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The Wire



    Computer A Bands Best Friend

When they heard about new technology that allows computer users to download music for free over the Internet, members of the up-and-coming punk rock band Less Than Jake posted every piece of music they had recorded.

Album cuts, rarities, some things they did just for fun - it was all up for grabs. The band had a simple philosophy in its drive to be rock stars.

``The more people that hear your music, the more people are going to come to see you play, the bigger the band will be,'' explained Vinnie, their drummer.

Their record company, Capitol Records, didn't notice until this winter, two years after the music first became available. Mortified that Less Than Jake was giving away what the company was trying to sell, Capitol executives demanded that the music be taken off-line.

The band complied, unwilling to risk a legal battle.

This is a sign of things to come, though. The music industry is terrified by the implications of Internet distribution of music and how fast events are overtaking efforts to control it. The on-line revolution could rewrite the rules of a business that hasn't always been friendly to its artists, a handful of whom are testing the boundaries.

The Recording Industry Association of America is hurriedly trying to develop standards for selling music on-line through the MP3 format and for curbing piracy. The industry wants them in place by Christmas.

By then, it may be too late.

MP3 is the technical abbreviation for a method of compressing audio files into digital formats. It allows users to download songs from the Internet and store them on their computer. They can be played over the computer or through a Walkman-like piece of equipment that sells for around $200.

Its use has rapidly moved beyond computer geeks to the mainstream. There are an estimated 150,000 servers where music can be downloaded, according to The MP3 Impact, an industry newsletter. As many as 20 million people worldwide have downloaded music, the newsletter said.

``You have a choice,'' said drummer Vinnie, who uses only his first name. ``You can ignore it and not survive or you can embrace it and succeed. You have to embrace technology.''

Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy is another musician who has embraced it, partly because he noticed how his 10-year-old daughter learned about many of her musical favorites through the Internet.

Last fall he began posting remixed versions of Public Enemy hits for fans to download. He saw it as a form of advertising; give the fans a taste of your music and they'll be more inclined to buy it. His record company disagreed and ordered him to take them down.

This spring he announced a partnership with the music company Atomic Pop to distribute Public Enemy's first album in five years. ``There's a Poison Goin' On'' can be ordered through the Web for $10 or downloaded for a price not yet determined.

``I'm not a technical nerd, I'm in the entertainment business,'' Chuck D said. ``The business I'm in - hip-hop - is always running parallel to the technology. You have to be ahead of the curve instead of sitting on the curb.''

The rock band L7 is conducting its own experiment, licensing two songs, ``Freeway'' and ``Mantra Down,'' to Atomic Pop to sell for 99 cents apiece. L7's Donita Sparks is excited about the possibilities the technology offers to musicians.

``You could record something in your living room and put it out that night,'' Sparks said. ``It's very exciting. It's a revolution.''

She also likes L7's financial deal with Atomic Pop to split the proceeds 50-50. In a conventional record company deal, an artist is lucky to get 12 percent of the royalties, she said.

Such terms would make for a dramatic shift in the industry's balance of power. Musicians such as Ani DiFranco and The Artist Formerly Known as Prince have preached the benefits of maintaining control of their work and selling it outside the industry structure. The Internet could help.

``It will be very difficult to live by the old rules,'' Chuck D said. ``I believe that contracts should be broken in half. I'm looking for more artists to have joint ventures with labels.''

Al Teller, former head of the MCA and CBS music labels and founder of Atomic Pop, said many artists have inquired about Internet distribution because they distrust the music business and feel that traditional record companies do little to nurture their careers.

For them, Teller said, the Internet ``is very much an empowering mechanism.''

Fans of the Internet say it will democratize music by enabling artists who can't get traditional record deals to find an audience. Musicians seeking shared CD distribution can point to MP3 activity as proof that people are interested in what they're doing.

Most musicians now sell new albums, with about 15 songs each, for around $15. New discs come out every couple of years. But technology could soon change everything, he said.

An artist could release songs one at a time every couple of weeks. An album could have five songs or 50. Some artists are even making dozens of songs available and encouraging fans to compile their own albums.

And the prices? How much downloaded material, if any, should be free? The questions and solutions are boundless.

The Artist was one of the first to aggressively market his music through the Internet. His box set, ``Crystal Ball,'' sold 250,000 copies, mostly through orders placed via his Web site.

He loved getting suggestions from fans on the Internet for songs to put on ``Crystal Ball.''

``You have direct interaction with the people who have supported you all this time,'' he said in an interview. ``I never knew who they were unless they came to the gigs. I get to meet these people, in a disembodied way.''

Yet he's also an Internet hard-liner, having filed a lawsuit against Web sites that he accuses of allowing people to download his music through MP3 without his authorization. He said MP3 pirates threaten his livelihood. The lawsuit is pending in the U.S. Federal Court for the Southern District in New York City.

MP3 also interferes with a musician's vision, he said. He doesn't want a fan putting together a homemade album. He wants to do that himself.

The Grateful Dead, which used to set aside a section at its concerts where fans could tape the shows, has threatened legal action against people offering downloads of the group's music.


``They have to figure out how to stop piracy,'' said L7's Sparks. ``Until they do that, I don't think a lot of musicians are going to want to get involved.''

It might be easier to stop a flood with a two-inch rubber plug. MP3 has made it easy for fans to distribute music to friends and strangers, and it fits nicely with the all-access ethos of the Web. Surfing the Internet, Vinnie found seven sites where virtually all of Less Than Jake's music was available for free. So shutting down the band's site probably didn't help much.

``There's no question that the legitimate marketplace is playing catch-up somewhat to the pirate marketplace,'' said Hillary Rosen, president of the RIAA.

Still, she's convinced that the technology will be harnessed for a legitimate market. The next 18 months will see a lot of experimenting to determine how consumers prefer to get music, she said.

Some experts envision the same fearful industry reaction now as when home taping became possible, or even when radio was invented.

Consumers are asserting control, said Siddiq Bello, publisher of The MP3 Impact. Instead of fighting it, musicians should embrace it, just as they encourage radio stations to play their songs, Bello said.

``It resonates with the aspirations of an artist,'' Bello said. ``They want to be heard. Anything that extends that ability and allows them to reach their fans directly, to make their music more real for their fans, they should enjoy it. Philosophically, it's an extension of what they'd be doing anyway.''


(AP) Wire Report



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