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Is that 80s music lost forever? Greg Billings Band and others turn to streaming

Six years of Greg Billings' life were just sitting in a drawer.

The Clearwater singer was once in a rowdy Southern rock band called Stranger, which had a strong following and a deal with Epic Records. For a while they were poised to become Florida's answer to Van Halen. They also self-released four albums that sold into six figures combined, Billings guessed, good for an independent band.

And that was essentially the end of it.

In an age in which streaming is king, you'd think every song that can be online already is. That's mostly true for new artists. But for legacy acts like Billings and Stranger, it still isn't so.

Like much indie music from the pre-Internet era, most of Stranger's music never made it to iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora or any of the other digital outlets that drive the industry in 2017. The thought never really crossed Billings's mind.

"I'm a Carolina boy," said Billings, 60. "I like to sing. I like to write songs. I like to make people laugh. I like to entertain. But as far as the business end, I'm lost."

Enter Tampa's Cigar City Management, which manages acts and books concerts. But it also offers "label services," including digitizing old tracks.

"There's all these albums that were released independently, one at a time," said Randy Ojeda, CEO of Cigar City Management. "The artist might not be thinking about getting that music up on digital platforms, but it's where music is going. And if you're not there, it's like the music didn't exist."

On Friday, Billings and Cigar City Management will bring those "lost" Stranger albums online for legal sale and streaming. They might not reap much income, but it's a slice of Florida music history that otherwise might have been forgotten.

"If you can get it out there in the digital world, you're putting a stamp on what you're doing," Billings said. "Like my wife says, this stuff's going to live forever."

• • •

Streaming music has upended everything about how the industry operates.

As sales of traditional formats, like CDs, have plummeted, Billboard and Nielsen SoundScan devised a formula to convert song and album streams into "album-equivalent units," meaning you can top the charts without ever selling a physical CD.

Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book and Jay-Z's 4:44 debuted near the top of the Billboard charts and were nominated for Grammys. Thanks to its nearly 5 billion streams, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber's Despacito will go down as one of the longest-reigning No. 1 pop singles in history.

The money artists earn varies, but it's typically a fraction of a penny per song stream. Still, it's now essential for fans to be able to access music that way, no matter your stature as an artist.

"It costs a little bit of money, but you want to get on every streaming service possible," said Rick Derringer, a friend of Billings' who lives in Bradenton, and whose classic hits include Hang On Sloopy and Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo. "Get it out there free, and if people like it, then they will stream it, and that's the way you make your money now."

In Billings' case, any money is better than no money at all. Select tracks from those four Stranger albums — No Rules, Angry Dogs, No More Dirty Deals and We Be Live — are on iTunes and Spotify, but the royalties they earn are sparse compared to Billings' newer music. Physical Stranger albums remain elusive and expensive — CDs of No Rules are listed for more than $90 on the resale site Discogs — but you can also find songs pirated or posted illegally on YouTube.

"I don't like going online and looking to see what's out there," Billings said. "I don't know who the hell these people are, or how they got it, but you can find some of my music out there, and it's very discouraging."

Earlier this year, Billings met Ojeda and Cigar City CFO Jason Solanes at a Panera near Westshore Plaza with a zip-lock bag of chipped Stranger CDs. He owns the rights and publishing, so all Cigar City had to do was rip the CDs, clean up the artwork and send it to a British company called Kobalt Music to prepare it for digital distribution.

When the music goes live, Billings should take home about 70 percent of the royalties, with Cigar City, Kobalt and streaming services splitting the rest.

"Everybody can get it from one spot, and I'll see the money — albeit probably not a whole lot of money," Billings said. "Maybe in the beginning, there will be a pretty decent little check, but like Randy and those guys said, it's just sitting there right now. What do you want? $30? Better than sitting in a drawer somewhere."

• • •

Is there a market in 2017 for independent, mostly regional music from the '80s and '90s? In Billings' case, there might be.

The Greg Billings Band is well-known and -liked around the beaches, often playing prime-time slots at local festivals like Ribfest, Taste of Pinellas and Clearwater's Blast Friday. In January, they played a concert celebrating 35 years of Stranger at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre. To Billings' surprise, it sold out in advance, drawing 750 fans eager to relive Stranger's heyday. New T-shirts sold out quickly. A live album from the show will be released this fall.

"If they can sell out the Capitol Theatre and other venues, there's definitely people that want to hear this music," Ojeda said. "The key is, are these people into streaming? Are they willing to make Spotify playlists? We'll see."

On streaming services, channel and playlist placement is key to expanding a band's audience. If Stranger songs start popping up alongside songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet or the Allman Brothers Band, it could increase interest worldwide.

Ojeda has already opened talks with other Tampa Bay artists from the Stranger era to reintroduce their "lost" analog albums to a streaming audience.

"This is a totally different opportunity to put out music that otherwise wasn't available digitally, but now we can preserve that history and that legacy," he said. "Just being able to have that music there for people and preserve it for the future is amazing."

Putting it out where people can get it is what matters.

"Money's money," he said. "Anytime you get a check for selling records, no matter how big the check is, it's pretty cool."

Contact Jay Cridlin at or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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