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Bands see Web as friend and foe in quest to make it big

Before he signs a new band to his independent music label, Franz Schuller usually gives aspiring musicians bad news: They're probably not going to be famous. This bitter pill is briskly followed by another: "Whatever they think they knew about the music industry from what they've heard, or read, or seen on television, that really doesn't exist any more," says Mr. Schuller. "It's really, really hard for artists out there now. It's an insanely huge challenge to actually make a decent living playing music these days. That's the reality."

Since music first jumped into digital form and as consumers increasingly turned to downloading songs on the Internet, the music industry has attempted to figure out exactly how and where music and technology meet. The same goes for bands trying to make it in the digital age. The irony is, while technology can help a band get noticed like never before, it also can be the biggest impediment in making a career out of it.

That was exactly what a diverse group of international music industry types - from small promoters to app developers - who gathered in Victoria, B.C. for the fourth annual Transmission conference asked themselves.

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Branded as a forum for music and technology leaders, the annual invitation-only event aims to "facilitate a meaningful, solution-oriented dialogue amongst peers from within and inside the music industry." The talks dovetailed with Rifflandia, a sold-out music festival in the same city featuring hipster darlings Mother Mother, Tegan and Sara and Holy F(asterix/asterix)k. One of the headlining topics: "Does anyone know what the [bleep]is going on?"

Mr. Schuller, singer and guitarist for the Montreal-based punk band GrimSkunk and founder of indie label Indica Records, was one of Transmission's attendees. He says technology has had innumerable positive effects on the music industry, ranging from band websites, MySpace pages and Facebook accounts that aid promotion and publicity, to digitized songs that can be easily distributed across international borders.

I just want to create a clone who actually enjoys being online. When you get home, your time off is actually way more work than being on the road. Tim Baker, lead singer of Hey Rosetta!

But he also insists that the music industry needs a fundamental rethink, and suggests the allure of social technologies may eventually prove to be a Trojan horse for aspiring bands.

"For all the massive opportunity that the Internet and mobile phones and devices give us by reaching millions and millions of people, there's also a gazillion bands. It's really hard to get noticed or to get anyone's attention," says Mr. Schuller. "It's allowed people with absolutely no business competing in the same space to complicate the careers of people who do have a lot of talent. There's way, way too much stuff out there."

This rings true for Tim Baker, lead singer of the burgeoning Newfoundland-based band Hey Rosetta!, which made the shortlist for this year's Polaris Prize. As social networking technologies grow more popular, bands are put under pressure to communicate with their fans in a way that didn't exist a decade ago.

"I just want to create a clone who actually enjoys being online," he says with a laugh. "What a band is historically supposed to do is tour, and write music and put on shows. When you get home, your time off is actually way more work than being on the road."

One of the other downsides of bands' hyper-connectedness is that there is less of the traditional fame element or mystique that has been associated with older, established mega-artists like Bob Dylan or Pearl Jam. According to Ryan Guldemond, lead singer of indie pop quintet Mother Mother, anything the band can do to spread their music is a good thing, but there's always a risk that fame will encroach on their personal lives.

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"It's hard to maintain any kind of magic if everyone is Twittering about everything," he says. "If you read negative things, or see yourself presented in a way that isn't flattering, it can hurt your self-esteem. You can get too caught up in it, and you might start believing in this virtual image of yourself."

Additionally, as a direct result of single-song downloading from licensed digital providers like Apple's iTunes, bands are under coming increasing pressure to make every song a single. Mr. Guldemond says this is unrealistic and not, at least creatively, the best way to make music. He argues it's important to have eccentric album tracks, which can produce new growth and direction for a band and its fans.

This pathological need for people to put themselves, and their music, into a narrowly defined box is something he says is a direct result of the mass industrialization of the music industry. One of the boxes he has the hardest time rationalizing is the "click the arrow to play" windows of YouTube; why anyone who tapes an entire concert would bother putting it online is a mystery to him.

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"What is the benefit of that for them?" says Mr. Guldemond. "If they're at the show, it's hard to dictate how they spend their time while they're there. But I don't really appreciate all the rampant uploading, because half the time it just makes you look like a [terrible]band."

A search for Hey Rosetta! on the video-sharing website brings up more than 300 videos, some official and label-sanctioned, but most of which are grainy clips filmed in loud, dark bars. It's one less-than-desirable part about being a band in this digital age - everything you ever play will probably make it online, whether you put it there or not.

"The people who post those videos? They always have the best intentions, and they're doing it because they love you, so obviously it's hard to get mad at them," says Baker. "But it's a little bit weird when you know that every time you play, no matter what happens, it's going to be available for all the world to see online, forever, and that people will judge you on it."

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