The announcement of a new Coca-Cola/iTunes partnership highlights as one of the key features that, "In the UK, Germany, Austria and Switzerland unsigned artists will have a venue to upload songs, giving them potential for broad exposure on the site through artist highlights, European podcasts available on iTunes, and invitations to play at Coke sponsored European festivals."
It's interesting that mainstream services are now featuring unsigned bands as one of their selling points. The BBC aims to be "the destination for unsigned bands and young musicians to turn to for support" (source: official briefing), and already has a dedicated unsigned microsite, including a podcast. The Financial Times interpreted this as a response to the buzz-driven success of bands like the Arctic Monkeys, in which MySpace may, or may not, have played a key part. MySpace's parent company seemed to think so too, being quoted, "That the BBC is openly saying that it wants to create rival [sic] to MySpace shows there is no end to their commercial ambitions." (It wasn't openly saying that, but that's News Corporation's reporting standards for you.)
What's going on here? Shouldn't these major corporate players be focused on providing high-quality filters so that they can guarantee high quality music for their users? Why make a point of featuring unsigned music, when we all know that the bad unsigned music is even worse than the bad music on major labels, and there's quite a lot of it?
There are several factors. The BBC's public service remit (encouraging them to support emerging, non-commercial areas) is only a minor factor. Likewise I doubt that Long Tail thinking — wanting to cater for niche tastes — can explain on its own the interest in unsigned music.
More significantly, the likes of Apple and the BBC are finding that the record labels' form in spotting, promoting and filtering the best new talent is increasingly erratic. Bands get plugged for airplay and/or featured status in the download stores — and they don't sell. If the labels aren't doing a good job as filters, can Apple, can BBC, or can their audience and customers?
The experience of audience involvement in discovery stretches from American/Pop Idol to MySpace and GarageBand.com. In the audience, you enjoy participating in the talent scout/A&R process. Even though it means you have to hear stuff that you don't much like, it gets you involved in the whole process. If you identify a favourite early on, you get emotionally engaged in following their progress as they rise to the top and more widespread acclaim.
Indeed you could argue that the whole Singles Chart/Top of the Pops ecosystem worked a bit like Pop Idol: you watched the TV programme, and, instead of paying for a phone call/SMS and seeing the results at the end of the programme, you went to your local store and paid for a record and saw the results in next week's programme. (If you follow that analogy, then it was competition from the speed of the phone-in chart, coupled with changes to airplay/release pattern that killed the Top of the Pops formula.)
It will be interesting to see what Coca-Cola adds to the iTunes experience, how the work of the unsigned artists will be showcased, and how the service's users will be engaged.