AOL, Microsoft court indie-rock crowd

Brian Garrity

AOL and Microsoft are wooing indie-rock fans to help solidify their digital music strategies.

Corporations seeking indie cred are nothing new. But both bids come at critical times for the technology giants.

AOL, in the midst of shifting from an Internet service provider model to an advertising-driven business, aims to expand its audience at the margins by stretching beyond the pop crowd with new programing aimed at hipsters.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is trying to make inroads with its new Zune digital media player by winning over the same group of tastemakers that first embraced Apple Computer's iPod.

As part of AOL's indie strategy, the portal on October 26 launched a weekly Web-only video show called "The DL," hosted by Sara Schaefer of the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade. It also plans to launch a revived version of its Spinner radio brand with special channels dedicated to indie music. Additionally, the company is already up and running with a new weekly podcast series called "The Interface," which focuses on acts like Spoon.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is targeting the indie community with heavy promotional activity around music festivals like CMJ, which runs through November 4. CMJ is working with Microsoft to identify as many as 300 music-savvy students ages 18-22 to assist with on-campus and online promotions as well as feedback for the Zune, which is expected to hit stores November 14.

The company already has been courting the blogger community. Microsoft made headlines this summer for flying big-name music bloggers including Coolfer and Stereogum out to its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to test the Zune on a first-look basis. It's also running Zune ads across leading blogs, and the device will come preloaded with music and video from Sub Pop Records, Astralwerks, V2, Ninja Tune and Quango Music Group.

Bill Wilson, senior vice president of programing for AOL, says the indie-rock community is a natural fit given its strong involvement with digital music.

But corporate brands may not resonate with more discriminating rock fans, which is in part why both companies are cultivating new brands that can be promoted.

In the case of AOL, it also hopes to sidestep the issue by letting user-generated content have a big presence in its strategy.

Wilson adds, "We're great top-down programmers. What you don't see (right now) is the users' voice."

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