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Conventional music industry labels have always relied on top-down marketing strategies that lavish resources on their major artists. But on the Internet, it's all about the "long tail," a low budget, and a bottom-up approach to the business of music. The recording industry is being reshaped by the digital interactive media industry, and ambitious new artists are discovering that the Internet is where they can compete for consumer ears without the support of a major label.

Enter, a Winnipeg-based site that is becoming one of the most respected 3-D virtual communities for emerging and independent musicians around the world. Recently named as a nominee for the "Excellence in the Use of Social Media" category of the 2007 Canadian New Media Awards, café is only a year old, but they have already registered more than 700 musicians in 23 countries worldwide along with international music-based service providers such as Sabian Cymbals.

Café combines art, entertainment and business. It's a Flash-based social networking site that delivers voice, music, video, B2B chat, messaging and 3-D virtual rooms, similar to the popular 3-D virtual community, Second Life. Like Second Life, café is a virtual place with buildings you can enter, a reception desk where you're greeted by a Virtual Guide, and artist rooms where music is featured. The difference, however, lies in the avatars. Unlike Second Life, where 3-D caricatures represent a facsimile of reality, uses video-based animations of real people in its environment. Basic membership is free, with some fees for enhancements such as virtual screen showcases and custom-designed virtual rooms.

Ron Lamoureux, President of Inc., is a music producer, award-winning new media educator, and executive board member for the Canadian Cultural Human Resources Council. As director of The Worx Gallery, an interactive media, music, and educational/and training company, the former University of Manitoba instructor realized the need for musicians to participate in their own community and learn from each other. But it was also a way to help validate the business of music and art.

"I was tired of hearing, 'Well, you're a musician and you like what you're doing, so why not play for free?' Validating culture as a profitable business investment was also a major consideration when creating the site," Mr. Lamoureux says. "Why do investors have such problems in putting money into cultural content when it is a pervasive force in our every waking moment of our lives? I suspect that's our biggest struggle at the moment. Investors like to see a quick turnaround for their money and many don't feel that by investing in culture they'll get their money back quickly enough."

An alternative to the ubiquitous (but uncool) MySpace, café also allows artists to showcase their work online for A&R reps, agents, and promoters worldwide by sending them a link to their virtual room. Other features on café include office spaces, artists' profiles, video and audio areas, coffee shop chat rooms, members' art galleries, a resource centre, an e-store, an online magazine, and soon to be developed workshop areas, conference rooms, an educational and training campus, and a job bank.

Mr. Lamoureux, who financed development of the site out of pocket with the help of business development grants, says this is not the first time the site has been recognized for its innovations. It was also nominated for the international Popkomm-IMEA award, which honours the best of the best in new technology and content applications, management, and delivery for the music industry worldwide.

"Café was a way to bring people together in a positive environment," Mr. Lamoureux explains. "In terms of the technology, it was an ideal platform to test true convergence between cultural content and 3-D online technology. We have now created a series of templates that can be applied and adapted to cross-sectoral cross-media initiatives. Therein lies our greatest source of revenue."

The next step for café Start producing more revenue. café already has a network of more than 10 business representatives in the U.S. and on every other continent. Lamoureux's future business plans include obtaining sponsorship for global online music contests and festivals, selling and renting virtual real estate space to artist support companies, e-learning, other educational initiatives and more.

"Also, once we have enough traction, we expect advertisers to get on board, especially in terms of product placement," says Mr. Lamoureux. "I have been discussing a possible partnership with Volkswagen in Germany as they expressed some interest in our environment."