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DECEMBER 30, 2008
Musician Finds a Following Online Word-of-Mouth on Blogs and Other Sites Attracts Fans -- and a Record Deal
By SH EL L Y BAN JO and KEL L Y K. SPOR S
In late 2006, Justin Vernon, a musician in Eau Claire, Wis., recorded nine songs while staying at his parents' hunting cabin in northern Wisconsin after a breakup with a girlfriend and his long-time band. He used just a desktop computer with recording software, a three-piece drum set and a guitar. A few months later, Mr. Vernon posted the songs on his MySpace page, hoping to get some listeners and feedback. He also printed 500 copies of a CD with those songs to sell to friends and fans and send to music bloggers for review. He got that and much more. Thanks to the buzz his online tracks generated on music blogs and social-networking sites, Mr. Vernon has played at numerous venues and appeared on the "Late Show With David Letterman." He signed a record deal in October 2007, and his first album, "For Emma, Forever Ago," sold about 87,000 copies through mid-December, with about half of those downloaded online. With a band he formed early this year, called Bon Iver, Mr. Vernon is now playing sold-out concerts across the U.S. and abroad. Chelsea Sanders
"The Internet played a significant role in feeding people the music.... It's like wildfire [how it] spreads," Mr. Vernon, 27, said before a show earlier this year in Philadelphia, where the band performed to a boisterous crowd of about 500 in a church basement. "That propelled us right into being able to choose what kind of record label we wanted to work with." Justin Vernon of Bon Iver performing at WIUX radio station at Indiana University at Bloomington.
Mr. Vernon's rapid success shows how small, relatively unknown artists can gain fame via the Web without the large marketing budgets and backing of a major record label. The exposure on blogs, YouTube, socialnetworking, marketing and other sites can allow them to nurture a following quickly and cheaply. "It's about consumers talking to each other and to the artist through the Web and at concerts, where the emphasis on top 40 hits" has disappeared, says marketing expert and author Seth Godin. "Now, it's about niches." Record labels, once responsible for making music artists famous, are being replaced by music bloggers who review albums and post YouTube videos of their favorite bands, he adds. One of the first people to spread the word about Mr. Vernon's songs was popular music blogger Craig "Dodge" Lile of myoldkyhome.blogspot.com. He was scanning MySpace for music and stumbled across Mr. Vernon's profile page. Liking what he heard, he posted about it in June 2007 on his blog: "Vernon sings in a perfect falsetto over sparse folk backgrounds on a lot of tracks, but opens it a bit more naturally on this one," referring to a song called "Skinny Love."
In the following weeks, other music blogs and sites, including BrooklynVegan.com and Pitchforkmedia.com, gave the songs glowing reviews. "Big pacemakers out there gave it a good review, and people sort of latched onto it," says Kyle Frenette, Bon Iver's manager, in Chippewa Falls, Wis. And once artists gather a large online following, record labels often start chasing them. Indeed, by the fall of 2007, a number of record labels had reached out to Mr. Vernon. He ultimately signed up with Jagjaguwar of Bloomington, Ind., in late October. After signing the deal, Mr. Vernon put together a band. Jagjaguwar officially released "For Emma, Forever Ago," in February 2008, and Bon Iver has been touring almost continuously since. A big part of Mr. Vernon's success in the blogosphere and beyond, Mr. Frenette says, was crafting a compelling story to help fans connect to the music even more. Bon Iver's MySpace page, Web site and CD all include the same story: a paragraph telling how Mr. Vernon wrote the songs while hibernating in the remote cabin in the woods. It outlined why Mr. Vernon's story was different, what the name Bon Iver means (it's a misspelling of the French term for "good winter") and how the songs were made (using microphones and aged recording equipment). While much of Mr. Vernon's acclaim has come through buzz on blogs, other musicians are finding outlets and Web tools to help their music get exposure. Artists can use TuneCore.com to distribute their songs to musicretail sites, including iTunes and Amazon. Artists pay a one-time fee of 99 cents a song, plus maintenance and storage fees. At online record store CDBaby.com, owned by Disc Makers of Pennsauken, N.J., musicians can upload their music, which can then be digitized, stored and sold on the site. CDBaby keeps $4 for every CD sale and 9% for every download. Sonicbids Corp.'s site is an online marketplace that connects musicians with promoters, booking agents and industry professionals. Using the tools on the site, bands can find live gigs and licensing opportunities by submitting a bid -- including an online press kit with audio and video tracks, photos and a biography -- to concert promoters and event planners who also are members of the community site. Musicians pay $5.95 to $10.95 a month or $50 to $100 a year in membership fees. One U.K. site, Slicethepie Ltd.'s Slicethepie.com, allows artists to raise money to create albums, directly from fans and investors. Music fans are paid by the site to review and rate tracks uploaded by artists. The highestrated artists are then placed in a "showcase" where people can listen to the music and invest in artists they like. When the investments reach a certain level, the artists receive the money, minus a 10% cut for Slicethepie. Artists also pay Slicethepie a royalty on the sale of every album or single for a two-year period. "The Internet has been like the French Revolution for the music business," says Panos Panay, founder and CEO of Sonicbids. The aristocracy "has faded" as the "cost of distribution, production and even getting connected has come down." Now, he adds, anyone with "a niche and devoted fans can make a living." Write to Shelly Banjo at email@example.com and Kelly K. Spors at firstname.lastname@example.org Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page B2
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