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Internet idols

Modeling themselves after 'American Idol,' upstart websites look to turn unknown artists into stars

Performers who dream of global fame know they need to be supremely confident -- or at least fake it passably. Is the same true of tech start-ups?

"The scope of what we're doing is bigger than what 'American Idol' is doing," says Ben Campbell, the chief executive of OurStage Inc. in Chelmsford. "We feel like this is more the wave of the future."

How's that for confidence?

OurStage is one of the newest companies to try to bring to the Internet the kind of high-stakes talent competition that Fox's "American Idol" has been presenting on television since 2002. OurStage recently raised a first round of funding, as did, a Huntington Beach, Calif., company.

The co founder of Silicon Valley's Bix even showed up at a cattle call audition for "Idol" last summer to pitch his site, handing out 15,000 fliers to the would-be Kelly Clarksons waiting in line.

Three months later, his contest site, where you can vote for the best Elvis impersonation or the foxiest model, was acquired by Yahoo Inc. for an undisclosed amount.

The sites are addressing a problem that the Internet era has created for singers, bands, filmmakers, and other creative types: Given how easy it is to post an MP3 music file or a video clip on the Web, and how much content is now accessible, it's increasingly difficult to stand out.

"You put your stuff on MySpace, and you get lost amidst thousands of bands," says Campbell.

The talent sites hope to leverage votes and ratings from Internet users to help the cream rise to the top. But one big challenge is preventing users from tipping the scales toward their favorite contestants -- and the contestants themselves from gaming the voting system.

"I'd be lying if I said that the search for fame and glory wasn't in there somewhere," says Palmer Stinson, a Boston animator whose short film, "Xero. . .The Story of X," won first place in three of OurStage's video categories in March. (Stinson's prize was a $300 American Express gift card.) But Stinson adds that winning hasn't yet generated any new business for his animation firm.

Todd Marston, whose band Choose to Find won first place last month in OurStage's jazz and blues category, says he's "not sure of the impact it'll have, but it's good to be making connections." OurStage subsequently invited the band to its studio to record a live video version of one of its songs.

OurStage plans to award two $5,000 prizes to competitors each month, one for musicians and another for filmmakers, and the site is dangling other opportunities, too -- like an opportunity to play at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York or a showing at Utah's Slamdance Film Festival.

At Bix, competitors can win $50,000 and a recording session from Capitol Records.

"I believe, as competition increases in our space, incentives, financial and otherwise, will matter more and more," says Mike Speiser, co founder of Bix now based at Yahoo's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Many entrants, he adds, currently sing, dance, or model as a hobby, "but they'd like to do it for a living."

Bix and OurStage both try to prevent over-eager voters from spoiling the results of their competitions by presenting entries at random, so a band can't link its fans directly to a page where they can cast a vote.

"We had a couple friends who said, 'We've been on the site for two hours, and we've only seen your band once,' " says Ryan Ordway, whose Braintree band, Oddway, won the $5,000 grand prize on OurStage in March.

Bix employs artificial intelligence software to try to discern whether a vote is being cast by a real, live human or a software "bot." "We're looking for inconsistencies," says Speiser.

OurStage plans to generate some revenue by charging users for texting in votes from their cellphones, once competitions reach the stage where just 10 finalists remain. The company will cut off each cellphone user after 200 votes, at 50 cents a pop.

"Like a casino, we try to limit people who may want to go too far," Campbell says. Still, 200 votes from a passionate fan will carry a lot more weight than a single vote from a more casual OurStage user.

(In March, Oddway received 2,239 text votes. Conceivably, if a dozen diehard fans wanted to spend $100 each, that would've been enough to assure Oddway the grand prize.)

Speiser says Bix will generate revenue for Yahoo by charging companies to create contests on the site -- for instance, a toothpaste company might sponsor a competition for America's best smile. "This is a new way for marketers to engage with consumers," he says.

OurStage, in addition to charging for text votes, will sell advertising and also music recorded by the artists featured on the site. "In May, we'll start selling songs for 99 cents, with two-thirds of that going to the artist, and one third to us," says CEO Campbell.

As for Campbell's "bigger than 'Idol' " boast -- "American Idol" dominates the TV ratings, and has launched the careers of singers Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson -- he explains that " 'Idol' is just focused on one genre, which is music, and within that, focused on pop music. It is phenomenal how successful it has been, but I think it will run its course."

Bix's Speiser takes a different stance. After trekking to the "Idol" audition in San Diego last year, he's convinced that the show's filtering process has limitations. " 'American Idol' is great," Speiser says, "but the funnel isn't very big, and you audition in front of a few producers -- not the whole world. I'd love to work with them, or any reality show, to use our site to help the best performers bubble up to the top."

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