"I think my favorite comparison was Fleetwood Mac," laughs Ezra Hale, gazing into a computer screen where numerous suggestions for further listening accompany a Listen.com review of his jangly indie band.
Sitting in his south Minneapolis apartment, the boyish, elf-bearded singer for Audio Magazine might seem an unlikely emblem of local rock in the dot-com age. A bass guitar rests on his hardwood floor; a volume of Bob Dylan lyrics drapes over his monitor. In the background, the acoustic blues of Mance Lipscomb's Texas Songster, Vol. 2 crackles from of an old turntable. The 30-year-old doesn't program techno, instead favoring the pre-digi blast of his trumpet--he has played around town for years with bands such as Deformo, Dylan Hicks, and jazz fusers Ebb'nflow. Yet in sheer numbers of listeners, Hale's biggest success came last year on the Internet.
Like over 50,000 other musicians worldwide, Hale signed up with MP3.com, the famously gargantuan Web site that serves as a kind of cheap music-distribution network for anyone with a sound card, a modem, and something to be heard. Because of the catalog's sheer mass, bad music abounds on MP3.com--random listening can be like looking for poetry with a letter opener at the post office. Yet this and similar sites fill a void at a moment when whittled-down major-label rosters and shrinking indie distribution are literally keeping local rock in its place. At MP3.com, musicians need only present prerecorded sound files to get instant access to the world's virtual public. In exchange, the company pockets half the proceeds from all sales.
Since signing up in July of last year, Hale habitually logs onto the site to see how many people have downloaded which songs, and when. He also monitors its charts. "Here you can see something happened around last September," he says, pointing to a multicolored bar graph illustrating numbers of downloads. "For some reason, I just got really popular last fall."
In fact, Audio Magazine (www.mp3.com/
audiomagazine) topped out at No. 2 on the site's indie chart that month, which means his songs were being downloaded about 60 times a day for two months (this volume has since tapered to 30 downloads a day). That's a remarkable figure given the already staggering amount of music available on the Web, from massive directories like those at listen.com and iuma.com to countless label and band sites. It amazes Hale that anyone would come across his albums at all, much less offer the occasional misguided band comparison. (I'd call his band's sound a cross between Son Volt and American Music Club.) He even receives fan letters from Austria. "It's weird," he says. "I'll get these e-mails from people who don't even have a grasp of the language the songs were written in, but they're telling me how much they like them."
Hale is a rarity among MP3 acts, granted. He made an entire album available for free on the site, the lovely Audio Magazine, Volume 5: Way Out (Flat Human Records), where most bands offer only one or two songs, hoping the masses will buy more. But money isn't a motivation for Hale, who reports that he once turned down a $50,000 bid for his domain name: ezra.com. He works days as a computer programmer, funding his purchases of amps, trumpets, and CD burners. Putting music on the Web, he says, is about making it accessible to people. "You're not going to make any money, really, but you're gonna have this opportunity to connect with other artists. And that's worthwhile."
Local music may be communing with online bohemia like never before. But the invisible mouse behind the Webbing of nearly everything is still greed. The same boomers who a few short years ago were thrilled at the thought of having a page with their cat's picture on it are now trying to make a living by selling the contents of their attic on eBay. No surprise, then, that their kids should start selling original songs online as well.
What is surprising about Alex Smith, a 17-year-old Stillwater musician, is how quickly he manipulated the Web to achieve that most elusive of professional-music goals: a positive cash flow. Smith has been composing trance electronica since the seventh grade, and he was quick to pick up on the new possibilities afforded by the MP3 format when it first popped up on the market in 1998. Last spring he started making his own MP3s under the alias the Cynic Project (skapegoat0.tripod.com), and in April he posted some songs on MP3.com. Listeners have since downloaded enough of his music to garner the high school maestro more than $15,000, part of which came from a top prize he took in MP3.com's Payback for Playback program, which rewards the site's most popular artist with bonus cash.