Earbits Reinvents Payola for the Web

Just a few years ago, a massive scandal rocked the FM radio world when internal memos from Sony Music showed that the major record labels routinely bought “spins” for their artists. Earbits, a new YCombinator-funded music startup, is now bringing a more sophisticated version of this system to the web. Over 1,300 bands have already signed up for the service that will soon ask these bands to pay to get their music to the ears of Earbits’ users. For now, though, the service is still free for the bands that sign up.

According to TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid, Earbits plans to charge bands for “s to pay for airtime and to display additional relevant information alongside their songs — like banners promoting an upcoming concert, complete with links to purchase tickets.” The company has put a few safeguards in place to ensure that it won’t be overrun by crappy music and in a comment thread on Hacker News, the company likens its system more the Google’s Adwords than the payola schemes that once were ubiquitous on Top 40 radio.

Earbits string cheese

From a user perspective, Earbits’ free service is actually a lot of fun and the current selection of bands is quite interesting and refreshing. The design puts a large photo of the artist or band at the center of the experience, with a bio underneath. Earbits plans to add more band info and links to ticket sales and merchandise as well.

You can use the site without having to sign up for it, but if you do (using Facebook Connect), the service will keep track of what you are listening to and will recommend songs to you based on your musical tastes. Signing in also makes it easier to share songs with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.

Whether Earbits can succeed, though, will mostly depend on how musicians will react to the site once its payment system goes online. The developers argue that bands will only have to pay about $0.01 per play (if users skip before the 30-second mark, bands don’t have to pay, by the way), so for $15, they can reach 1,500 listeners. As one of the company’s representatives argued on Hacker News, “if you can’t sell one $15 concert ticket with the links to the box office right there, God help us all!”

No matter the business model, though, Earbits is a fun site for finding new music and worth a try.