Building A Better Hit MachineZachary Fuhrer, 07.09.09, 04:00 PM EDT
Technology lets young producers like Mick Schultz challenge the hip-hop establishment. The establishment has tech plans of its own.
It's the kind of story that keeps thousands of young musicians from quitting every year. Chicago nobodies Mick Schultz and Jeremih Felton cut a hip-hop tune called "Birthday Sex," on a home computer in September of 2008, pushed it out on MySpace and got the attention of a local radio station. Soon it caught on in the Miami night club scene and spread to national radio. Now it's the hit of the summer. Some 650,000 digital downloads and 660,000 ringtones later, Felton, 21, aka "Jeremih," signed with Def Jam records and Schultz, 19, is building his own production company after landing a deal with Universal music publishing. A solid six-figure paycheck under his belt, Schultz says, "It's shocking how fast things moved in the past year."
Thanks to software that turns MacBooks into recording studios, just about any talented college deejay has access to tools once available only to music's top producers. Add the no-cost freedom of Internet distribution and kids like Schultz can challenge established names like Timbaland, Dr. Dre, Akon, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams for audience attention. "These kids can do some funky stuff digitally," says Afrika Bambaataa, known as the grandfather of hip-hop. "As long as you're innovative, I'll listen."
So will artists like Akon and Grammy-winning producer Jim Jonsin. But they think technology can do more than just produce music. They think it can unearth great musicians. By launching social networking sites with tools to help young producers create, perfect and distribute beats, they hope to establish feeder systems for their respective labels, Konvict Musik and Rebel Rock Entertainment, alleviating luck and countless hours surfing MySpace, YouTube and PureVolume alongside A&R reps from the major labels.
"I'm signing my own 360 deals," says Jonsin, referring to contracts that allow labels to receive a cut of the earnings from all of an artist's activities. "But I'm not like these record companies and touring companies. I'll take nothing from the artist compared to them."
It's a long way from the 1970s and '80s, when producers ripped melodies and beats from massive collections of vinyl LPs and struggled for buzz at late-night parties, handing out cassette tapes of their performances, hauling turntables in the back of vans. Homegrown labels like Bobby Robinson's Enjoy Records, run out of his Harlem Record shop, and Tom Silverman's $5,000 start-up Tommy Boy Records, the label behind Bambaataa's famous 1982 hit "Planet Rock," helped build a paying market.
Schultz and his generation come armed with midi controllers and digital composition programs, like Apple's ( AAPL - news - people ) Logic, DigiDesign's ProTools and the free program Garage Band, allowing them to craft and distribute a song without a studio or any commercial backing. By pushing "Birthday Sex" on MySpace and local radio, Schultz personifies the latest evolution of the business.
Akon and Jonsin bet they can do better. Jonsin's BeatBakery.com intends to be a network for producers, managers, songwriters and independent record labels to exchange tracks and business plans, and communicate with a number of major labels, including Jonsin's Rebel Rock Entertainment, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. "We can tell you what artists are looking for, send it to you and have you produce it using Beat Bakery's digital 8-track program, and shoot it out to industry execs," says Jonsin.
With so many record label hands now reaching for the next big single, what does Jonsin think up-and-coming producers should do? "Watch their backs," he says. "And talk to me."
While Beat Bakery is still in development, Jonsin has already used other social networks to build his production company. After stumbling into the work of Australian wunderkinder Finatik n Zac, Jonsin called up the producing duo and shipped them to Miami to sign a deal with Rebel Rock. According to Finatik n Zac's MySpace page, the two are currently "Working in one of [Miami's] biggest studios alongside international artists such as Shakira, Beyoncé, Sean Kingston and Young Jeezy, to name a few."
Akon's venture, Hitlab.com, uses a technology called dynamic hit scoring to compare the structure of a song to those on the top 100 Billboard charts of the past six years, letting the songwriter know instantly if his or her formula has the potential for success. To get your song analyzed and considered by Akon, you'll need to shell out $29.99.
Hitlab.com currently hosts 14,457 artists and 12,028 fans, and was visited by 22,818 different users in June, according to Compete.com. Through a showcase organized by the Web site last September Akon signed a band called Saschali to Kon Live distribution. "Hitlab allows artists to be able to be their own label rep, showcase their own music," Akon said after announcing the signing of Saschali in March. "It is the ultimate dream."
So what does Hitlab.com think of "Birthday Sex"? The track obtained a 75% score, ranking it in the top 25% of the Billboard charts. Bottom line: "Your potential peak position on Billboard is TOP 5," according to the computer. "Your potential staying power on Billboard is 39 Weeks." "Birthday Sex" peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 four weeks ago. Close enough.