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Music Without Labels

3 minute read
Christopher John Farley

When singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke was released from her contract with MCA last year, she didn’t fret–she went online. Her engaging new CD, Jonatha Brooke Live, is available for mail-order purchase exclusively at Brooke’s website www.jonathabrooke.com) which also features audio clips of her work. On Feb. 5, when the electronica group Underworld offered a free, full-length MP3 file of a track from its forthcoming CD, its Web page received 400,000 hits in one day–an impressive showing for an only modestly famous musical act. And last year the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, who went through an acrimonious divorce from Warner Bros. Records, released a brilliant, ambitious five-CD boxed set titled Crystal Ball and peddled it on his website (for delivery by mail, like Brooke’s CD). According to his spokesperson, the set sold 250,000 copies online (at $50 apiece), and the Artist says 1998 was his “most profitable year.”

The Internet is changing the way musicians sell their work and, in doing so, broadening the range of music that consumers get to hear. Says Al Teller, former CEO of MCA Music Group who now heads Atomic Pop, a new company that will sell downloadable music on the Web: “What the Web offers is an opportunity for the artist to go directly to the consumer.” Musicians and entrepreneurs are exploring new ways of putting the technology to use. DJ Spooky recently featured his music on a deejay website that encouraged users to remix his work and e-mail the new creations to others; he’s now putting the finishing touches on his own site. The California-based company Liquid Audio offers free downloads of songs by groups like Hole that self-destruct after a few days, teasing listeners to buy the whole CD. In the physical world, because of promotion and production costs, musicians release songs in bunches, and fans often have to wait years between CDs. Online, a number of acts, including rockers Todd Rundgren, hip-hop stars Beastie Boys and the hard-rock band Creed, have been making new material available on their websites one song at a time. Creed’s offering of a downloadable acoustic version of its song My Own Prison is free; the band’s compensation comes in the form of publicity and increased fan loyalty.

John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the music industry is entering a new era. He sees the 20th century as a time when music was stuffed into containers–LPs, eight-track tapes, CDs. Now that musicians can reach fans directly, there’s no need for “container makers,” i.e., record labels. “Record companies are in a death struggle with the Web,” says Barlow. “They’re using techniques that have been used in the war on drugs–zero tolerance, ramping up education and enforcement and trying to use the law to preserve something that is no longer supported by public practice.”

Barlow argues that the copying and sharing of songs on the Web will be a boon to musicians. He cites the fact that the Grateful Dead used to allow fans to tape its live shows and became one of the most popular acts in rock. But Brooke has this worry: “There’s a danger to making things so accessible that you devalue your own work.” The challenge for musicians will be to stay both Web friendly and in control of their music.

–By Christopher John Farley

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