Cyber-Hit Factory

Signing up as a tonosPRO member at Tonos.com -- the music biz professional's hook-up site whose ad banners tease "Got the hit? Tonos has the access!" -- is a little like hitmaking as a Blizzard massively multiplayer online game.

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.

Of course, just shelling out the monthly $11.95 for membership doesn't guarantee you'll eventually be doing lunch with Jimmy Iovine and L.A. Reid. "We don't forward anything to the industry or our partners if it isn't up to snuff," Herz says. For the hapless subscriber whose songs are constantly judged too embarrassing even to be submitted for the next Pokémon soundtrack, Tonos hopes the monthly fee it collects will at least be worth the value of the "learning experience" membership offers (the subscription does offer access to the site's Expert Advice archives and discounts on music gear and publications).

What Tonos is the first to offer, Herz says, is a collaborative environment where writers and musicians and producers can connect with each other and create hit songs using the technology of the Internet. "We have a really vibrant community of people who are hooking up on a daily basis and finding writing partners and collaborators that they wouldn't have access to any other way," he says. "For us, it's all good. If people are actually getting together and furthering their craft and creating great music, then we're really happy about it."

While Tonos offers experts and community members in all genres of popular music, from country to hip-hop to heavy metal, the point-and-click method of hitmaking appears so far best suited for makers of chart-topping teen pop. Projects needing youthful female pop vocalists regularly dominate the list of new opportunities, and even the openings for rappers and rock guitarists seem centered on adding just the right flavor to the latest successful pop formula ("needs a female vocal for the choruses with a rapped male verse," a current song project requests).

Some of this pop focus seems natural. While rockers and rap stars may still pride themselves on their creative self-sufficiency, there's never been any shame in the teen pop game for relying on outside songwriters and career-shapers (although Diane Warren's hit for Aerosmith, the power ballad "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," is proof that even hard rock has come around in recent years to recognizing the value of a hitmaking hired pen).

But in Tonos' dynamic database-driven Web site, teen pop may have just found its most efficient means of production ever. It's easy to imagine a busy Clive Davis or Barry Weiss clicking around on their iBooks on those long flights from New York to L.A., building the next pop princess or boy band before touching down for the day's power lunch. By just punching in a few choice keywords, the time-crunching label exec can quickly download some samples of the precise kind of music he's looking for and match it up with just the right lyrics. By the time he's ready to match the song to the singer, it's all just a matter of browsing through thumbnail photos and sampling RealPlayer vocal clips and deciding whether he's looking for more of a Mandy or a fresher shade of Pink.

Indeed, the Tonos online experience merely streamlines and simplifies the formula teen pop hitmakers have already come to rely on. "It's extremely important, in that genre particularly, to make that perfect match," says Herz. "It has to be exactly the right words. It has to be coming from the right face, it has to be coming from the right age. And it has to have the right sound."

The aspiring artists in teen pop, too, are more than happy to mold their images to fit a song, if they think that song may be the one that breaks them on the scene. Rising star Hoku, teen daughter of Hawaiian icon Don Ho, dyed her brown hair blond just to go along with the lyrics of her breakout hit, "Another Dumb Blonde." She's since charted with a couple more hits and has become a video favorite on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, but the blond hair remains. Dumb like a fox.

Add to all that the simple fact that there are always new, fresh faces arriving on the teen-pop horizon, and it's easy to see why today's aspiring songwriters are so focused on crafting hummable anthems for the under-18 set.

"Carole [Bayer Sager] has said it herself, that she's at an age where it's silly for her to be writing songs for Britney Spears," says Herz. "But there's only so many Celine Dions or Barbra Streisands out there, and there are always new people coming in for the younger audience. And all of them," Herz adds, "are searching for that next big hit."

Click, click.

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