Like real radio, you can simply tune into net.radio and other netcast programming and forget about it; the RealAudio software that delivers the music allows you to move on to another website--or to another software package, if your machine can handle the multi-tasking--while the music plays on. And web stations can offer all sorts of website information and services. Depending on the 'caster, a web station can be a multimedia extravaganza--a radio station, TV station, chat line, data server, audio/video archive, record store, and more. (Net.radio President Scott Bourne prefers to call his operation an "entertainment site.")

Of course, the big question, as with all online media, is content. And frankly, current net radio operations have little to recommend them beyond their formal novelty. The redundancy of simulcasting commercial rock or pop stations online is obvious, at least if you live in an urban center with a reasonable radioband selection. And so far, net.radio's programming offers little in the way innovation. "Vintage Rock" is a narrow version of '70s AOR format, heavy on Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, and other dinosaurs. Their "Indie" channel reflects little of the vitality and vision of modern small-label music; it seems thrown together from whatever demos or promos turned up in the mail. "Maestro" offers nothing that the average NPR-affiliate doesn't do better at higher fidelity.

Mind you, people without access to broadcast radio--those living in the wilds of Nevada, or Alaska, or Siberia, say, might have a different take. (According to net.radio, some of the pipeline workers in the Arctic Circle are big fans.) But clearly, online radio is a medium still in the process of being realized. As an international medium and marketing tool (with both audio and graphic ad capabilities), it obviously has great potential. How that potential will manifest itself, and how much it will have any genuine cultural value, remains to be seen.

Sound Futures

When lacquer disc recordings became widely available in the '20s and '30s, the music world was transformed. Hawaiian recordings became a craze in the continental United States, and the sound greatly influenced the development of country-western music; Trinidadian calypso and Cuban son 78s travelled from the Caribbean back to Africa, where new music styles grew from their seeds. Similarly, cheap cassette recordings and playback equipment increased the mobility of music even further. Indigenous disco recordings began popping up in Algerian market stalls. Bootleg hip-hop cassettes flooded South and Central America. Portable 4-track analog and DAT recorders put the means of production into the hands of more and more artists from sea to shining sea.

Other technologies have been more revolutionary from a marketing standpoint than a cultural one. The compact disc format was essentially forced on consumers when companies simply stopped manufacturing vinyl LPs. It offered certain improvements over the LP in terms of convenience, portability, and (arguably) sonic quality. But its downside included the extra cost (still an average of $5 per title over LPs), not to mention the stymieing of DJ culture (which still thrives on vinyl LPs, since CDs can't be manipulated adequately by hand) and album art (which must now be shrunk into a 5 x 5-inch square).

The advent of online music services seems to promise wonders on many fronts. For music fans, it should open up a whole new world of sonic access. For musicians, one envisions all manner of online recording and performing projects, such as the free-jazz concert that recently took place at the Cyber X Cafe in Minneapolis featuring Douglas Ewart at the Cafe, Leo Smith in Santa Monica, and Leroy Jenkins in NYC, all jamming together in real time.

For the music business, online advances promise all of the above and more. For one thing, online customers are demographically specific customers. They're more attractive to advertisers, who naturally want to know as much about their potential customers as possible, so that pitches can be tailored to their audience. Online radio stations with a commercial bent will likely evolve into home shopping channels, where any song playing can be purchased instantly with the click of a mouse. ("Classical 24" and other national radio programming services that offer listeners the opportunity to purchase the music they're listening to are already moving in this direction.)

What about access? Like all online technology, it will be restricted to those with the money and knowledge to take advantage of it. But just as computer prices have fallen, and their use is growing more common across various cultural strata, so should online music advances touch all musical cultures. To those who think otherwise, one need only point to the rise of hip-hop--music of pure technology transformed by pure creative vision--as an indication that, whatever happens in the playground of online music, the revolutions are as likely to be led by those with the most imagination as by those with the most money.

Of course, those with the most money and power will do their damnedest to wrest some sort of control. But even large interests are having trouble getting a handle on the new technology. In what may be the most notorious example of corporate bumbling on the new music technology front, a collaborative venture between IBM and Blockbuster was formed in 1994 with the idea of a record store that would essentially manufacture CDs for customers on-the-spot, downloading and capturing audio from a centralized digital database onto recordable optical discs. The idea was a good one: to offer a vast number of titles without the cost of maintaining stock and the required floorspace. Unfortunately, the music industry was less than thrilled at turning over manufacturing capabilities--and profits--to retailers, and after what was rumored to be millions in R&D dollars, the project died a quick death.

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