Billboard charts online music hits
Thanks to TuneCore's digital distribution service, acts like Jay-Z and Boyce Avenue (who?) are topping the Billboard charts.
(Fortune) -- Jeff Price likes to say he can get anybody's album on iTunes for "the price of a six pack and a pizza." Now the founder of TuneCore, a Brooklyn-based digital music distributor, is offering his customers something more: the chance to be on the Billboard chart with a bullet.
This isn't as farfetched as it sounds. In a move that speaks volumes about how the music business is changing, Billboard has launched a monthly chart on its web site of TuneCore's top 25 album and songs. In other words, little-known users of the service like Boyce Avenue, a Florida band that built up a YouTube following by covering songs by Coldplay and Rianna, will get the same treatment as their multi-platinum idols. Don't laugh. Boyce Avenue has seven of the top 25 songs on the TuneCore song chart.
Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's chart director, doesn't see anything strange about this. "We are trying to provide our readers with as broad a perspective as we can about the different ways music is being consumed," he says.
TuneCore is one of 10 online music services grouped under Billboard's "Hits of the web" section of its site. Others include AOL Music (TWX, Fortune 500) (which, like Fortune, is owned by Time Warner), Your Yahoo Music Experience (YHOO, Fortune 500) and Artistdirect.
The new Billboard chart, which debuted on July 11, is a coup for the year-and-a half-old TuneCore. The privately held company says it delivers as many as 250 new albums a day to iTunes and its competitors. It charges a flat fee for digital distribution. TuneCore users pay $20 to get an album on a single online music service like the Apple store and another $1 each time the record is delivered to another service like Amazon, eMusic and Rhapsody.
It isn't just unsigned YouTube wannabes who are joining up. Big acts like Jay-Z, Nine Inch Nails and Ziggy Marley use TuneCore because it doesn't take a percentage of their digital sales as an old-school record label would. Michael McGuire, a media analyst at Gartner Industry Advisory Research, calls TuneCore one of the "new middlemen" in the music industry. "They are coming in and filling a vacuum" as the major labels lose their clout in the digital age," he says
The TuneCore top 25 shows the broad range of the company's customers. The top seller on the TuneCore album chart is rapper Jay-Z's "Reasonable Doubt," the rapper's first album released in 1996. Price says Jay-Z's Roc-a-fella Records controls the album's digital rights and chose to distribute it via TuneCore after Price personally demonstrated the service to members of the rapper's crew. The second biggest album is "Ghosts I-IV" by Nine Inch Nails, the industrial rock band that is handling its own sales after leaving Interscope, its longtime label.
But you don't have to go much further down the list before you find an obscurity like "Music for Deep Sleep: Healing Sounds of Nature-Ocean Waves." It's No. 8 on the TuneCore album chart. What's No. 9? "Music for Deep Mediation: Tibetan Singing Bowl." That's a far cry from Nine Inch Nail's tortured rants.
Even Price himself doesn't know who makes these "Music For Deep Sleep" albums. "I wish I could tell you who that is," he says. "But in a way I'm glad I can't. It validated the whole concept of the democratization of this industry."
Mayfield also believes that the emergence of unknown acts is what validates the TuneCore top 25. "I'm intrigued that Nine Inch Nails and an old Jay-Z album are there," he says. "But what's really attractive to me are the new names, the people who are bubbling up. It will give a voice to acts that you wouldn't otherwise see in a Billboard chart."
What's next for TuneCore? Price says it is "breaking even." Clearly that's not enough for him. The company is launching new services like a $70-per-song mixing fee. There's a $45-per-song mastering fee, too.
That's not much if you're Jay-Z. But if you are a little-known act, you'd better be able to sell a lot of iTunes (AAPL, Fortune 500) downloads or you won't make back your TuneCore investment. Isn't that what often happened to the little guys who signed record deals back in the day? Maybe the music industry isn't changing as much as some people would have us believe.