history, star-crossed mad scientists, and technology, recently used his blog to invite the Web audience to submit an eight-bar solo for his song ``Shop Vac" on the instrument of their choice. The best one -- chosen by user voting -- was incorporated into the finished song.

``Audiences want to feel that Web authenticity thing," says Mike Denneen, a Somerville producer who has worked with Aimee Mann and the band Fountains of Wayne. ``They don't want to feel they're being marketed to." That puts the deep-pocketed marketing departments of such mega-labels as Universal Music Group and Sony BMG at a distinct disadvantage.

The Dresden Dolls' homemade video ``Backstabber," an homage to silent movies, came about after the band's label ``decided that our album wasn't doing well enough to merit paying for a music video," Palmer says. ``We didn't agree, so we did it our own way. The wonderfully democratic thing about YouTube and the Internet in general is that all you need is a good idea and a way to execute it."

The Charms, which will be playing an old-fashioned live show tomorrow night at Axis in Boston, stock their MySpace page with videos and streaming versions of their songs; the band's website includes a page devoted to phone numbers of local radio stations around the country.

``It took like 10 people a while to put that list together," says lead singer Ellie Vee, ``but we were trying to make it really easy for fans to request our music."

Band members have been blogging about their current national tour on their own site, as well as on

Bands can even use an online marketplace called Sonicbids, based in Boston, to get gigs.

Founder Panos Panay says that 83,000 bands or musicians pay $5.95 a month to keep an ``electronic press kit" on the site that festival organizers, club bookers, or even movie music supervisors can peruse. This month's Row-A-Palooza Festival, associated with the Head of the Charles Regatta, used Sonicbids to find two bands for its line up.

``When I was an agent, any act that makes under $3,000 a show really isn't a viable artist for you to handle," says Panay, who once represented jazz giants Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. ``But we give those smaller artists a way to have representation and find opportunities."

Coulton, who quit his job as a database programmer last year to pursue music full time, may be the world's most Web-savvy guitar-slinger. He has given permission to podcasters to use his songs in their programs, created $1.50 downloadable ringtones based on several of his songs, and composed an ode to Flickr, the photo-sharing site, that is accompanied by a slide show of the images that inspired it.

In September, his digital doppelganger -- slightly more buff than the carbon-based singer and with a squarer jaw -- played a few songs for an online audience in the game Second Life. (Coulton is performing this week at PopTech, an annual conference in Camden, Maine, that explores the impact of new technologies on the culture.) ``It sounds naive," Coulton says, ``but I would like to make a living by making music and putting it on the Internet."

It remains an open question whether that's a viable path for Coulton and other still-relatively-obscure artists.

The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for knitting together a community of passionate fans (though some question whether all those MySpace ``friends" will ever pony up for a concert ticket or pay for an album download.) But the Net audience expects to get a lot of things for free, including music and videos.

``We're looking at a changing economy, in which music is free, and artists are going to have to learn to make their living through touring and merchandise sales," says Palmer.

``The barriers to getting your music and your image out there are lower than they've ever been," says Denneen, who co founded Q Division, a recording studio and record label. ``But over the long-term, the big question is, how many of these people are going to be able to make a living at it?"

Scott Kirsner is a freelance writer in San Francisco who maintains a blog on entertainment and technology, cinematech. He can be reached at

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