The free music debate rages on, with artists fuming against a digital machine that allows slobs like us to download their music for free. But John-Scott Dixon thinks he has the answer to music-royalty theft. The former senior VP of PC conglomerate Insight has built RateOurBand.com, an Internet battle of the bands concept that he's marketing to large corporations for a monthly fee. Dixon's plan is simple: Big companies will lease his service, which will attract return customers to their Web sites because we presumably want to hear new music from undiscovered talent. Thirty percent of the revenue will go to the artist, whose music (and photo!) receives free exposure and garners reviews from new fans (sample: "YOU GUYS REALLY SUCK -- SERIOUSLY!!!").
Dixon may be on to something. In a little more than two years, his Phoenix-based site has attracted some 2,400 musical acts from 52 countries -- including the Valley's own Namaste, which describes itself as "a band that follows the groove, blending almost every type of musical influence that comes to heart." Whatever, dood. The royalty check's in the mail.
New Times: What the heck are you doing?
John-Scott Dixon: What we're really trying to do is help people connect with brands through new music. We've got more than 2,400 bands on site, and 16 major genres represented. Listeners are reviewing the bands, and the bands are responding to the feedback, and we're building a music community in that way. We're negotiating with large corporations to link a version of our site to theirs, so that when you go to their site, you can listen to and vote on bands. Because a lot of companies -- Coke, Pepsi, Tommy Hilfiger -- are using music to connect their brands with people.
Dixon: We want to create something that gets people to return to an Internet storefront. When you're shopping for something, you go to the manufacturer's Web site every day to research or read about it, and then you finally buy the item and you stop going. We're trying to get people to return to that company's Web site by enticing them with free music downloads.
NT: It sounds like a keen way to sell stuff, but how does this address the whole free music debate?
Dixon: We think musicians should get paid, so our goal is to only work with unsigned artists. They don't have record-label contracts, so with us they can make their music available for listening. In most artists' mind, the concept is, "If we play enough venues, and the right guy walks in who's looking for the kind of music we play, maybe we'll get a record deal." There's a lot of luck involved in the whole record industry process.
NT: What about talent?
Dixon: Right. But talent's not a real hard thing to find. What we have is an industry that filters the music, then publishes it. We're trying to change that to "publish, then filter."
NT: The whole free music controversy hinges on the fact that artist royalties don't get paid when music is downloaded for free. So where are the royalties in your system?
Dixon: There's not really a royalty. We're gonna pay them based on a percentage of listens by the consumer. We have an eligibility requirement: 100 listens per month equals a certain amount of revenue.
NT: I wish your eligibility requirement had more to do with listenability. Some of the bands I heard on your site this morning really sucked. Like the Poptart Monkeys. Hello! Who decides who gets to compete?
Dixon: Nobody. The band shows up and says, "We want to participate," and we say, "Sign up." We have bands coming in all the time.
NT: You mean, any band or solo musician that wants to participate in RateOurBand.com can do it?
Dixon: Yes. And what you find is . . . so you listened to some of the music?
NT: Quite a lot of it, I'm afraid. And I guess the fact that there's no one screening these artists explains why I heard so much dreck.
Dixon: You can hear some bad stuff, true. I mean, my favorite horrible band is Dead Kid Harvester, a guy out of New Zealand who plays kitchen utensils. It's the worst stuff on the planet. But there's also Deconstruct, out of Sacramento, who do really artful heavy metal. And we have some fantastic hip-hop groups, like Big Girl for Life. Today alone I downloaded 10 songs off our site that I wanted to keep. Did you hear Venue Connection, out of Spain? Amazing New Age stuff.
NT: Mmm, New Age! I guess I missed that one. So, your project is about new artists. But how is this an answer to the problem that established artists are having with the whole Napster mess?
Dixon: It's not. But this is a huge trend, and so we're paving the way for the established artists of the future. We're hopefully helping to solve the problem or circumvent it.
NT: It's sort of a techno-geek's answer to the free music controversy.
Dixon: Probably. I'd be comfortable with that. But it's one that provides a great service to artists. They can actually track who their listeners are. You can't do that when a record label puts your record out for you. But we can offer a geo-psycho-demographic segmentation, because we have your zip code from our site.
NT: I got this e-mail the other day telling me I was going to be prosecuted for downloading music, even though I never have. Is someone from the Music Police going to show up at my house with handcuffs?
Dixon: It's just spam. But [RateOurBand.com] is an answer to that, because it allows you to discover new music, and download it for free with the permission of the artist.
NT: Wouldn't it be better to entice clients with talented, proven artists? Because I visited the site today, and some of these bands are just plain lousy. I mean, it was like a graveyard of Star Search rejects.
Dixon: Right. But there's some good stuff, too. And it's providing exposure to artists who need it, and they're getting paid for it.
NT: I'll venture to guess they're not seeing any money from it yet.
Dixon: Not yet. But in the meantime, the process is giving them exposure to some of the larger record labels.
NT: My fave contender was Fifi LaRue, doing "Gothic Killer Clown." But do we really need another heavy metal band from Hendersonville, North Carolina?
Dixon: We may. But what I'm telling you is that your iPod is hungry for new music, and it's expensive to fill it up if you're paying for established artists. Discovering new talent is more fun. The year I was born, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles was the number one song. Who knows how many artists were just as good or better than the Beatles that year?
NT: I do. And the answer is "None." Hey, I noticed that some of the bands have these little pop-up warnings on your site.
Dixon: That's got to be there if we're going to sell the idea to corporate America. I'll give you an example, and I'm going to use a word that's pretty horrible. You okay?
NT: I'm bracing myself.
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Dixon: We had a band sign up called Cuntgrinder. And there was a picture that looked like chopped-up female components. And if people were to come to the site and had their kid on their lap, it wouldn't be appropriate. I started out saying, "We're not going to do censorship." But we had a few things that got us to thinking about not getting rid of the band but slapping that warning thing on. We had to do that for corporate America.
NT: I guess so. But that's the weird thing about your whole concept, and its presentation on your Web site -- it's very corporate. Which seems kind of the antithesis of rock 'n' roll.
Dixon: I know. But I'm telling you, this is the future of music. And RateOurBand.com is the mother ship.