I Want My MP3!

Wondermeat's Will Nerini and Eric Long have seen the future of Phoenix rock, and it's downloadable

What's most disturbing isn't the notion that the world will end by the year 2000, but that it will continue going on, business as usual, muddling through on its heartless, lazy trek.

What if the world doesn't end with a bang, but with a whimper, so blase most people won't leave the comfortable lump of their couches to stand outside and witness it? What if the antichrist turns out to be anticlimactic as well, showing up too late, like a Special Olympics runner in a regular marathon, after the spectators and the news crews at the finish line have all gone home?

Take heart, nihilists. At least one world as we know it is slated for demolition, and people are already lining up to cheer the flames. It's that evil music industry, complete with major-label bean counters who wouldn't hear music even if you beat them over the head with an abacus, consultants who've ruined radio by keeping playlists tighter than Joan Rivers' latest face-lift and A&R people who routinely get fired, insuring that the orphaned signees they leave behind wither and die from neglect as part of some interoffice vendetta.

The wonder bomb that's expected to destroy record conglomerates but leave recording artists' careers still standing? It's MP3, the audio digital compression technology that allows you to download songs off the Internet quickly, and in many cases, free of charge.

Although no major-label casualties have been reported as of yet, the MP3 revolution has certainly caused its share of anarchy. Tom Petty debuted his new single, "Free Girl Now," on an MP3 site and received 156,982 downloads in 56 hours, with his label, MCA Records, not expecting to see a penny of profit until the Heartbreakers' new album is released. The Beastie Boys' official Web site has been online broadcasting unreleased tracks from artists on its custom Grand Royal label to the consternation of parent label, Capitol Records, which twice forced the Beasties to take the tracks offline.

Predictably, the Recording Industry Association of America is making headlines daily for its alarmist reactions to the new technology. When it isn't threatening to sue Diamond Multimedia, manufacturer of the Diamond Rio, the portable MP3 player that's smaller than the tiniest Walkman, it's taking search engines like Lycos to task for helping people find MP3 sites. For the record, the RIAA doesn't hate the MP3. It'd just feel better if it wasn't around.

Currently, commercial sites are few and far between. There's MP3.com; Goodnoise; Spinner.com; and the recently launched Atomic Pop, the new home of Public Enemy and Chuck D, one of MP3's most vengeful supporters. Besides these high-profile sites are millions of other hopefuls getting in on the ground floor, including the soon-to-be launched wondermeat.com, operating out of a former church in the sleepy auspices of Fifth Street and Wilson in Tempe.

Three years ago, when MP3 could've been a speedy foreign sports car for all we knew, Will Nerini was working as an html programmer at Internet provider Goodnet and downloading what MP3 files were then available on the Net. Fast forward to three months ago when he began broadcasting over the Net some of the music that he'd collected alongside some rare vinyl and CDs in his collection that he'd converted to digital files. A typical day's playlist is an eclectic mix that would be most commercial programmers' worst nightmare: from Sun City Girls, No Means No and Negativeland to King Crimson and the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy to the Pogues, Schoolhouse Rock and the Tempe band Guano, with whom Nerini shares living quarters in the old church (redubbed "Church of the Black Goat or Church of Leather Midget, depending on how we're feeling," laughs Nerini). One of his favorites among the MP3 files he downloaded is simply titled "mexican-speed-metal."

Meanwhile, some doors down from Nerini, Eric Long was managing a few local bands like Polliwog and Thoughts while running his recording studio, The Compound.

"I was thinking about taking the church and making it the improved Compound, and Will said we should keep this to broadcast live bands," says Long, taking that dramatic pause that lets you imagine the light bulb illuminating over his head. "We started exploring it more. MP3 is in its infancy, and we devised a scheme to combine our talents--mine being musical, his being Internet--and see what we can do."

Nerini notes that the maverick MP3 sites already in operation are serving separate masters. "MP3.com [is] doing what a traditional record label would; they sell their artists, but they're more about developing them too. And Goodnoise is doing what a retail sales outlet would do: selling already published catalogues like Rykodisc. Spinner.com is about the radio. It's kind of being done in disparate parts, but no one's brought it all together." Which is Wondermeat's ambitious battle plan.

Since everyone else is making a federal case out of the MP3 controversy, we'll call our own plaintiffs on the carpet as it rolls out before us and ask them to make their predictions for the oncoming future. Already things are moving quickly. Wondermeat has gotten the necessary funding ("from not-yet disclosable entertainment people," cautions Nerini) to make a more than viable enterprise. Clip this article and keep it in a top dresser drawer for easy access seven months from now, and see if Will and Eric's forecasts are more consistent than Nostradamus'.

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