Kathy Fisher and her husband Ron Wasserman, a pop duo that calls itself Fisher, were just another band on the verge. Their once promising talks with record labels had petered out. An appearance at the Lilith Fair came to nothing. The truth is, they were reduced to supporting themselves playing L.A. club gigs and writing jingles for Hyundai.
But last spring a friend told Wasserman to "check out this MP3 thing"--referring to the digital-music format that allows people to swap their favorite tunes online. Wasserman went to the website MP3.com converted three songs he had written and recorded with Fisher into the format and uploaded them. Now, people could come to the site and download the songs for free. Fisher was about to become the biggest Internet-based band ever.
Their timing was perfect. The popularity of MP3s was just starting to surge across college campuses, and Fisher rode the wave. In late May a Fisher ballad called I Will Love You became the most frequently downloaded pop/rock song on MP3.com At one point late last year, the five most popular songs on the site were Fisher's. In fewer than 10 months their songs were downloaded 1 million times.
Fans started linking from MP3.com to e-commerce sites selling Fisher's CD--copies of which Wasserman and Fisher packed and shipped themselves--and flocking to their shows. In February, they sold out the House of Blues in Los Angeles. Distributing the CD themselves, the couple pocketed about $3,500 a month, more than many unsigned bands make in a year.
So was this, finally, the moment every independent band in the world has waited for--heartening proof that in the age of digital music and the Internet, tyrannical major record labels have become as last year as Ricky Martin? Not quite. "There isn't an artist anywhere who, if they could get a good contract, wouldn't take it," Wasserman says. Indeed, last month they inked a deal with Jimmy and Doug's Farm Club, a new subsidiary of Universal Music named after Interscope co-chairman Jimmy Iovine and Universal head Doug Morris. Wasserman hasn't made an album on the label yet, but he's already worked out the promo campaign: "Our shtick is that we're going to be the first band to break out of the Internet and actually make it."
But they might also be one of the last. The Fisher deal is a vindication of the Internet's starmaking power, but it is also a sign that the recording industry is getting hip to the techie start-ups it once feared. So far the labels have been slow to respond to the challenges presented by companies like MP3.com which have flourished because of their immense selection of songs and tech expertise that old-media record labels can't match. Now even bigger threats are coming from the second generation of MP3 sites, like the 10-month-old Napster.com founded by Shawn Fanning, a 19-year-old college dropout. (See following story.) "You're going to see 1 million artists and 500,000 music labels on the Internet by 2002," says rapper Chuck D, who has also founded two music websites, Slamjams.com and Rapstation.com