Universal's multimedia experiment showcases everything from hits like Eminem to new talent

By Noah Robischon
Updated October 13, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Green Day’s drummer, Tre Cool, is snorting like a pig. Bass player Mike Dirnt joins in with a moo that would make a heifer proud. I’m expecting frontman Billie Joe to show up and bark like a dog any minute now. We’re not at the zoo, but the backlot scene at tonight’s L.A. taping of Farmclub.com has its wild side: No Doubt maneuver past a gaggle of go-go dancers, teeny-bopper Mandy Moore performs on the same stage as the funk-metalheads Incubus, and a ragtag assortment of dyed-and-pierced fans is splitting itself along band lines. ”I think the producers of the show have a zoophilia,” says Tre. Adds Dirnt, ”They’re down with the stable, if you know what I mean.”

An animal park is an apt metaphor for the crossbreeding of a TV show, music label, and website that make Farmclub.com what it is. But the name isn’t meant to imply a barn full of animals; it’s about cultivating crops of new musicians. The wannabes submit their songs to the Farmclub.com site, which is a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. The hope is that Farmclub.com will become fertile ground for a subscription-based downloadable-music service. Farmclub.com, yes, is betting the farm on it.

One of the unknown bands at tonight’s taping is a hardcore quartet called, brackets and all, [minus]. The three-year-old Atlanta-based group had a website before ever playing its first gig. A year ago they uploaded to Farmclub.com, where A&R guys sift through thousands of submissions with the help of a popular vote from the site’s visitors. The picks of the litter, like [minus], get to perform on the same Farmclub.com TV show (USA Network, Monday nights) as big names like Kid Rock or Eminem. Best of all, they get a shot at a record deal.

Gigging on the Internet is a far cry from touring VFW halls in a run-down van the way Green Day did before their 1994 album Dookie plopped at the top of the charts. ”We take it for granted how hard it must have been back then,” says [minus] drummer Matt Donald. He’s right. ”If you’re sitting in Iowa someplace and send in your demos, they very often don’t reach anyone,” says Universal Music Group chairman and CEO and Farmclub.com cofounder Doug Morris. Now bands can zap MP3 copies of their music around the globe, and build a following without so much as ever seeing a rickety tour bus.

But the weekly on-air mix of live performances and music videos is really the Trojan horse in Universal’s attempt to root itself in the digital-music revolution. The musician-centric website, with its 700,000 visitors each week, is ultimately a community-building lure for a subscription-based music service with mass appeal. Getting there, however, won’t be easy. The TV ratings, and the boost they give to website traffic, may slump now that the show has lost its lead-in — the brutally popular WWF Raw Is War. Farmclub.com management sees the departure as an opportunity, a chance to grow beyond Bizkit rock and into more diverse musical directions that will attract a wider audience (which explains the Mandy Moore cameo). ”You’re not going to figure it out in your head,” says Jimmy Iovine, cochairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records and CEO of Farmclub.com. ”You have to try it and move it around. It’s like making a record.”

Unfortunately, Farmclub.com doesn’t have the luxury of spending years in the studio. Putting on a weekly TV show is costly. And of the eight acts signed to Farmclub.com’s label thus far, only one has a gold record (Sonique’s ”Hear My Cry”), and none look like the next boy-band sensation. Any plans for a stock market IPO, no matter how speculative, are defunct. ”I don’t think the current climate lends itself to that,” says CEO Morris. Which means that to stay afloat Farmclub.com will have to start harvesting some profits soon — or watch its business go to seed.