I Want My MP3!

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'.

1. MP3 vs. The State of Conventional Radio: Long and Nerini began recording live sets of local unsigned artists a month ago, the first being Yoko Love at Balboa Cafe, where Long also works the sound board. To date, they've got 15 live shows in the can and ready for online broadcast as soon as the Web site's up full-time.

"We're going to try to have one or two live shows a week, which will probably settle down once we've covered every artist that plays around locally," Nerini says. This, as well as posting the tracks, is a service they offer bands free of charge.

Although Wondermeat has paid broadcasting fees till the next quarter, Long realizes using unsigned artists is one way to get around being tracked by ASCAP or BMI. "Unsigned artists don't sell enough numbers or get enough spins to pay attention to them to even cut them a check. A Yoko Love or Polliwog [is] not going to get spins on the Edge," he grimaces before breaking into a chuckle.

Such stations tend to ghettoize their local-music airplay into traditionally slow Sunday nights or brief late-night spotlights. It's this bottleneck approach to even hometown exposure for which Long has no patience. Like many MP3 proponents, Long has seen one side of the door far too often. If self-assured programmer Nerini's mantra has always been "the MP3 revolution will happen"; Long's mantra is "it has to happen."

"As a musician, I'm really excited at the prospect of accessing more people. For over a decade I've been chasing the corporate giant saying, 'please give me a chance to be seen,'" he says. "Now it's down to the desire for people to look for something new, and for you as a musician to attract people to what you have on your Web site. The cream will rise to the top. It gives the creative musician the opportunity to fuckin' flip people out."

"I don't think a lot of bands with the blue-jeans-and-tee-shirts ethic will be able to make it across a multimedia stream," Long continues.

"They can't just get up and be musicians and expect to survive. American society is supersaturated from an entertainment point of view. Kiss was running around in tanks 20 years ago, wearing makeup and spitting up blood. And Marilyn Manson and the Spice Girls command millions of dollars from the industry, not because of their musical ability, but their ability to sell their multimedia image."

Sound like a prediction to you? Here's more.
PREDICTION: Although significantly fewer people listen to Internet broadcasts over radio, it's a matter of conditioning. The improved sound of Real Audio, combined with faster computers and the frustration of hearing little new music on the public airwaves, should galvanize people who miss that thrill of discovery radio used to provide.

Long: "TV took the forefront of radio and now you're taking something that's going to combine these two. Kids used to sit around and wait for their favorite song to come on or wait for their favorite TV show to come on. If they know they can dictate and interact with that program, what do you think they'll want? Most people listen to a radio station 36 seconds before they switch it, right? What's the average?

"Radio's going to become one long commercial where you find out where to go to do something else. Because advertisers aren't going to go away."

Nerini: "We do want to be a media stream. One of the reasons we're talking with the Homegrown Film Festival is we want to have an area where people can see their films online. Plus, we want to eventually do things like organize shows, all kinds of content. Get ASU drama students, anyone who's looking to be creative and on the air, things like that."

2. MP3 vs. Record Stores and Physical Product: Besides broadcasting local music in regular rotation, Wondermeat will also have studio tracks of the bands its developing available through the distribution site, entire albums which can actually be sold in MP3 format, either as individual songs at 99 cents a pop or as a whole album for $8 or $9.

Here's where the playing field really levels. Even the major labels crying loudest about lost revenues see the profit potential of selling music without ever having to press a product. "That's the whole trick of digital distribution," says Nerini. "You don't print a CD, you don't send it out through the trucks, drive it across the United States and put it in the record stores, sell and track that merchandise. All those channels--gone."

Adds Long, "Some kid doing his homework and at the same time browsing new music will say, 'Oh that's cool. Boom. Into my hard drive.' That's what we're looking at."

Sony will be setting up its MP3 distribution site in a month. That means major record labels are moving on this, but whether they'll be offering free tracks as a promotional device is questionable.

PREDICTION: Those who would miss the sacred store where you heard the music years before, even if you haven't bought a CD in years, rest assured record stores will not disappear completely. People who really care about music and the artists that make it will always want the official issue of a CD, with its intended song order and packaging. And underage fans won't be able to purchase online with a credit card without raiding mummy's purse.

Long: "Perhaps what you'll see is Wherehouse, Tower, the large chains, becoming massive centers where you can download your own discs, for people who don't have the technology. The record stores will sell more than records. They'll become complete merchandise shops. If people can already get the music, they will need to get the original artwork, things you cannot get off the net: tee shirts, posters, lunchboxes, puzzles, dolls. I think the mom-and-pop stores will be gone because they won't be able to compete with that. They won't have the money and technology to afford those kind of things."

Nerini: "It makes me wonder if the music industry, at least in the western world, is going to become singles-oriented again. Artists might find it more convenient to work on a song for a month and release it and sell 250,000 copies of that song if they're a real popular artist.

"Everyone's hooked on the album format right now, so that's why we're including it right off. And people produce a lot of stuff in album format. As the industry progresses and changes, we might see a market where everyone puts out singles and nothing but, unless they've got some kind of tone poem or rock opera."

3. MP3 vs. Major Record Labels: "Swindlers come in all shapes, sizes and colors, don't they? The majority of fans and artists are heaped upon each other, pile swept in a horrorcost. . . . A lotta folk been had by the execs and legal lust of the industry. . . ."

That's not a prediction. It's the status quo according to Chuck D.; log onto Public Enemy's Web site and in a matter of seconds you can download, in its entirety, "Swindlers Lust," a new track indicting industry greed, for free.

Chuck is reportedly signed to Atomic Pop. True, it's run by Al Teller, a former MCA and CBS vice president, but its promise of a 50/50 split between artist and label is a hype any artist who's been bamboozled would want to believe.

With that in mind, we call to the stand our next star witness, Mr. Robin Wilson, former lead singer of the Gin Blossoms. Currently fronting Pharoahs 2000, his new band's debut album has sat on a shelf for almost a year while his label, A&M Records, dissolved in the biggest corporate merger in the history of the recording industry. For all its $10.4 billion hoopla, the only notable release from either Polygram, Universal or Interscope has been 300 artists and countless employees who've headed to the unemployment lines.

"This could've been the best time ever to be dropped," Wilson says of his newest miserable experience. Having been with a major since the early '90s, Wilson views the brave new world of MP3 with a mixture of awe and ambivalence, but he is determined to see that the numeral affixed to his band's name isn't the year of his next CD release.

"The idea of not being with a major is frightening because this indie route is still untried," says Wilson, who recently has had numerous meetings with Goodnoise and Atomic Pop. "But it's exciting, like someone offering you Coca Cola at 13 cents a share. The advantage of going with Atomic Pop or a Goodnoise is that they're really hungry; all Goodnoise has right now is Frank Black and the Rykodisc catalogue. We'd be in a position to be marquee artists. The disadvantage is we don't have tour support."

Not wanting to sound like he's going on about the good ol' days, Wilson can at least look at the major-label mixed blessing and say with some certainty that, "When the Gin Blossoms signed with A&M, we knew we were going to be a priority. We were guaranteed a shot, which made it easy for me to say to newspapers that we would be platinum by the end of the year and we [were]. Now, nothing with a major is a sure thing, except that Sony will give you an advance to record and make a video, and then you have to pay them back at an inflated 60-percent interest."

It's one of the biggest scams going. Imagine being led into a board room and being told you'll get your money once every suit in the room is a multimillionaire. "We had to sell 900,000 albums just to break even from our debt. For every $150,000 that went to a Gin Blossom, [A&M] made $10 million. It was a glorious day when we recouped," he brightens. At that time, the band was on the road during the last leg of "The Recoup My Ass Tour."

PREDICTIONS: Interscope still owns the Pharaohs 2000 CD so it's uncertain when Wilson can press it himself on his soon-to-be-launched Uranus Records. He does plan to release a local music compilation, and a re-release of the first Gin Blossoms recording, Dusted, seems likely to be distributed digitally on Atomic Pop in the foreseeable future.

Wilson: "This is so new. We can do a one-month deal, two-month, six-month, there's no rules in the way you can structure your deal."

Long: "Sony and Warners will never go away. But don't think they won't see me, little MP3 guy on the corner and say, 'Come here, I'll show you how the game is really played, because I want some of your money. Will MP3s get rid of the bean counters? If the artists take advantage of it. There's plenty of artists who'll still sign a million-dollar contract for titties and beer."

Nerini: "It would be a good thing for artists to put out a song when the muse strikes them to produce. They Might Be Giants are selling music exclusively on the Net. They went away for a long time and came back with an album I like. It's gonna be harder for the consumer in some ways, because they're going to have to keep track of their artists."

4. MP3 vs. Social Interacting: What good is sitting alone in your room, come hear the music play, eh? Will even that become a thing of the past? Already you've got a whole generation that isn't accustomed to going out and watching a live band on a regular basis because of MTV, and the generation after that isn't even choosing music as a vocation since MTV doesn't play videos on a reliable basis anymore. Buses run in Phoenix more often.

Long: "Children 11 years old and up, as opposed to my generation that spent time in video arcades or watching TV, they spend their time on the Net, play games, do their homework, talk to friends, it's already becoming part of the socialization. Eventually it will become habit to have a party one night a week and look around for what to watch.

"As the technology develops, it's going to become more interactive, more sensory pleasurable. Bigger screens, better sound. Eventually, they might find some way to electrically ionize the air so you can smell the African Serengeti, know what I'm saying? Who's to say that instead of going to a bar 10 years from now, we won't instead go to my house and watch the wall screen, and watch a Stones concert from '78 that has been remastered and has all the smells of a rock concert, with 3D holograms that you can interact with, for all we know."

Smell-o-vision lives! As for Nerini, the Net is already a form of his immediate social interaction. On the night we got together for this interview at the Church, a half dozen of his friends sat huddled in front of his overworked computer and watched the new Star Wars movie trailer the day before it reached the theaters. But alas, without the benefit of smelling eau de Yoda.

Wondermeat will be doing a live broadcast on Friday, April 23, from 6 to 9 p.m., with several bands performing. Log on at www.wondermeat.com


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