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Today’s pop stars in it for the URLs

Band Web sites are serious moneymakers
/ Source: Reuters

By one measure of its success, chart-topping rock band The Darkness has sold enough song downloads, T-shirts and thongs on to nearly finance the group’s next recording.

British rock band Marillion has gone a step further. Since striking off on its own in 2000, the group has used , to raise over 500,000 pounds ($913,200) from fans to finance its last two albums and support its first North American tour since 1995.

“The Internet is our savior. Without it, we wouldn’t be what we are today. It’s really turned the business around,” said Lucy Jordache, the band’s marketing manager.

In what is believed to be a Web first, Marillion has twice raised the money needed to record a studio album by convincing devoted fans to buy the album up front -- in both cases shelling out money a year before they could hear it.

The strategy has paid off. For the latest album “Marbles,” the band has scored three singles in European music charts. The last time Marillion cracked the Top 40 was 1985 when it was signed to EMI , one of the world’s largest music labels.

Call it a comebackFormed in the early 1980s, the band attracted a cult-like global fan base who bought 14 million albums before parting ways with EMI in 1995. Thanks to the Web, the band has made a full-fledged comeback.

No serious band could function these days without a Web strategy. The Web site, once considered a vanity plate for the geekiest of pop stars, is essential to promote new releases, sell concert tickets and songs, and even fight off negative publicity.

Within hours of Ashlee Simpson walking off stage mid-performance during the Oct. 23 “Saturday Night Live,” Simpson herself, along with some sympathetic fans, jumped to her defense on message boards at .

In this celebrity-obsessed age, an unfiltered forum between an artist and fans can douse a scandal before it impacts a career.

“It’s inconceivable to imagine even the half-serious artists without a Web site these days,” said Ajax Scott, editor-in-chief of Music Week in London.

“It gives the completely unknown artist a voice. You can publicize gigs on the local circuit, sell the odd T-shirt. And, it gives the musician the opportunity to either post positive information about yourself or conduct damage control,” Scott said.

Unfortunately, for the 18-year-old Simpson, the same message boards on her site also carried harsh critiques and elaborate theories on her ability to sing live.

Cha-chingIn the last few years, artists have seen Web sites become a serious money-maker. And with that, comes a new twist to the burning question: Will the Internet forever change the music industry?

With most mega-star musicians holding exclusive rights to whatever is sold on their sites, the more wily ones have big plans for their URLs.

“Ultimately, bands want to reach fans and maximize revenues without a huge chunk disappearing into the labels. This is definitely a new business model,” said Russel Coultart, co-founder of , a technology firm that operates the Web sites of over 150 artists including The Darkness and Robbie Williams.

“I’m certainly not convinced the major labels are over, but their roles will change,” Coultart added.

Universal Music, the world’s top music label, has begun signing untested acts such as pop artist Derek McDonald to a ”digital rights” contract before committing serious money to his career.

The label starts the riskier acts with a Web site, and if enough fan interest is generated online, Universal inks them to an old-fashioned record contract.

“It acts as an incubation label, if you will,” said Rob Wells, director of new media services at Universal Music UK. ”It’s the Marillion concept.”

In beginning the unscientific process of “breaking” the young musician, Universal started with a , selling ringtones and offering alerts on upcoming concerts.

“I believe the future for all artist Web sites is to make them fully commercial,” Wells said. A successful Web site may even draw fans away from file-sharing networks, the scourge of the industry, he said.

Meanwhile, middle-aged rockers Marillion have discovered a second life via a Web site that serves as its label, through its fund-raising function, and its busiest record shop.

“You can make money through the Web. None of them can retire tomorrow. They’re not living in million-pound mansions. But they are earning a living,” Marillion’s Jordache said.