Rockers fighting to be Web masters

Internet: Bands such as the Goo Goo Dolls and the Offspring are battling their record labels for power over their Web sites.

November 25, 1999|By Geoff Boucher | Geoff Boucher,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Goo Goo Dolls may be a regrettable choice for a band name -- even the members of the rock trio have admitted that -- but it's apparently worth fighting for as a brand name.

The group from Buffalo, N.Y., which hit it big with the song "Iris" in 1998, is now fighting its label, Warner Bros. Records, for control of the googoodolls.com Web site, and the feud recently prompted the band to set up a competing "official" site at googoodolls.org that is nearly identical in the nature of its content.

That conflict is hardly unique. Metallica, the Offspring and Aerosmith have all battled their labels for online control, and Rage Against the Machine is currently wrangling with its label on a similar issue.

The issue may seem like just another battlefront in the endless struggle between artists and the corporations that sell their music. But to some observers, such as Marc Geiger, co-CEO of ArtistDirect, the quest to control Web sites is far more than a skirmish.

"It's quite simply the single most important issue on the landscape today," said Geiger, whose company creates online stores for artists such as the Rolling Stones and Limp Bizkit. "The stuff that goes through the site -- the music, the tickets, the advertising -- that's the oil going through the pipe, but what's important is who owns the pipeline."

Others compare Web site content to a hit television show, while the Web site itself is akin to the far more valuable network that airs that show.

So, not surprisingly, across the music industry the ownership of artist-named Web sites has become a contentious issue as major powers such as Warner and Sony make a concerted effort to scoop up the valuable virtual real estate known as URLs -- which stands for Uniform Resource Locater, the "address" of Internet sites.

"The last month or so, these two companies have really started focusing on taking all URLs," said Peter Paterno, an attorney who represents the Goo Goo Dolls, the Offspring and Dr. Dre.

The worry of the record companies, according to Paterno and other industry insiders, is that the Web sites bearing the names of artists will become central hubs of music commerce in the years to come.

Albums, concert tickets, T-shirts and all the other revenue sources of the music machine will be increasingly sold through Web sites, and that does not even include the Holy Grail of the great online music enterprise: the digital download of music, which promises to shift a huge chunk of future music sales from record stores to modems.

The Web site value is more than potential, too. There is already its powerful lure as a marketing tool. The fans who keep track of their favorite bands online also can be potentially tracked themselves, creating huge mailing lists and instant taste barometers that make record companies salivate.

The artists, meanwhile, see the Web sites as intensely personal creations and a direct link to their fans that might be despoiled by a pushy record company.

Both sides of the dispute are visible in clear relief to Gary Gersh, the former president of Capitol Records who is now co-manager of Beck, the Foo Fighters and Beastie Boys.

"I think for a long time the labels viewed the Web sites as fan clubs; they didn't view them as retail stores and for their real value," Gersh said. "The value is that it's a direct connection with the audience. ... The content on the page has to be in keeping with the language and sensibilities that the audience expects and wants to see. It's extremely important."

How important?

Well, when Marilyn Manson was beset by criticism following the Columbine high school shooting in Colorado, he responded with a statement on his Web site. When members of Morphine and Blues Traveler died in the past year, both bands quickly posted messages on their Web sites to reach out to fans. And acts such as the Offspring keep updated journals on their sites to foster a rapport with fans.

To the record labels, however, all of that suggests exactly why the Web sites need to be in their hands. And because fans generally don't know what label puts out a band's albums, the artist's name is the one fans will search for online, making it the brand name that matters.

"Our job is to promote these artists globally, to shape their images and do all the work that gets their music heard," said a Sony executive. "We'd be remiss if we didn't use this tool. And we also spend a lot of money on these sites, and we have to be able to control that investment, frankly."

A Sony spokeswoman said the company does not comment on artist contracts or their content. But executives within the company confirmed that Web site ownership has become a clear priority of the corporate giant in its dealings with acts, although those sources differed in their estimation of how strident the company's stance has become.

Likewise, a Warner spokesman said the company would not comment on the Goo Goo Dolls situation or other contract skirmishes. Privately, though, Warner executives point out that the company created and maintains the Dolls' site and -- echoing the Sony executive's point -- the company is loath to walk away from that investment at the whim of the act.

Paterno predicts that the issue will resolve itself in the years to come much the same way merchandising, ownership of master recording and setting artist royalty rates became empowerment issues for established artists in past years.

The record companies may wrest away Web sites from new acts, but as those artists become commercial successes they'll likely win back their online names in renegotiation.

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