Get Up for the Download

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

Audio Magazine sounds like 10,000 Maniacs. And the Beach Boys. And Air. And, um, Danzig. Really, it says so on the Web.

"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.

"I don't know if I'd say we're shocked, but it's certainly been an educational experience," says Alex's mom, Carla Smith, who is listening to her son's CD, Robert Miles, when I phone.

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.

"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.

Founded in 1995 before anyone had learned to put three Ws together, NetRadio was the first Internet-only commercial radio station in the world. Since then more than 3,000 similar sites have popped up, a handful of them located in the Twin Cities. Aside from the 24-hour online version of Radio K (www.radiok.org) and Indisonic.com's occasional Webcasts of live concerts, there are two major local Web stations pumping music 24-7. BlackMusicAmerica.com (cable radio's WRNB) currently broadcasts Solid Gold Soul's Marvin-to-Stevie format. Radio Juno Beach (www.junobeach.com) broadcasts live DJs with a heavy local bent: A 15-minute sampling turned up songs by Dillinger Four, Passage, and Casino Royale. Like many of the sites I've mentioned, Juno's bread and butter appears to be selling CDs on their Web page--the source of half of NetRadio's revenue last year.

There's a certain quiet unreality to all this activity, and advertisers reportedly wonder if office workers are really listening to Web tunes at all: Schweitzer claims NetRadio reaches more than 1.4 million listeners a month. Hipsters might wonder about any station named the "Best of the Web" in Forbes, but the company's playlist is deeper than anything outside volunteer radio. Schweitzer says this is why he came to the station in the first place. "I'll get e-mails from someone like, 'Oh my God, I never knew this stuff existed,'" he says.

Given this bounty of variety, the MP3 nation is already universalizing the notion of music listening as a kind of mix tape, as Stark once predicted it would. And if the hundreds of local musicians online have any luck, they'll become part of the mix. It's perhaps surprising that the idea of listener-made compilations replacing records makes Ezra Hale shake his head. "I'd rather have Bob Dylan pick out songs on an album."

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