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First, you create your player -- in the form of your Tonos Artist Profile. "Kind of your home page, or bio," explains Tonos general manager Justin Herz. "It's where you build your profile, upload your photo and up to 10 of your own MP3s." Be creative. Although the whole idea of the online music creation site is to be as honest as possible in creating what amounts to your résumé, hey, this is the Internet! Have fun!
Here you can basically start out as any lower-level music biz character you choose: chart-savvy pop songwriter, jam-master R&B record producer, session-stealing rock guitarist, club-rockin' male rapper, not-that-innocent teen female singer or the always available "aspirant." Go ahead, make yourself look as cool as possible. Just remember, as Herz says, "You don't have to look like Britney to write Britney's next hit."
Next, you go to your Project Center, "the control room" for your first hitmaking project. Depending on whether you're a composer, a lyricist, a singer or a musician, this is where you upload your part of what you hope will be radio's next big thing. Here, Tonos members are specific about what they think their smash-in-waiting needs. "Pop with a little attitude," one project owner details. "Would work best with teen-pop girl group that can harmonize." The songwriter of "Funk You" describes his pop/funk-style song as "Controversial but harmless. 'N SYNC, Britney could shock public with it."
Next -- and this is the part of the Tonos online gaming experience that can drag -- you wait for the other key players to join your project. Sometimes this can be like sitting in a lonely Counterstrike LAN game at 2 a.m., waiting for another dateless computer geek to join your team. But other times, as with all things on the Internet, the connections can happen incredibly fast.
The Tonos point-and-click hit factory has already found favor in the TV and movie business: The theme song for the Fox comedy Grounded for Life and show music for Dawson's Creek and MTV's Road Rules were put together the Tonos way. Director Ron Howard even came to the site looking for music for his Grinch soundtrack and came away with a track written by member songwriters and featuring a member female vocalist.
"We offer access," Herz says simply. "It's a way for you to get in contact with the big names in the industry. What would be unsolicited material in any other circumstance can turn into stuff that these people are waiting to hear. And we can get it to the right people."
Of course, it helps that the star players at Tonos -- who, depending on whether you win them over, can become either your allies or your foes in the hitmaking game -- are indeed some of the heaviest hitters in the industry. Founded in 1999 by Grammy vets Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Tonos employs a star stable of what it calls its Hitmakers that includes Max Martin (Britney's standby smash-writer from ". . . Baby One More Time" through "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman"), Destiny's Child/J.Lo producer Rodney Jerkins, Faith Hill's right-hand studio master Byron Gallimore and Midas-touch songwriter Diane Warren, the ballad meister who's penned million-sellers for everyone from Barbra Streisand to Aerosmith.
The big draw to signing up as a tonosPRO member, for the low monthly fee of $11.95 ($99.95 annually), is that sometimes you actually get to play with one of the big dogs.
"We do this occasionally where you actually get a chance to write, in a way, 'with' one of our founders or our Hitmakers," Herz says. "So, like, we'll put up a track by Max Martin, and then you can write to that track."
The song that landed on the Grinch soundtrack was, in fact, the product of one such contest. "Ron wanted a song sort of about Christmas in Whoville for a particular scene in the movie," Herz says. "So we already had a kind of theme and potentially the title for the song. Then David Foster and Steve Kipner -- Steve's the guy that did 'Genie in a Bottle' for Christina Aguilera -- they did a track and a melody line, and we opened up a project for people to write lyrics to that. So, in a case like that, you really get to work with, literally, the people who are at the top of the business."
Tonos also has the ears of some of the biggest label execs and deal makers. "Every month, we put together a compilation CD of the best songs and artists' demos uploaded to our A&R Drop Box and send it out to the top people in the industry," Herz says. Those heavy hitters on the monthly mailing list include everyone from record-biz moguls Clive Davis, Mo Ostin and Alain Levy (the EMI head now infamous as the man who paid Mariah Carey $28 million to leave his label) to Nirvana/Beastie Boys signer Gary Gersh and 'N SYNC/Britney/Backstreet Boys boss, Jive Records president Barry Weiss.