Last time, I talked about how the success Electric Frankenstein’s Net presence has helped draw me towards the band’s music, but let’s face it, this file-transfer thing is still a relatively new medium, with more instability than not and many many more failures than successes. For every site worth visiting regularly, there are . . . a hundred? A thousand? A million? . . . sites that, while their creators almost certainly mean well, just aren’t worthwhile.
Now, assuming you’ve spent more than ten minutes on the Net, you’ve all seen plenty of these sites, so I don’t see much point in targeting lousy sites here. (Something Awful, www.somethingawful.com, does it so much more enjoyably, anyway). For that matter, by-and-large the traditional compact disc is the medium I spend the most time listening to, and I don’t intend to give the impression that I spend a substantive amount of time listening to files off of my hard drive. Anything worthwhile, I burn to CD; anything else gets filed away, possibly for future reference but nowhere near anything one might term “heavy rotation.”
Nor do I spend much time browsing the sites of the great unknown, the millions (?) of sites by never-heard-of-’ems presenting their own presumably original music for download and sampling by streaming. I just can’t see that it’s going to reward my limited entertainment hours with enough quality music; sorry if you’re offended, pie-in-the-sky dreamers, but let’s be realistic — if it’s any good, I’ll hear about it sooner or later. Evidence is beginning to show that I’m not alone: the Internet Underground Music Archive seemed to be predicated on visitors to the site who were content to randomly browse completely unknown music for hours at a time, and they got more publicity than any other online music provider up until Napster. The fact that they have, for all intents and purposes, basically shut down should tell us something.
Here’s the problem as I see it: what attracts me to visit a Web site repeatedly is the promise of new, entertaining content on a regular basis. Some sites I’ve been visiting every week for at least a year now, but there isn’t a single mp3-based site originated by a single artist or band that I find worthy of visiting every week. Cool as Electric Frankenstein’s site is, they don’t have new music up every week, and that’s what it’s all about — new, consistently good content on a regular basis. This is what will attract regular visitors to a site, regardless of that site’s particular focus, be it behind-the-scenes movie news or smart-ass humor or ‘cutting-edge’ music coverage. When the site is ostensibly a music site, what’s going to bring me back is new, free, easily accessible, high quality, downloadable music on a regular, preferably weekly, basis.
So here are some near misses: sites that perhaps aren’t all they could be or have been hamstrung by some irritating imperfection or don’t quite fit my, perhaps, impractical (though I really don’t think so) standard. Sites that may not be there exactly, but that point in the right direction, that merit at least a glance and perhaps more.
My Dad Is Dead home page
When first I stumbled across this site, my reaction was much the same as when I found the Electric Frankenstein MP3.com site. I’ve long had several My Dad Is Dead albums on my list of records I look for in stores, and seemingly here they all were, available in free mp3s created by the artist himself — in this case My Dad Is Dead main man Mark Edwards. Unfortunately, it turned out the files themselves were hosted on freediskspace.com, which hamstrung the whole process with an incredibly awkward download interface, tedious time-limit-exceeded error messages and patience-taxingly slow downloads — and lets not forget those ever-so-lovely pop-up ads. Despite my initial joy at finding several records’ worth of free music by an artist whose work I already enjoyed, I ended up giving up after getting maybe nine or ten tunes.
Fortunately, Mark’s apparently had enough people complain that he’s switching and upgrading the service, complete with a www.mydadisdead.com domain name registration. Even better, he’s created new, higher-quality 192kbps (my preferred bitrate as opposed to the supposed “CD-quality” *koff koff * 128kbps standard) mp3s of two albums, “Let’s Skip the Details” and “The Taller You Are, the Shorter You Get,” which are available at http://mdid10.home.mindspring.com/sounds2.htm. I’m downloading them as I type this, and as advertised they do seem to be moving right along (hopefully, the other three albums “available” on freespace will follow). Best of all, Mark reports that a brand-new MDID album is in the works, to be recorded with his home equipment for release on Vital Cog (www.vitalcog.com) sometime later this year.
As far as new, unique content by a major artist, this site is one of the best. Something like three hours’ worth of non-CD recordings — mostly live solo acoustic tracks from October and November 2000, but including several full-band tracks and radio broadcast performances — are sprinkled throughout this site. The bad news: for some bullheaded reason, they won’t just provide a simple, logical route to get them, they want you to go searching through the site for them. You see this kind of thing a lot on the Net; basically, the way I see it is the webmaster’s defense mechanisms kicking up, effectively saying, “by god, I put a lot of effort into this site, so you should have to put some in too!” There is a page which supposedly gives a ‘complete’ list of the music uploads, but it always gives me a “script timed out” error and spits out about half the list when I try to pull it up. It’s a bit of a pain, but with persistence you can get some fairly high quality (160kbps and 128kbps mostly) tracks that sound pretty decent when burned to CD. Personally, I prefer Hiatt’s acoustic rootsier side to his mainstreamish heartland-rock angle, so no complaints from me on the content itself; if they could straighten out the bugs in the site and stick new stuff up a tad more often I might be more likely to check back more than once every month or two.
Rather than an single-artist site like the two above, Tiny Telephone combines a homepage for John Vanderslice’s San Francisco-based Tiny Telephone recording studio with an mp3 hub that features tracks from a lengthy list of mostly indie artists, including Vanderslice himself and a selection derived from epitonic.com. There’s a good chunk of stuff here worth checking out, the most immediately noteworthy being an excellent six-song Richard Buckner performance taken from a rare promo-only release, including his version of the Pavement classic “Here” (available at http://www.tinytelephone.com/html/buckner.html). The downside is that new material seems to show up in tiny trickles at the whims of whoever Vanderslice can convince to allow him to post stuff, and there’s no guarantee that just because you like a few of the featured artists you’ll give a shit about any of the others. This is probably why I just downloaded all the stuff I saw that I liked the first time I found the site and haven’t really felt much of a need to check back since. From an artist’s perspective, I feel compelled to point out that, while I as a listener appreciated John’s page and some of the content available from it, it didn’t compel me to check out John’s own stuff, despite a recent feature spot on Napster’s home page and its easy availability right there next to Jeremy Enigk and Tom Waits. If I felt compelled to come back and visit Tiny Telephone on a more frequent basis, I can almost guarantee I’d check his stuff out sooner or later — hell, I downloaded the Something Awful guy’s mp3 recently just because he asked visitors to do so, and that’s not even a music site.
And as token nod to those attempting to make a pay-per-download model fly . . .
Emusic.com recently ran a “download a free album” promotion, which gave me a chance to check out a service I’d basically never consider paying for — kind of like those “free Cinemax weekends” on cable that I’d watch long enough to determine that Cinemax was, in fact, utterly useless. It’s a nice idea and all, but frankly the vast majority of the online audience is conditioned into the idea of free downloads, and for them to make the jump to paying I think you’re going to have to offer a lot more than 128 kbps mp3s from albums that, for the most part, you could buy at Wal-Mart or any decent record store. Especially for their outrageously high regular prices: 99 cents per song downloaded or nine bucks for a full album! Can’t blame them for trying, but mp3s are not the same thing as CD-quality listening (especially at 128 kbps), and pricing them as such seems a notion doomed to be dashed against the expectations of the listening public — who, like it or not, are driving this whole thing, not licensing deals and exclusivity arrangements.
In between the cracks of these sites, I can almost catch a glimpse of what a truly successful music site might be, what features might comprise it, how often it might have new tunes up. It’s an exciting possibility just out of reach, like much online these days, and sure, the bar is set kind of high, but each month brings new changes, new services and programs, and of course, new music. And however it works out, it’s fascinating to observe its continual evolution.
Anyway, I’m getting off the fucking computer now to go put on a CD — not one burned from mp3s, incidentally.
Author Aaron J. Poehler has been performing, recording, and writing about music for far too long to think about. Documentation on all of his various activities of dubious worth can be found at http://daisyglaze.homestead.com.