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I Want My MP3

Errej Eugaet, keyboardist and Web guru for the Houston-based electronica act Center, isn't surprised his band doesn't have a huge following in his hometown. But that doesn't seem to bother him, because the world seems to like it. "Our flavor of music is not a Houston sound," writes Eugaet via e-mail. "MP3.com [the Website and music marketing company] has given us access to a whole new market of potential listeners. We're starting to find a higher volume of Asian and former Soviet-bloc fans. We have so far been unable to translate some of [their e-mail] but have fun with the few who can speak English. Most people are surprised that we are in Texas."

Given that Center performs electronic music of the drifty, atmospheric, blissed-out kind, it's not surprising that Eugaet turned to MP3.com to promote his bands. (He also plays in the aggressive-sounding group En Vein as well as in Minus One and dK.) The computer format gives bands like Eugaet's a chance to connect with people worldwide, basically for free.

MP3.com (www.mp3.com), the Web's most popular MP3 site, hosts songs converted into the MP3 format for any band. The MP3 format allows music to be recorded and heard digitally from the Internet. Bands can sell CDs from the site, and MP3.com splits the money 50-50 with the artists. (Note: A typical major-label recording contract splits the money 86-14, label to artist.) Eugaet is founder of an indie label, Accostek Laboratories, that has its own Website (www.accostek.com). Web traffic being what it is, an artist-specific site typically gets only a few hits. But by hooking up Accostek with a central music site, Eugaet estimates, he has seen a 400 percent growth in traffic.

"Although our genre caters to a very select crowd, MP3.com's high volume of site hits guaranteed our sound would be heard far and wide," he says. "We had initially set up band Web pages and limited commerce interfaces but found solo promotion on the Web is a hit-or-miss proposition. We get a lot of hits to our current Web pages but have seen a marked increase in site redirects from MP3.com. Now is the time to strike online. With cheap computer and electronics parts flooding in from a crippled Asian market, there has never been a better time to explore online music promotion."

And many forward-thinking musicians agree, from little guys like JERRE to established hip-hop artists such as Public Enemy (www.public-enemy.com) to industry veterans like Tom Petty and Todd Rundgren. On March 1 Tom Petty posted the single "Free Girl Now" on MP3.com, six weeks before the release date of his new album, Echo. In two days the song had been downloaded 150,000 times before his record company, Warner Bros., requested that it be removed. The Website had permission from Petty's manager to use the track, and Warner Bros. would not comment on the situation, but on March 11 Billboard magazine online quoted Jim Wagner -- Warner Bros.' senior vice president of sales, advertising, and marketing -- as saying, "We think it is a bad precedent." He spoke at a panel for the National Association of Recording Merchandisers convention in Las Vegas. The song is still available in its entirety (in the inferior sound-quality format, Real Audio) at Tom Petty's official site at Warner Bros. (www.wbr.com/tompetty/).

The mammoth music corporations have been much slower to embrace the possibilities of digital distribution -- except for the Universal Music Group. The L.A.-based subsidiary of the Seagram Company and largest record company announced recently that it was investing in technology to sell and distribute music over the Internet by year's end. But the rest of the Big Five music distribution corporations (Sony, BMG, EMI Music Distribution, and Warner Music Group) -- through their trade group, the Recording Industry Association of America (www.riaa.com) -- have been very vocal and litigious in their attempts to destroy the MP3 format. (RIAA recently lost a lawsuit against a portable MP3-player maker.) Representatives from a handful of major labels, some of whom have been directly involved with artists who have released MP3s to the public, all refused to comment on the subject for the record. Off the record, a young major-label publicist confided that "MP3 is the shit" and that he likes to use it, and he's not surprised he's not alone in staying off the record. When someone does offer an opinion about the format, it can create a controversy of its own.

Citing security issues, RIAA and IBM recently announced plans for their own digital distribution format, dubbed -- apocalyptically enough -- the "Manhattan Project." Instead of nuclear fission, this test involves 1000 households in San Diego that will be allowed to choose from 2000 records that download in about ten minutes on a cable modem.

But there is one artist who isn't waiting for big companies to run their tests and focus groups, as the number of people getting online doubles every three months.

Todd Rundgren's Website (www.tr-i.com) comes from the man who is among the most technological-minded of musicians. (He even authored the first Paint program for Apple.) It's an entirely new online-music business model. Fans of the man behind "Hello It's Me" and "Bang the Drum All Day" can subscribe to underwrite the artist's future music endeavors, which all come under the umbrella of a company called Patronet (as in patronage). There are different packages (online music, offline music, book, and video) that cost in the $10 to $40 range. After ponying up the dough, Rundgren's followers can preview and download music he is working on and participate in online chats with him and communicate closely with an artist who understands and appreciates the way this new medium can be used.

The site uses a specially designed Web browser. And as Rundgren explained soon after the site went online last fall, his goals are partially commercial. "A record company does not develop a more or less permanent connection with the core following [of an artist]," he says. Underwriting, he continues, "is a radically different model in that [the way a relationship with a record company works] is like going to the bank, borrowing a bunch of money to make the record, and then paying it back at an onerous rate."

Instead of going into debt to a record label, Rundgren keeps his costs low by being paid in advance, allowing him to stay in the black even before pressing a CD. "If my rate of subscription remains the same, I'll be doing better than I would have done with a record label, and it's [still only] a relatively minuscule fraction of the potential audience."

The way Rundgren sees it, record companies need to get consumers away from the idea that they go to the store and buy music; they should be converting people to the thought that music is disposable and temporary, like music on the radio. Computers and the Internet, Rundgren says, will allow people to call up whatever music they want on demand, instead of having to keep all of their favorites at home. It's a long-term vision, Rundgren admits, but he thinks of his site as a giant step in that direction.

Instead of having records manufactured and then distributed to stores, where visibility and availability lie in the hands of the retailers, Rundgren suggests that industry people "should be thinking, 'Let's put all of our stuff on a server somewhere, and we'll sell it as it leaves the server.'" Music will eventually become a service in the way cable television is a service, he says; you'll pay by the month for the privilege of listening to any music that you want.

Removing some of the distance between himself and his fans has had unexpected side effects. "It is an awakening of a certain kind for artists to suddenly deal directly with their most devoted fans. You discover how great they are and how screwy they are at the same time. Some of your best fans turn out to be your worst enemy in some regard," he says with a laugh. "It may give [the artists] the desire to go back to the old way of doing things."

But the interaction between the musicians and their fans is precisely what makes the Rundgren model appealing and feasible. Country musicians have known for years that a strong connection with their fans is what can sustain a career. Rock musicians have treated fans a little bit differently, but what Rundgren's model offers is a way for his fans to feel like he cares about them, that they have a unique connection.

And even though Rundgren is an iconoclastic figure, his model could work for other artists, and he is considering bringing others on board. Much in the same way indie-folkster Ani DiFranco has controlled her career, a new artist could theoretically develop a fan base on the Web through the Patronet system and never go into debt.

Still, as the record industry struggles to resolve how it wants to approach the Net, Rundgren can't help but be skeptical of the results. "The Web is already considered to be threatening enough to the music business that they are slapping together hasty solutions," he says. "I don't think record companies are yet on top of it. I don't think they yet understand the potential and how quickly it can become realized, because a year ago they didn't realize that they were going to have a losing lawsuit over the distribution of digital music. Suddenly they were required to completely rethink their position.

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David Simutis

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