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* Unsigned singer Ebony Day tops major MTV poll
* Social media a powerful tool for emerging stars
* Record labels still seen as key to lasting success
By Mike Collett-White
LONDON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Singer-songwriter Ebony Day has been named MTV's act to watch in 2013 before even signing a record deal, underlining how up-and-coming artists are increasingly using the internet and social networking sites to build a significant fan base.
Inspired by the viral success of Canadian teen sensation Justin Bieber, the 19-year-old Briton posted a series of online videos performing cover versions, and quickly amassed a sizeable following - 18 million views on her YouTube channel and 156,000 subscribers to date.
She mobilised that support to vote for her in MTV's annual Brand New poll, topped in the past by Conor Maynard and Bieber.
The 92,000 votes were enough to put her ahead of several signed nominees, including Gabrielle Aplin, who already has a number one British single to her name, and Haim, the LA sister act widely tipped for the top this year and beyond.
"I think it shows that to get a fan base before you make it is really important," Day said in a telephone interview.
"That's been something I've been focusing on for three years. What the fans have done is to show how things are changing, and it is not just the record labels picking artists, but the actual public."
The ability of musicians to reach an audience long before stepping into a recording studio or on to the stage is changing the way artists and labels interact, giving singers greater say and reducing some of the risks for music companies.
Wannabe stars like Day still gravitate towards labels, believing they can only go so far on their own no matter how large their fan base.
"For me at the minute, I have got the fan base and got probably enough to do a little tour and things like that.
"Now I need backing, mostly in terms of money, because I'm a student and have no funds to make merchandise and go on tour and make an album," she said.
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Day could resort to making music from fan contributions via websites like Pledgemusic.com, but said she did not feel comfortable asking her supporters for money.
Yet having built up a following, she will have a greater say over the terms of any deal, which today frequently covers revenue streams outside record sales such as live performances, commercial use of songs, merchandising and branding.
"I think that does happen and is happening with me," she explained. "I think now I've got such a backing it does make it more difficult (for the labels) because they know I'll probably want a better deal."
For record companies - three "majors" Sony, Vivendi's Universal and Warner Music Group plus hundreds of others from "mini-majors" to household outfits - there can be advantages.
They do not have to build a fan base from scratch and are less likely to pay out large and risky sign-on fees, which went out of fashion a decade or so ago as revenues from music sales began to plummet.
Labels blame rampant online piracy for their woes - global recorded music sales fell from a peak of $28.6 billion in 1999 to $16.6 billion in 2011 - but there is cautious optimism that digital music revenue could return the business to growth soon.
This willingness to engage the digital revolution rather than fight it has changed the way companies unearth new talent.
A&R (artists and repertoire) managers spend more time now trawling the internet than they do traipsing from pub to club to see bands live, although most still want to see an act performing before taking the plunge.
Music managers see both upsides and downsides to the shifting models.
Nigel Templeman of Trust Management, who co-manages bands including Dexysm and Howler, believes music risks becoming a secondary consideration for A&R scouts.
"Bands are being signed if there is the necessary market research being done such as YouTube views, Twitter followers and all of that," he told Reuters.
"The idea that bands are being signed just on the merit of the material is not the truth any more."
But he also argued that bands had begun to understand it was not about making a killing overnight.
"If you are going to be a musician these days, you've got to look at it in a different way to how you did even five years ago," he said. "It's about having ambition, but also about being realistic. It's a career choice versus getting rich quick."
"DON'T GIVE IT AWAY"
Matt Wilkinson, New Bands Editor at music magazine NME, warned up-and-coming acts to resist the temptation to give too much music away for free to earn fans and industry attention.
"I think that is the model now, undoubtedly, but I can't say I think it's a particularly positive thing. It makes things more difficult for record labels and the bands themselves.
"It's quite disheartening to find a really good band and six of their songs are already out there online," he told Reuters.
"It's sort of giving themselves away. My advice is keep stuff back. Your fans don't need to hear all of your material. Record labels do."
Day, who has played covers rather than her own music, has avoided that particular pitfall.
Her music "career" started three years ago when she learned to play the guitar during a long absence from school caused by allergies which were undiagnosed at the time.
Initially she was nervous about posting videos of herself singing, but took inspiration from Canadian chart topper Bieber, an early viral sensation who was picked up by a talent agent in 2008 on the strength of his YouTube postings.
"I saw his (Bieber's) videos right from the start when he was at home, without much money," said Day. "He's gone from an unknown person over the years to worldwide fame. I wanted that too."
Day is studying at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, southern England, but aims to build her pop career in 2013.
"In the next year I would like to release my own music, because I've only been doing covers and want people to see what my music is like."
She expects to release a debut single in April, and, depending on its reception there will be an EP and a British tour to follow.
For fans, being part of an online community can be appealing, be it Lady Gaga's "little monsters", Bieber's "Beliebers" - both of which number more than 33 million on Twitter - or the more modest 44,000-odd "Ebonerds".