American E-Idol: Online talent contests hit the big time


Amid the clips of Christmas song kara-oke, martial arts moves, and Star Wars-inspired
dance steps, true talent lurks online. The trick for media giants has
been finding a way to sift through the weird and wacky and find
potential stars. Now, Epic Records, Universal Music Group, and EMI are
taking a stab at that, teaming with startup media Web site Music Nation
to turn online music contests into serious business.

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Think of it as American Idol
for the digital set. But this time around, millions of people will be
able to take a shot at fame, rather than the tens of thousands who line
up outside convention halls to audition for a TV show. In mid-November,
wannabe rock, urban, and pop stars will be able to start uploading
videos to Music Nation. Clear Channel Communications (CCU
), meantime, will promote the contest online and on the air.

In January the 15-week contests in each of the three genres will kick
off. Weekly online votes by judges and the audience will determine
which singers move on to the next round and eventually win a record
deal with Epic. Universal and EMI plan to sponsor contests in Europe
and Asia next year. The clips will also be used to create an online
broadband channel on the Venice Project, a video startup.

Music Nation won’t be alone for long as a talent showcase. Fox
Interactive Media is thinking along the same lines. News Corp.’s (NWS
) digital unit, which bought karaoke contest site in May, is
considering how to integrate the service into MySpace so that it can
rev up the online contests and feature talent as it does with American Idol.
And Bix, a two-month-old site where individuals can set up their own
comedy, beauty, or karaoke contests, says it is hearing from labels and
studios eager for prospects.


The number of Web contests, whether sponsored by big brands or put
together by just folks, has ballooned recently. So far, though, they
have been strictly for marketing and entertainment. This fall, Survivor producer Mark Burnett launched Gold Rush, an online scavenger hunt that promises $1 million in gold to the winner who unearths clues on AOL (TWX
) and CBS. And companies such as Mentos and MasterCard have run contests for consumer-created videos.

Music Nation is now tapping into this enthusiasm to help uncover talent
and, of course, create a hot Web destination. It will use people power
to sift through the huge mass of performances that appear on videos,
MP3s, and blogs and help labels adapt to the new digital world. Says
Charlie Walk, president of Epic, which provided an advance of under $1
million to be part of the contest: “At the end of the day, if people
love this, it’s highly scalable and profitable for us.”

Or Music Nation could flop. Web users can be more opinionated than
their off-line counterparts: They may decide a contest that ends in a
label deal is uncool. That’s a chance the music industry, desperate to
find growth, is willing to take.


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