By BRAD STONE
Published: July 21, 2009
There was a time when most aspiring musicians had the same dream: to sign a deal with a major record label.
Emily Haines of Metric at the Coachella Valley festival in Indio, Calif., last year. Metric, which declined a recording contract, made its own album and offered it in the iTunes store.
From top, the principals of Polyphonic, formed to help rising bands, include the founders Brian Message and Adam Driscoll, and Terry McBride of the management firm Nettwerk.
Now, with the structure of the music business shifting radically, some industry iconoclasts are sidestepping the music giants and inventing new ways for artists to make and market their music — without ever signing a traditional recording contract.
The latest effort comes from Brian Message, manager of the alternative band Radiohead, which gave away its last album, “In Rainbows,” on the Internet.
“Artists are at the point where they realize going back to the old model doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Message said.
Polyphonic and similar new ventures are symptomatic of deep shifts in the music business.
Much of that has to do with the rise of the Internet as a means of promoting and distributing music.
Under the Polyphonic model, bands that receive investments from the firm will operate like start-up companies, recording their own music and choosing outside contractors to handle their publicity, merchandise and touring.
Instead of receiving an advance and then possibly reaping royalties later if they have a hit, musicians will share in all the profits from their music and touring.
“We are all witnessing major labels starting to shed artists that are hitting only 80,000 or 100,000 unit sales,” said Adam Driscoll, another Polyphonic founder and chief executive of the British media company MAMA Group.
The third Polyphonic principal is Terry McBride, founder of the Vancouver-based management firm Nettwerk Music Group and manager of Barenaked Ladies.
The Polyphonic founders, who have provided the company with $20 million in seed financing, say they plan to invest around $300,000 in each band.
The partners say they have been thinking about such a venture for several years.
“Returns on entertainment products when portfolios are small are typically very erratic,” said David Pakman, a partner at venture capital firm Venrock,
Polyphonic, which will be based in London and in Nettwerk’s offices in New York and Los Angeles, says it plans to approach private investors again after it has proved its model works.
The new company will have plenty of company in exploring new ways for artists to maintain control over their creations.
Marc Geiger, an agent at William Morris Endeavor, who tried a similar venture in the late 1990s called ArtistDirect, is now developing a program for musicians at his agency that will be called Self Serve.
Even the major labels themselves are demonstrating new flexibility for musicians who do not want to sign the immersive partnerships known as 360 deals, in which the label manages and profits from every part of the artist’s business.
In late November, for example, EMI took the unusual step of creating a music services division to provide an array of services —
“We all know the role that the record label has traditionally played needs to change,” said Ronn Werre, president of EMI’s new division.
Artists who have produced their own music and contracted with EMI to run parts of their business include the R&B singer Bobby Valentino and Raekwon, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Mr. Message said that “there are many artists who still want to go with labels, which do still have abilities to really ram home hit singles.”
Bands who take the Polyphonic route, he said, will need to have considerable entrepreneurial energy.
Bands that have taken this approach say it can be arduous.
With help from a grant from the Canadian government, the band cut its own album in April, “Fantasies,” and started selling it directly to fans on services like iTunes, where it has scaled the popularity charts.
“It certainly has not been easy,” said Matt Drouin, Metric’s manager.
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