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"We definitely do this on a case-by-case basis," Lawton said. "Some books lend themselves to it more than others, such as genre books or younger authors."
At the other end of the new taste-making spectrum are communities that can help anoint artists simply by the power of aggregated likes or dislikes.
A prime example is the MySpace social network site, recently purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which has become so important in the music business that it recently announced the creation of its own label. The more than 500,000 bands and artists that maintain sites there provide streaming access to songs, interviews with musicians and instant networking with and among fans.
It's those connections that can spread likes and dislikes at the speed of gossip. Members can add people with similar likes into their personal networks, browse the favorite movies and bands of others and then add those groups as "friends."
Small labels have seen public awareness of bands rise sharply after reaching a critical mass on MySpace. Doghouse Records new media director Matt Rubin cites the case of one of his bands, The Honorary Title, which was one of the first groups featured on the front page of MySpace and now has had more than 35,000 people ask to be "friends."
"It's a more personal experience for people," Rubin said. "Younger fans love that. If they have the time, bands should do the whole participating thing."
Major label executives have said that it's nearly as important to have a presence on MySpace as it is to have a single on the radio.
"As I talk to our A&R (talent scout) guys, many of them spend a fair amount of time on MySpace," EMI's Klein said. "MySpace has gotten to a critical mass in terms of volume, and it is almost an instant market research unit."
Peer-to-peer networks have larger, faceless sample groups but can still provide valuable information about what people are listening to, as can "top download" lists from online music services such as Apple Computer's iTunes, Napster or RealNetworks' Rhapsody.
All this is good news for consumers, who are only a quick Google search away from finding a blog or a MySpace network that shares their tastes and can recommend something new. The challenge for companies and artists is finding the right communities, blogs and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds to target--which can be particularly daunting for traditional media executives who are desperately trying to retain the level of influence they have had in the days of analog.
"There is a lot of noise out there," said Andrew Hawn, a media consultant for Iconoculture, a company that specializes in trend-spotting. "But there is wisdom in that noise somewhere."
Tomorrow: Wikis make history