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Sounding Off By John Walden
Published August 1999

About The Author When not writing for SOS, John Walden spends his time trying to stop his one‑year old son from rearranging the contents of his studio.About The Author When not writing for SOS, John Walden spends his time trying to stop his one‑year old son from rearranging the contents of his studio.

John Walden suggests why unsigned artists don't have to remain unheard, thanks to MP3 and the Internet.

Are you talented, broke and the owner of a collection of record company rejection letters received as a response to your last demo? If so, I have two questions for you:

1. When you're wandering down the aisles of a record store, how often do you take any notice of CDs by artists whose name you do not know?

2. How often do you spend your hard‑earned cash on a CD by an artist whose music you have never even heard?

I guess most people would answer these questions, respectively, with responses like 'occasionally but not often', and 'I'm not made of money you know'. The way the music industry has always operated has meant that until recently, the possibility of widespread exposure and recognition for unsigned new acts has been remote indeed, and many other forces (in broadcast media and commercial retail) have had a hand in shaping exactly what music the public will (and will not) have ready access to, both to listen to and also to purchase.

However, the inexorable rise of the Internet (coupled with the impact of the MP3 audio compression format) is bringing about a dramatic, and very rapid, expansion in our freedom of choice where music purchasing is concerned. For those who hope to make a living by selling their music, this represents a tremendous opportunity.

When you place music on the Internet for download, data compression is essential (as minimising download times is a primary concern), and the MP3 format is currently the most popular way to deliver quality audio via the web. At current data transfer rates, few people will want to wait for the 30Mb download needed to deliver a 3 minute, CD‑quality, stereo audio file... but a 3Mb, MP3‑compressed version, very close in quality to the original, is a realistic proposition.

As explained by Derek Johnson and Debbie Poyser and subsequently Simon Trask in the Net Notes columns in June and July's SOS, the web is already providing an exciting new platform for artists wishing to promote themselves. The advent of compression formats like MP3 is adding a significant new element to this, and unsigned artists have been quick to see the potential. Using some spare web space — many Internet service providers throw some in for free when you set up an email account — you can potentially upload some of your best songs in MP3 format, and include details that will allow someone in (say) Australia, who has downloaded your files and wants to hear more, to order your CD.

If you are really clued up, then you could use the services of an organisation like ( This site (and others like it) is the John Peel of the web; it provides a way for any artist to get heard. Bands can, free of charge, upload their songs to the site in MP3 format along with promotional information. As gets over six million visitors each month (a figure that would make an interesting comparison with the bigger chains of high‑street music stores), the potential for unsigned bands to reach a wider audience is huge. will also duplicate and sell your CDs, splitting the sale price with you on a 50:50 basis.

Of course, sites like are very strict about issues of copyright, and rightly so. Illegal copies of recordings can easily be made available by any Tom, Dick or Harriet with their own web site and some MP3‑encoding software. This potential threat to sales has got a number of record companies more than a little agitated. The reaction of many has been to set the legal teams loose, but even the might of the majors is having a hard time in the anarchic, legal minefield that is the World Wide Web. Most of us might have little sympathy for the problems of the major record companies, but a more pragmatic view is that the lost revenue means fewer new bands get signed.

Some record companies and individual well‑known artists are taking a very different attitude to MP3 and the web. These enlightened souls are seeing the commercial potential and are putting legal MP3 versions of their own material on the web as a form or promotion. (, mentioned by Simon Trask in last month's Net Notes, provides an example of such a site where MP3 files from some 'name' bands can be downloaded and CDs purchased.

I would argue that sites like are the start of a revolution; we no longer have to restrict our listening to music the major record companies or music stores think is commercially viable. Nor do we have to shell out for CDs without first taking a listen. And for SOS readers making their own music, this is a paradigm shift in the making. Whether you make loop‑based dance or ensemble hurdy‑gurdy, you can let anyone on the web hear your tunes, and completely cut out the traditional music industry. No A&R, no marketing men, no radio playlist compilers... just you, your songs and, potentially, a worldwide audience. What are you waiting for?

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambs CB3 8SQ. Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address. Email: