The Internet is garage band heaven.
Dozens of Web sites showcase aspiring rock stars who have little more than their instruments, a computer and a tape made in a basement. The first and largest, MP3.com, boasts more than 345,000 songs by 56,000 musicians.
But for many performers with a dream, the thrill of putting their music online for free is wearing off.
True, the Internet has helped some of them sell a few CDs, score radio airplay and even catch the eye of talent scouts from small record labels. But only one band so far -- a Los Angeles-based pop duo called Fisher -- has found the Holy Grail: a major-label recording contract.
Meanwhile, Web sites that offer their music have prospered (MP3.com went public last year). Independent acts are starting to wonder: When's my payday coming?
That's where Sean Fenlon comes in.
This month, the classically trained bassoon player from Baltimore launched a new music site called Listensmart.com that aims to change the way digital royalties are allocated.
Based in Columbia, the start-up has already attracted nearly $1 million in venture capital and 300 musicians, a number Fenlon thinks could easily grow to 10,000 by the end of the year.
"Less than 10 percent of independent artists have made it online," says Fenlon, 31. "There's still a lot of untapped talent out there."
The idea for the Web site came to Fenlon several years ago as he was working on his doctorate at the Peabody Conservatory, preparing for a career in academia. The online digital music craze had just started to take off, and Fenlon was writing music on an electronic keyboard in his basement home studio.
"I was putting my music on just about any site that would allow me to upload it for free," he says. Soon he was hearing from fans all over the world: "It makes your head swell."
But he also recognized problems with this new world of music. "The Internet is a blessing and a curse," says Fenlon. While it gave talented unknowns a way to become known, "there are also a lot of kids who do little more than burp into a microphone and upload it to the Web."
And then there was the issue of money. Fenlon started to feel that the way most Web sites earned a profit was unfair to the artists who put their music there.
Sites such as MP3.com earn most of their money through advertising. The more visitors they attract, the more they can charge advertisers. The more they can charge advertisers, the more revenue they bring in.
Aside from small royalties and low-volume CD sales, there isn't much for the musicians who provide the content. "It's the same old story," says Fenlon. These sites "are being built on the backs of the artists."
So Fenlon sounded out other frustrated musicians and developed a different model.
He plans to split revenues 50-50 with artists who agree to let Listensmart.com represent them, divvying up the money among artists in proportion to how many times their songs are heard. If musicians don't want to sign, that's fine, too: They can still post their music to the site.
Profit-sharing isn't a new idea. MP3.com splits $200,000 a month among its most popular artists under a "payback for playback" program. Other popular sites such as Emusic.com, IUMA.com and Artistdirect.com have launched similar programs. MP3.com's big winner last month was 59-year-old Ernesto Cortazar of Burbank, Calif., a Mexican-born pianist whose easy-listening recordings earned him a $5,803 paycheck.
Most artists earn much less.
Pete Marinovich is typical. A 41-year-old jazz guitarist from Rockville who's well known in the Washington music scene, Marinovich has posted his music on more than 30 Web sites. On some occasions he's found his CDs promoted next to James Taylor's, or discovered that he ranks higher on the Internet charts than some of his heroes, such as guitarist Lee Ritenour.
"The Internet has been a real equalizer," he says.
Because of this exposure, Marinovich has been able to sell his self-produced CDs all over the world and get his songs played on radio stations in Brazil and Japan. He's received requests to use his tunes from a music therapist in New Orleans and a porno producer in Hawaii ("It's actually the same song," he says).
While this renown has boosted his ego, it hasn't liberated him from his day job as a designer for a local medical publisher. His last paycheck from MP3.com was just $500.
"It's still a long way from the mainstream music industry," he says.
But Marinovich thinks he has a much better chance at earning money from his music at Listensmart.com.
Unlike other mainstream music sites, Fenlon is pinning his hopes for success on music publishing royalties, not advertising. And instead of gunning for a major-label contract for his artists, he'll look for licensing deals, large and small.
He's building a huge database with information on each artist to make them easier to market. In addition to his offices in Columbia, he's planning to open a satellite office in Los Angeles, the epicenter of the music recording and publishing world.
The trick, he says, is to create a searchable inventory for record label talent scouts and the people who license music for TV commercials, movie soundtracks and, increasingly, Web sites. It would include information such as whether a band has touring experience, the number of fans on its mailing list, which well-known acts it sounds like and what instruments the members play.
That way, says Fenlon, a producer trying to score a Budweiser commercial could search the Web site with a question such as, "I'm looking for a country song with a violin that's uptempo and has the word beer in the lyrics."
Like other online music site operators, Benton also plans to make money by selling artists' CDs, T-shirts and other merchandise.
"I wanted to create a system that was as fair as possible, where the main attractions are the ones making the most. It gives us a financial motivation to earn as much revenue from their music -- whatever the source."