Unmaking the Band

Social network for musicians is another challenge to the big record labels.

Oct. 19, 2007 — -- A highly anticipated music release of 2008 is likely to come from the band Postal Service, whose 2003 album, "Give Up," came to define the instant-messenger generation.

Postal Service was the brainchild of indie pop star Ben Gibbard and electronic mastermind Jimmy Tamborello. Each would record his parts at home and literally mail the result back to the other. Hence, the name.

It seemed like a funny piece of trivia at the time, but Postal Service may have foreshadowed a key trend in musicmaking. It's no secret that the traditional record-label model is not long for this world, but what about the notion of the band itself? A new Web site is challenging the traditional model.

Indaba, which launched earlier this year, provides a meeting ground for musicians. Anyone can upload a track — whether it's a beat, or a melody or a full-fledged song — and can solicit other musicians to record new or different parts. Similarly, musicians looking to add or build on other people's songs can search for these open "sessions," which are tagged by genre and instrument. They can ask to be invited to play and can send audition tracks.

"Most of the users on the site would be classified as serious hobbyists, but it's been interesting because the site has been useful for amateurs, too," said Matt Siegel, one of the site's co-founders. Indaba was founded by Siegel and his Harvard University classmate Daniel Zaccagnino. The name comes from a Zulu word that refers to collaborative forums held by tribal leaders.

"We actually found [the word] on the back of a wine bottle. Maybe it was the wine, but it really resonated with us at the time," said Zaccagnino. "It embodies what we want to create: a place where people can come together from all over the world, especially because there aren't very many places online where musicians feel comfortable."

Though the Indaba guys were at Harvard at the same time as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and plan to release their own Facebook application, they do not rely on social networking alone to drive the success of the site.

"The social networks that are really valuable are ones that have a purpose," Siegel said. "We think about our product as a social network, but it's also a Web application. The two are fused together, but they have different, overlapping functions."

The Web application to which Siegel alludes includes not only file transferring but also recording. For users who don't have Pro Tools, the software used by many professional musicians to mix tracks, Indaba offers its own Web-based program.

Of course, no matter the purpose, the worth of a social network is measured by its reach, and Indaba is already global. According to Siegel, the site has 5,000 registered users, 30 percent of whom are outside the United States. The site has benefited from certain "viral incidents," he said, in Russia, South America and Israel.

For many users, Indaba may just be fun and games — a place to experiment, make connections and get feedback. Professional musicians, though, need the reassurance of legal terms to make sure their work is protected. To that end, Indaba allows musicians to negotiate over the rights and establish contractual terms.

"To us, it's really important that artists of all levels can work on real music and overcome the issues of geography and schedules, but we're not trying to change why people create music," Zaccagnino explained.

Other music community Web sites, he said, force musicians to use a Creative Commons license. Though the Creative Commons approach may be useful because it offers blanket contract language, it can be more restrictive of authorship rights.

It's important to note that Indaba, like many social networking sites, makes its money by leveraging the information it collects about its users. The site can sell targeted ads, the bread and butter of Web 2.0. Though producers and managers have started visiting the site to look for new talent, they aren't seen as income stream — yet.

Indaba isn't alone in exploring the potential in this area — the site Kompoz.com is one competitor — and its founders keep the site in "beta" mode as a symbolic gesture. It seems unlikely, though, that Indaba will obliterate the old-fashioned notion of the garage band. Musicians will always enjoy playing together and playing for people. Even Postal Service goes on tour.

But the true potential in these sites is to chip away, even more, at the financial power wielded by labels by cutting costs for musicians and reducing the value of record-production advances, the fleeting coveted dream of aspiring musicians.

It works like this: Online networks reduce the amount of time and effort needed to make a band and then to make a song. Studio time becomes less necessary. And artists can get genuine feedback and ideas from a wide range of people. Because this process occurs before an artist heads to the studio, instead of after, the hope is that better, more interesting and more complex songs will come from smaller artists within a potentially more efficient creative model.

All this reduces the label's bargaining power. Typically, labels offer new bands the promise of money and studio time to develop new songs, in exchange for multi-album deals and payback schemes that favor the label.

While Radiohead and Madonna openly challenge the industry's current distribution scheme, Web sites like Indaba challenge the industry's current, lackluster system of developing new talent. Looks like there is another wagon in the ever-growing circle of industry change.

ABC News contributor Michael Smith is an internationally recognized DJ who has a music-services business. He works with a variety of corporate clients. For more information visit www.smitheventmusic.com or e-mail info@smitheventmusic.com.