Canadian rock singer Usher-ing new online community for musicians

With a newly-arrived baby bringing a second booster seat to the kitchen table, Canadian musician David Usher is finding it tough to keep up with his numerous social network accounts – Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube – but that’s not stopping him from launching his own tool.

The Montreal-based solo artist is tight-lipped about DEQQ, an Adobe AIR application that just launched a closed beta earlier this week. But he acknowledges that a meeting at last year’s Toronto-based Mesh conference sparked the idea. Usher was on a panel moderated by David Gratton, the founder of Vancouver-based social media company Work at Play. 

“We started talking about music, and now we’re actively working on something together,” Usher says. “It’s in beta and it’s due out probably… soon.”

The closed beta of the application reveals a Twitter-style interface with a couple of extra features. Users share short messages (longer than 140 characters), viewable to all members of the community. Responses to specific messages are nested in a thread, similar to a forum style. There’s a tab dedicated to all of Usher’s posts and another tab for music he’s sharing, which can be streamed from the application.

For Usher, the application is more than just a fun tool for his fans. It’s a transformative way to connect with his audience and part of a new model that the music industry must embrace or perish.

“The price of music is being driven down to nothing,” he says. “The business continues to bleed and I’m not sure there is a bottom for them.”

Music is still the same to the artists who create it and love to play it, Usher adds. But the business model has to change and the industry is caught up in the old method of making money off of disc sales.

The music system, he said, is essentially a delivery mechanism for a piece of plastic. “When you take away that what’s going to support the huge infrastructure that’s now made irrelevant? Nothing.”

Much of the music industry has responded to copyright issues on the Internet with lawsuits. Napster, a popular online music file sharing service that was launched by college student Shawn Fanning in 1999, was the first to feel the wrath of these lawsuits. Napster technology allowed users to copy and distribute mp files among one another, bypassing the established market for such songs.

It triggered accusations by the music industry’s of massive copyright violations, and Napster was eventually forced to close down.

Napster’s forced closure is a good example of a business innovation not handled well, according to Mike Masnick, founder of the Techdirt blog.

He said every innovation, while it creates tremendous fears among incumbents, actually serves to grow the size of the market. “If you can capture a piece of that larger market, who cares about the people who are free riding?”

Speaking at Mesh, a social media conference, Masnick told the audience that growing a community is key to making money in an economy that’s been transformed by the Internet to create an infinite content supply. Grab the attention of a community and then sell something of value to them.

Masnick pointed to the strategy of another musician, Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch Nails, who created a deeply interactive site complete with member profiles. Reznor also engages his fans through Twitter (@trent_reznor).

So last year when he released the 36-track instrumental album Ghosts, that community was given several different options to own the music. For free, they could download the first nine tracks, and it cost $5 for the entire download. There was also a limited edition for $75, and an ultra-limited edition for $300 that was signed by Reznor.

The most deluxe package sold out of its 2,500 inventory in less than 30 hours, earning the band a tidy $750,000.

It just goes to show that giving music away for free doesn’t hurt an artist.

“We’re in flux now — in between two different models,” Usher says. “If you’re not willing as an artist to go into the new world, it’s going to be very difficult for you.”

The traditional big deal with a record label doesn’t exist for new bands looking to show off a demo reel, he adds. Now artists are expected to build their own fan base.

Record labels could play a role in the new model, Usher says. Not every artist will be savvy with social media and some will need help marketing themselves. Those are services that the labels could provide.

Usher has a strategy of using his own Web site as an aggregator that pushes out content via RSS feeds. But he is still strapped for time to keep up a good dialogue with his fans. He has more than 5,000 fans on Facebook and another 1,500 followers on Twitter.

“It’s a challenge when you have family,” Usher says. “For every person that’s blogging or micro-blogging, you have to choose where your boundaries are.”

For Usher, those boundaries may be expanded with the anticipated release of DEQQ. That is, when he’s not busy changing diapers.

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