Rojas’s Rcrd Lbl: Free Song Downloads and Hold the Ad Clutter

Nikon, Puma and Virgin America are the premier sponsors of a new ad-supported record label and music download site founded by longtime blogger Peter Rojas, in partnership with Downtown Records.

Rcrd Lbl describes itself as a network of labels blogging together while offering free streams and downloads of artists both new and established. It will sell a limited number of sponsorships in the form of branded widgets, with goal of entirely avoiding standard display-type banner ad units. In exchange for seeing those ad widgets, visitors get to read about bands and download tracks free.

“Our philosophy is to integrate sponsors into the experience of the site in ways that are organic rather than intrusive or interruptive,” CEO Rojas told ClickZ in an e-mail exchange, adding the company’s ad offerings aren’t limited to the Web. Offline tie-ins include the distribution of Nikon cameras to bands promoted on Rcrd Lbl (who then upload photos to the site) and an in-flight entertainment channel on Virgin Airlines.

From the standpoint of its recording artists, Rcrd Lbl will offer some, but not all, of the functions traditionally performed by record distributors. The company will pay bands and labels advances of between $500 and $5,000 in exchange for exclusive distribution rights and licensing opportunities of individual tracks, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. It will not offer audio recording and mixing services, however. Early talent includes Mos Def and Jacques Renault, plus lesser-known artists like Bad Veins.

Razor and Tie Entertainment is among the distributors licensing songs to Rcrd Lbl. According to its SVP Music Publishing, JW Johnson, the firm may also join the site’s network of blogging labels. “I’m all for new approaches, as long as we get paid,” Johnson said, adding, “This is not rocket science. The interesting thing is it’s kind of the way radio worked.”

Current ad placements on Rcrd Lbl consist of three branded widgets, each serving a specific purpose. For instance, Virgin America’s widget displays upcoming tour dates for a selected artist or band. Puma has two applications, one displaying a band’s registered “fans” and the other, mysteriously named “Puma G1ft-bot-2007,” showing a visitor’s recent song plays and downloads. Clicking on the Puma-branded widget takes the viewer to a specialized landing page on the Puma Web site that also features its Rcrd Lbl widget. Other widgets on the site link to more generic product landing pages.

Nikon signed a six-month agreement to sponsor an application displaying photos of bands, according to Nikon senior communications manager Lisa Baxt. According to Nikon executives, the Rcrd Lbl sponsorship dovetails nicely with the camera maker’s year-old Nikon Live initiative to help fans “memorialize” their live concert experiences online.

Users can download all Rcrd Lbl widgets — including individual songs — to their desktops, personalized start pages at iGoogle, or Web sites. In a FAQ on the site, Rojas and company ask people who syndicate tracks to outside blogs to take the whole widget rather than just host MP3s themselves. “We support the site and pay our artists through advertising and sponsorships, and the only way we can do that is if people visit the site or embed our widgets,” the FAQ pleads.

Rcrd Lbl isn’t the first company to offer music promotion and downloads in a blog format; nor is it the first to offer ad-supported song downloads. Free download service SpiralFrog launched two months ago with a small handful of major labels agreeing to let it represent their catalogs. The company has been heavily criticized however for the Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions it places on downloaded tracks, as well as for its incompatibility with Apple’s ubiquitous iPod.

As Razor and Tie’s Johnson sees it, what may paradoxically increase Rcrd Lbl’s chances of success over other download sites is its narrow focus on certain genres and bands. “I think it is a manifestation of the long tail,” he said. “It’s serving a niche. Increasingly it seems that’s where it’s all going.”

In another recent music distribution experiment, Radiohead offered its most recent album as a free download and invited users to pay what they wanted for it. The success of that effort is a subject of some controversy however, as the band denied comScore’s finding that approximately 60 percent of downloaders paid nothint.

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