I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but when I see those big glossy articles in magazines like Newsweek about “the future of music on the Net” and so on, I’m reminded of those old Warner Bros. cartoons where Daffy would show Porky through the “house of the future” complete with all the fantastic new devices sure to make life a luxury for the average working stiff. The future always looks great when you’re just imagining the good stuff but no one in the fifties predicted the computer revolution would make the world safe for porn on demand, did they? Likewise, my house is a fucking mess and I sure could use one of those auto-sweepers, but I don’t want to be folded, spindled, and mutilated the way Porky and Daffy are when they get in the way.
If you can make any sense of that tortured metaphor, you’ve probably spent some time trying to unravel the myriad threads that splay untamed across the Web, each proclaiming to be the future of music. Well, if there’s only one for-sure thing I’ve learned in my lifetime, it’s that the future is unknowable. (Keep that in mind, kiddies. It’s a tidbit that can help keep you on track when all around you falls to shit.) Everybody’s sure this Web thing is changing music, but really, what’s changing? In 1999, the major-label music industry sold a shitload of Britney Spears and Eminem CDs, and they did in 2000, too. Evidently the “allure” of spending four hours downloading Britney’s music (well, Britney’s producers’ music) for free loses out to the ease of spending fifteen bucks at the mall.
And indeed, the music itself has changed very little recently. The revolution is not one of music, truthfully, but of format. Maybe you fresh teenage anarchists can believe this in itself will topple the N’Syncs and Backstreets of the world from the charts to be replaced with whoever your current heroes are, but trust me, it’s not gonna happen. Give the masses free choice and every time they choose not to have the freedom to choose. It’s the nature of the beast. (Doubt me? Then why was “Britney Spears” the number-one search term in 2000? Why do baby boomers who have had forty years to check out all kinds of music still like the Eagles?)
What has changed is that those freak-mutants among us now have a far superior avenue for finding out about the music we’re actually interested in, as opposed to the constant stream of pabulum streaming from any radio. (The paranoia about online music shouldn’t be coming from the bands and labels, but rather the radio stations, which are losing the stranglehold they had on their local markets.) Okay, yes, you can buy the Sex Pistols in the mall, but that record came out almost twenty-five years ago; that music’s older now than Elvis’s first sides were when the Pistols cut that disc — it’s not cutting-edge anymore, no matter how good it still sounds. What about
The Dragons (http://www.thedragons.com)?
Eddi Reader (http://web.bham.ac.uk/doveral/honey/eddimenu.htm)?
The Damage Manual (http://www.thedamagemanual.com)?
Joseph Arthur (http://www.josepharthur.com/index_intro.htm)?
The Stone Coyotes (http://www.stonecoyotes.com)?
Can you find their albums? Do you even know who they are? Maybe not, but I bet you know how to find out.
So now that there’s a whole world in front of those of us with computer access, the playing field is . . . well, certainly not level, but less slanted. Thing is, the game is played on that field and its rules change every day. Most current recording artists certainly never dreamed of posting tunes on the Net or creating their own Website — the typical musician’s dream is the staggeringly tedious and statistically improbable “major-label deal,” complete with videos, marketing campaign, lots of makeup (yes, even on the men, don’t be naive), promotional tours, and local-media interviews. If you’re Christina Aguilera (i.e. barely out of puberty, bleached-blonde, and comfortable wearing sluttier clothing than 99% of actual prostitutes), sure, great, go for it, but if you actually want to make music it’s becoming increasingly obvious, even to the oblivious, that there are better ways to go about it.
So here’s one case study in the new media. The artist: Electric Frankenstein. The audience: me. Before getting hooked up to the Web in any serious way, I thought of Electric Frankenstein as one of dozens of worthwhile punk rock & roll bands out there. I liked their stuff okay (what little I’d heard of it) and they were covered in all the same magazines covering my band, so I couldn’t help being aware of their existence. Still, I had no real inclination to hunt their records down, especially considering the seemingly thousands of split singles and compilation tracks EF had issued didn’t seem to be very economical (7-inches always seemed like a rip-off to me at 2 songs and a pretty cover for $3-$5). Eventually, Victory sent me EF’s “How to Make a Monster” album, and I discovered that I liked the band — quite a bit, actually — but that still didn’t make them stand out in my mind as anything earthshaking, not the way the Dragons’ “R*L*F” and “Live at the Casbah” did when Junk Records sent them to me. I traded a couple of promos for a used copy of EF’s “Sick Songs,” which didn’t seem as good as “Monster,” and, slightly disappointed, settled in to wait for their next studio album, which would hopefully redeem them in my eyes.
Then we got a new computer.
I went searching around the Net for my usual faves, typing name after name into search engines in hopes of finding the elusive dream of “music on the Net,” and finding pretty much the typical Websites that are nothing more than a glorified electronic press kit with even worse prose than your average one-sheet. At best, I’d find a free download of a song I already had (oh, joy) or crappy-sounding streaming 30-second clips from the artist’s latest product, alongside reams of bad writing and piss-poor design. Even if there was something good on the site, it usually took way too long to load (i.e. www.davidbowie.com) or was plagued with script errors, bad links, and “coming soon” and “page under construction” messages.
Finally, I stumbled across Electric Frankenstein’s page on MP3.com (http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/11/electric_frankenstein.html) and my eyes opened wide. I mean WIDE. I literally sat there looking at the screen for a couple of minutes thinking I had to be reading it wrong: here were all of the Electric Frankenstein songs I’d heard about from singles and EPs, all available for free download. It wasn’t a pirate page. It wasn’t a fan page that was going to be taken down as soon as somebody actually downloaded something. It was the real thing.
Over the next few days, I downloaded every single track on EF’s site that I didn’t already have, including out-of-print rarities, EP and album tracks, and a few preview cuts from their next album. Then I arranged them in order based on EF’s Website discography and burned a couple of CDs (one studio disc, one live), figuring they’d be something to test my new CD burner, basically. I certainly didn’t expect to spend much time listening to them — you know, just something to toss in when I feel like hearing EF but had just listened to “How to Make a Monster” for the umpteenth time.
Something happened when I put the discs in the player, though. Song after song knocked me the fuck out. Let me be clear: I like the EF albums I have. However, they’re not 100% consistent track-to-track — everything on “Monster’s” not as good as “Speed Girl”, everything on “Sick Songs” isn’t as good as “Action High” — and considering I basically burned a grab bag of non-LP cuts to disc, I didn’t expect anything more. As it turns out, though, the songs that I thought were my favorite EF songs . . . weren’t. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get enough of the EF I downloaded. I played those discs a lot that week, and the week after, and the week after that, until I knew those EF tunes better than any on the albums I’d had sitting in the rack for a year, albums I’d played many times. Now, instead of having desultory plans to “check out” the new EF album when it comes out and “see if it’s any good” I can’t fucking wait. The new songs I’ve heard are great. The lineup seems strong. The sound is good and rockin’. I signed up for the EF electronic mailing list, and now I get several messages a week direct from EF’s Sal and company. I have their Website bookmarked and check it regularly for new content. I feel like I have a firm grasp on the EF canon and if they play near where I live on their next tour, I’m there. The point is this: before I downloaded all those songs, I just liked EF. Now I consider myself a definite, no-holds-barred EF fan.
Now, some of the more pragmatic among you may be thinking, That’s all well and good for you, but it’s not like EF made any money off of you becoming a fan, did they? Well, MP3.com has some kind of system where artists get paid based on download statistics. Though I don’t know how it works or how much it pays, Sal from EF has stated (on the EF mailing list) that they have gotten paid from MP3.com, which puts MP3.com well in front of most independent labels, which often never pay royalties at all. Putting all that aside, though, EF never made a dime off of me listening to their music the old way either — I got it sent for free for review purposes or got a used copy, neither of which pays royalties no matter how much Garth Brooks complains. And, I became an EF fan based not on the sense of getting something for nothing; or thinking other people would think I’m cool because I like their music; or because I saw some kid wearing an EF t-shirt; or because I saw a video on MTV (they do still play some videos, right? No?); or from hearing them in heavy rotation on the radio; or seeing them on the cover of magazines; or from some misguided sense of “supporting the scene”; or because they fit my fashion sense, politics, or sexual orientation; or because I’m attracted to one of the band members; or because they happen to live near me (the apparent rationale behind most “support local music” movements); or from seeing them play a thankless gig in a local club; or because they share a preference for my drug of choice — all reasons and methods the “traditional” music industry puts forth trying to convince consumers to buy their product by any means necessary to “move units”.
I became an Electric Frankenstein fan because I listened to their music and it moved me. That’s it. And now, I am part of a fan base Electric Frankenstein can use to build its future on, assuming they don’t blow it by making shitty music. That’s all I care about: the music. Everything else is just a passing illusion, whether it’s the beloved vinyl album or the latest broadband internet radio fad, it’s all about the creation of the artist making a connection with the mind of the listener.