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Ben Eyler had his fleeting moment of Internet glory for two weeks last September. The Manhattan-based singer and guitarist was RollingStone.com‘s top unsigned artist pick, receiving the highest rating everfrom the magazine’s editors: 7.8 out of 10. His uploaded MP3s had passed through numerous rounds, starting out in a field of thousands and at last beating out nearly 75 other finalists.
On MP3.com, a site that doesn’t offer editorial evaluations, the Web pages of over 50,000 other musicians are testimony to their hope that uploads are gateways to more listeners, industry recognition, and eventual stardom. Downtown singer-songwriter Phoebe Legere even finds that the online community of MP3.com replaces “disappearing East Village bohemia.” Since September, the number of acts on the Web site has been increasing at a rate of 13.5 percent a month.
MP3.com’s musician pages, however, have recently begun to share space with a flurry of letters that the site claims are about nothing less than a revolution. On January 21, soon after MP3.com announced its launch of My.MP3.com, a service that allows users anywhere to access an online database of music, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a suit alleging “brazen” violation of copyright law. In response, MP3.com argues that more is at stake than its own business model: CEO Michael Robertson accused RIAA of employing “the rhetoric of a monopolist” and declared, “The question is, to whom does the music belong?” The Web site then proceeded to file a countersuit on February 8, accusing RIAA of unfair business practices and defamation. While fledgling Net companies like MP3.com and Atomic Pop are raising the call to arms against corporately produced and owned music, many of the artists themselves are starting to wonder when—or whether—this revolution is coming to them.
For many New York-based artists, the Internet as musical medium is exciting but unsettling territory. Eyler, 26, who looks and sings like a cross between Randy Newman and Joe Cocker, had moved to the city, like so many others, to fulfill his dream of becoming a full-time, paid musician with his own band. At most, 100 loyal fans come hear him belt out tunes at such Lower East Side clubs as Baby Jupiter or Tonic. Thanks to the RollingStone.com pick, his world of listeners expanded to 2000 more people in just two weeks. And then the site was revamped, and the downloads stopped.
MP3 is the data compression format that allows audio files to be efficiently downloaded from the Internet onto a user’s hard drive. But since for most of the Web-connected, broadband access remains elusive, the efficiency gained by the compression format is still relative. With a normal 56K modem, one MP3 track can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to download. Regardless, within the music industry, MP3 is being hailed as either savior or pariah. It offers musicians a way to distribute their music online while they retain up to 50 percent of the profits, compared to a standard 10 percent on major labels. Hence, supposedly the largest threat to major-label control over copyrights and distribution since recordable cassettes—and one motivation behind the AOL-Time Warner and Time Warner-EMI mergers of recent months, say industry observers.
It’s a truism among musicians, and now among many of the new MP3 distribution sites and online labels, that things in the industry aren’t like they used to be, back in the ’60s and ’70s when record companies invested significantly in new band development. “Quite frankly, the mechanisms of the business were much more focused on career growth,” says Al Teller, founder and CEO of Atomic Pop, an online music company started in 1999. Teller, an industry veteran who is credited with guiding the careers of everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Bobby Brown, says, “That idea has gotten lost as companies have gotten large and pressures to perform have transformed their approach.” Teller and his company plan on nurturing artists over time, he says, and the reduced economies of online distribution and marketing allow this. Many musicians, in turn, see MP3s as a way to avoid the whole conundrum of attracting label investment.
But recording some tracks in your basement studio and throwing them onto the Net isn’t necessarily a ticket to international stardom. Not only is the onus now on the musician to market herself to a national audience, musicians are equally prey to piracy worries. “Always the crux of the matter for any artist not on a major label is, ‘How do I get to a wide audience and not let people get my music for free?’ ” says Marty Beller, an East Village drummer and composer who has worked with both major-label artists and modern-dance companies. For now his site, martybeller.com, offers a bio and 30-second streaming audio sound bites. Having MP3s available is an option for the future, when he may sell his CDs through a site like Amazon.com or CDnow.
The chance that someone might e-mail tracks to friends for free—or even share them through sites such as napster.com—doesn’t worry MP3 All-Stars founder Phoebe Legere, who first uploaded tracks to MP3.com in February 1999. “It’s been one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had in a lifetime of experience in the music industry,” she says. The All-Stars, New York artists on MP3.com, perform regularly at the Sidewalk Café. One freezing night last January, Ms. Legere could be found in a red vinyl devil’s suit singing “Crazy White Trash,” her #16 song on the downtown Manhattan “Cooper” section of MP3.com. Is such an audio-visual experience really replaceable by checking out an uploaded photo of Legere while streaming a “lo-fi” version of the song? Fans must think so: She’s making money off it. MP3.com tallies an artist’s pay-out based on click-throughs called Payback for Playback; the top earner for both December and January was an electronica act from Minnesota called The Cynic Project, which made over $9000, according to Bruce Friedman, vice president of content and community for the site. “From MP3.com, I’m paying rent on a New York apartment,” says Legere.
Pat Cisarano, who has been singing in the local club circuit since 1985, has more qualified enthusiasm for the virtues of MP3 and her status as an All-Star. Though the entire process of uploading music and information from her new CD helped her zero in on the need to market herself, she isn’t exactly sure how to do that. “My technique is to get on as many Web sites as possible. I also send a lot of CDs to Web magazines.” She also hands out cards with the site address during her gigs at places like Tribeca Blues. While some fellow musicians say she’s just giving it away for free, “as far as I’m concerned, I’m trying to build my fan base,” says Cisarano. “Let them have the music.” A few thousand people have visited her page since September, but she’s generated only a few dozen sales through the site since the CD was made available.
Yet despite the time and optimism Cisarano has invested into MP3, in the end she says, “I expect this not to last. Either the demons in the music companies will get a hold of it, or the companies themselves will become corrupt.” Al Teller takes issue with this view. “There’s a revolution going on in the structure of the music business. The elements of what contributes to the players in the current structure are changing”—and changing so radically that old paradigms will no longer hold sway. For instance, since it’s easier now to produce and distribute high-quality albums more cheaply, explains Teller, there’s less reliance on a traditional label to connect musicians with audiences.
The sticking points, however, for musicians like Beller and Taylor Deupree, are access and control. Deupree is an experimental musician with his own label and Web site, 12k.com, which only offers streaming audio. He offered MP3s for a month but took them down when he became frustrated with the speed. With a 56K modem, most people are “too busy to spend the time downloading.” To many, MP3 seems like a natural medium for electronic music, which itself is digitally produced and courts the underground imprimatur: “I could really care less what any big label does,” says Deupree. But he also doesn’t like giving up the autonomy over the look of the CD packaging, and he insists that MP3 sound quality is still compromised. In addition, no artist has yet become famous off the Internet, although some bands, such as the MP3.com metal act Gunburner, who signed in October to Columbia, have since gotten label deals. “Certainly if a band becomes popular from MP3, it will totally change what MP3 is,” says Beller.
For many artists struggling in semi-obscurity, the best thing about MP3 might be the psychological boost it brings. Suddenly there’s a chance someone in Norway might hear your music. For Eyler, the RollingStone.com pickended up serving as an endorsement from a reliable source. “It’s not just you or your mom telling people you’re good. It’s a little more momentous.” But Eyler himself, despite having recently launched beneyler.com, has decided he’s now “burnt out on the whole concept. As great as the exposure was, it didn’t bring gigs.”