"MP3" is as scary a buzzword in the music business as "blank tape" was 20 years ago, meaning that while the big moneymakers are trying to figure out how to stuff the genie back in the bottle, there's already a culture thriving on it. The major labels' fear of digital bootlegging is merited for sure (I tracked down and downloaded a nice, clean, totally unauthorized MP3 of my test case, "Livin' la Vida Loca," in just under four minutes), but there's also nothing they can do about it. Where the real action is, though, is legal MP3s, and the bands who've made their reputations through downloads alone. They're the stars of a murky collegiate netherworld of unknown musicians who want to be noticed really, really badly and finally have the means to pull it off.
A little explanation for the less wired: MP3 stands for MPEG Layer 3, a format for digital sound files, and if it bothers you that an acronym expands into another one, welcome to the future. MP3s are reasonably compact (roughly a tenth the size of CD files for the same amount of music) and reasonably high-quality (not quite CD level, but nothing to complain about), and they're generally free. On the other hand, you have to have a computer or a portable but expensive doodad to play them, and they still take a while to download if you don't have a high-speed Internet connection. But again, they're free did I mention free?
Some big-scale bands are dipping their toes in MP3 (the Grateful Dead have announced that it's okay to post sound files of them as long as you don't make money off it dammit; Public Enemy and Master P both have put up free tracks; Tom Petty hyped his new album with an MP3 song-cover contest). But the backbone of the legit MP3 system is made up of zillions of unknown acts' recordings. MP3.com is ground zero for digital music's Arnold Horshacks (there are dozens of similar sites mpeg3.com, AMP3.com, and so on). It is a bizarre site, a cross between a music taxonomist's fever dream and the giant teetering wall of thousands of demos that was next to the stairwell at the old Knitting Factory. And, really, that's the first killer app of MP3: supplanting the old- fashioned demo tape with something that can be found and heard on demand.
As with demo tapes, of course, most free MP3s suck beyond belief, and it takes ear-time to slog through them to get to the good stuff. Their audience, consequently, tends to be people with fancy computer connections and no money read: college students and the performers are mostly desperate for attention. So, for a while, a lot of the big winners on MP3.com's weekly Top 40 chart were novelty songs, like for instance Big Poo Generator's "Sing It, Mrs. Ass" and the Cocky Sticks' "Fucking Wheelbarrow." (The chart is more or less self-perpetuating it's the easiest list of songs to find on the site. There's a Bottom 40 chart, too.)
These days, the stars of MP3.com are generally unfunny, and competent as all get-out. There are alternawhatever bands like Red Delicious, whose "Want Me" (by-the-numbers K-Rock with an okay chorus) has been hovering around the top of the MP3.com chart for a few months; there are instrumental techno projects like Trance Control and Ghost in the Machine, whose favorite workout CDs are pretty easy to divine from their hit tracks. Second-tier and formerly-more-famous artists occasionally poke their heads in Sister Machine Gun! Roger McGuinn! Woo-hoo!
Dig deeper, though, and there's some pretty hilarious stuff. There are near-instant responses to headlines: 38 songs currently have "Kosovo" in their titles, though "Where Is the Love (Belgrade Mix)" is a nontopical country-rock love song overdubbed with electronic whooshes and air-raid sirens. There are internecine feuds about which nobody who can afford to buy CDs could possibly care see, for instance, the John Coke Project's addlepated excuse for hip-hop, "UhMer, KA$H, & Krayzee Suck Ass." And there are some songs so wretched it's amazing their performers can use a computer, like Boy Kicks Girl's dazzlingly awful punk rant "Cuntamination."
What most discourages originality in free MP3s is how devoutly unknown bands cling to stylistic taxonomy. The only way to discover something buried on one of these sites, other than through their hit charts, is to navigate to the right genre, and MP3.com breaks it down for you into about 200 subgenres: darkside, new grass, jump-up, doom metal, traxx. Thirty bands actually call themselves "mope-rock." Is it surprising that a lot of this stuff ends up being generic? The most-fun artists I've dug up on the site so far, though, wind up on far-off branches of the genre-hierarchy tree; I'm particularly fond of Old Scratch, a way-entertaining mock-Satanic hip-hop group listed as "East Coast" (specifically East New London, Connecticut), and of a lot of the Super Mario remixes and such in the "game soundtracks" section. Almost none of the site's bands could charge money for what they're doing yet they're too unformed, too on-the-cheap but some of them are on the way. It couldn't hurt them to get the attention they crave.
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