June 5, 2006

New Acts Try Building a Fan Base Through Cell Phones

SAN FRANCISCO -- Hello, your career is calling.

In these fiscally conservative times, acts must often prove their ability to generate a viable fan base before record labels will even consider adding them to their rosters.

To that end, several nascent acts are turning to the mobile phone -- traditionally a platform reserved for marketing established acts -- to launch their music careers.

Take the G.R.i.T Boys -- a hip-hop group developed and promoted by superstar Paul Wall. Looking to rise above the crowded music scene of their native Houston, the Boys agreed to be the subject of a reality series called "NEXXT," filmed exclusively for distribution over mobile phones.

The idea, the group's manager/producer, Pretty Todd of Mo' Betta Grooves, says, is to do something that would generate attention and expose their music to a greater audience.

"Labels these days do not invest in artists," he says. "They wait for artists to invest in themselves. You could be Tupac, but if you're not selling records or don't have a radio song, you're not gonna get a deal. You have to do something yourself to show the label something tangible."


The G.R.i.T Boys are not alone. Many other artists are embracing ringtones as a way to connect with fans and perhaps build an audience. Several ringtone providers, software developers and even wireless carriers have begun offering unsigned acts an avenue to create and sell their own ringtones.

Mobile content developer UrbanWorld Wireless, for instance, has struck deals with several unsigned rappers to develop exclusive ringtones as part of its "Street Beatz" service. Among the participants are up-and-coming hip-hop artists Choir Boy, Papoose, Spaide Ripper and Swing. The company taps celebrities like Ice Cube to host mix tapes featuring these artists, and then creates exclusive ringtones as an extension of them.

Cingular Wireless teamed with MySpace in April for its Mobile Music Studio effort. Acts can submit an original song to Cingular via a dedicated MySpace page, which the carrier then converts into a master ringtone. Artists can then post a link on their MySpace site that allows fans to buy that ringtone through the Cingular store.

Other companies, including Groupietunes and Xingtones, offer similar services that let artists create their own ringtones and sell them to their fans directly.

But as popular as ringtones and other forms of mobile music may be, simply jumping in the pool doesn't guarantee the idea will float. Ringtones are primarily a merchandising play -- something fans buy to advertise their affiliation with an established act, not necessarily to discover new ones.

"I don't believe mobile content is by any stretch the be-all, end-all," Xingtones CEO Jonathan Schreiber says. "It's not even the beginning. There has to be a concerted effort where mobile, MP3s, T-shirts, concerts and images come together to accomplish the goal."

Some in the mobile industry are paying attention to these broad needs. By placing bets on emerging talent now, these companies hope to reap financial and promotional rewards later.

UrbanWorld Wireless, for instance, conducts an extensive A&R effort to discover artists on the verge of breaking out. The Nickels Group, which is producing the "NEXXT" mobile reality show, is already searching for the next act to feature.

"We identify what's going to be hot, and then we help them be hot," says Daryl "Dogman" Young, co-founder of the Nickels Group. "When they blow up and are big, we have a relationship with them on the mobile side so we can get exclusive content. We want to be the new MTV."