Get Up for the Download

Searching for a new network of fans, local bands tune up, log on, and drop out

Smith himself isn't getting a big head about virtual success. "I've recently been accepted into the Information Technology program at the U of M based on my SAT scores and GPA," he wrote City Pages via e-mail. "I plan on majoring in computer science, although if at any time music seems to become a better way of earning money, I will pursue it." But at least he's shopping for a record label, right? "Maybe when I get a little more experience, I will try to look for a label, but for what I'm working on now, MP3.com is plenty enough exposure."

Smith's wait-and-see attitude toward a career in Web music might be wise. Experts estimate that the amount of information coursing through the Internet doubles every 100 days, with last year's holiday e-spending topping $5 billion in the U.S. Yet the bulk of the record industry outside of, say, underground hip hop, has yet to capitalize on the trend in any significant way, despite a proliferation of promotional e-mails and Web sites.

Two years ago, Twin/Tone Records founder Paul Stark announced in these pages the imminent death of the CD, adding a hearty Long live the download! While Stark now admits his short-term prognostications were off, he still says the music industry is putting off the inevitable.

A headliner in Vienna? Ezra Hale of Audio Magazine
Teddy Maki
A headliner in Vienna? Ezra Hale of Audio Magazine

"There'll be a 12-to-18-month period where digital downloads will just take over," he says, speaking on his cell phone from San Francisco. "We're probably still two years out on that, but it'll happen."

These days, the Minneapolis music sage spends half his workweek in California as a vice president for a company whose future depends on the Net revolutionizing the idea of local music. Liquid Audio produces its own software for online listening--which also plays MP3s. Stark brushes off the idea that such technology spells the end for record labels--someone still has to market those 50,000 musicians. "MP3s and everything are a great way to distribute music," he says, "But for every success story on MP3.com, there are probably hundreds of other bands that nobody listens to."

Bands that are already signed, meanwhile, face Web-skeptical label execs unwilling to try new technologies before everyone else leaps in. Minneapolis's 12 Rods would seem uniquely positioned to take advantage of the word-of-mouth MP3s generate, having just polished a follow-up to 1998's Split Personalities with producer Todd Rundgren. The band's mix of idiosyncratic pop and electronica might also appeal to precisely the demographic that seeks out new music online. Yet V2 have been uneasy about the "free music" concept.

"At one point, we had a couple of full MP3s on our site," says keyboardist Ev Olcott, a self-proclaimed computer geek who hosts the band's site (www.12rods.com) from a Mac in his basement. "Then the legal department came to us and said that they owned the masters and we were distributing them without permission."

A few days after a Rods concert in St. Cloud last year, a fan encoded a recording of the performance in MP3 and made it available to everyone on the band's mailing list.

"Who's getting hurt here, necessarily?" Olcott asks. "We wanted more people to listen to this show on the radio; now they're getting that chance on the Web. But you're dealing with copyrighted material, so it's definitely a gray area."

Ripping through the center of such legal ambiguities is the bogey of corporate Net-phobes, a service called Napster. The downloadable program turns your personal computer into a public MP3 server entirely independent of the Web, making it so easy to locate and trade illegally copied songs that the Recording Industry Association of America is suing the company, calling it an accomplice to piracy. Created by a college freshman who quickly dropped out to market the thing full time, the program has also caused enough traffic jams on college computer networks that many schools, including the University of Minnesota, have banned it from campus.

Before the music business bars the gizmo entirely, local musicians might avoid the legal pitfalls inherent in interactive technology altogether by sending their CDs straight to Internet radio--a medium so young, cheap, legal, and wide-open that marketing monster Kid Rock should be pimping it. Stroll over to the Minneapolis-based company NetRadio.com in the Riverplace building on the Mississippi and you'll find a tiny, corporate-looking operation broadcasting 120 channels of every genre imaginable, round the clock.

Web radio's loose formatting makes it easier for local acts to get played--a habit encouraged by employing programmers familiar with the scene. When I stop by NetRadio, I'm met by Tim Schweitzer in a swank lobby complete with fountain. The tall bleached-blond program manager is better known in local clubs as DJ Jezus Juice, a fixture on the Minneapolis dance scene and host of First Avenue's Saturday dance night, System 33. By day he personally programs 16 DJ-less channels of urban, dance, and electronic music at NetRadio. The music plays silently in a long, crowded room filled with row upon row of computer monitors. Above the hum of this little information society, Schweitzer notes that each of the 120 soundstreams has its own server.

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