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MUSIC NAVbarz 2
THE KEY TO AN ALTERNATIVE MUSIC DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM:
PART
3: THE PLUMBING AND ITS SMELL

by Polar Levine September 18, 2002

A music distribution system, like a donut distribution system, needs a steady stream of product (donuts/music) and happy humans to chomp on it. It also needs a network of creative types to conjure up new flavors, people to manufacture and retail the stuff, get it from factory to point of purchase, designers and deliverers of promotions, etc. In Parts 1 and 2 we covered the happy chompers (The Explorers) and the networked community to bring them the music they crave.

There is another big issue that must be dealt with as we begin to install the plumbing that will ship the good noiz within the different parts of the network and to and from the audience. What will it smell like? We know what the status quo smells like. Although the old system smells like fish and those poor souls in the industry (artists, indies, p2p sites) who now swim with the fishes -- the new system so far smells a bit like kitty litter. You dont need a gas mask but a the box could use some cleaning.

The indie websites that have emerged to pick up the slack left by the majors have not yet been successful at creating a viable alternative. There are a number of approaches out there. Ill mention two that Im personally connected to through uploads of my own music. They represent two very different approaches.

MP3.com, conglomerate-owned, not surprisingly sells display space on its pages to the highest bidder. They call this payola and assume that by calling it that, their cool dead-pan irony makes it less insipid. The upside is that MP3.com and its overlord, Vivendi Universal, get to make lots of money off indie musicians who probably could be spending it elsewhere to better effect.

The downside for the rest of us is this: Bob Bobbb, whos never been within ten feet of a musical instrument, decides Monday to become a famous musician. Tuesday he withdraws some of his trust fund and buys a bunch of digital audio gear. That afternoon he boots up his new G4 with the MOTU card, launches his freshly registered copy of his loop-making software, Reason. He imports some of Reasons samples and synth sounds packaged with the program. He tweaks and stirs for five minutes. Shakes and bakes just enough so he can legally claim authorship of the track. After lunch he encodes it as an mp3 file, joins MP3.com and spends the night figuring out how to upload his track Space Suck X. Wednesday he puts in high bids for every imaginable piece of page real estate. After throwing money at this for a few months -- due to the resulting visibility of his track on the site -- hes generated zillions of hits on his page and hes on MP3.coms Electronic music charts which generate even more hits. Hes now an MP3 star -- an overnight success!

MP3.com happens to have some really nice features along with the odious ones. It pays musicians for the music that gets purchased on the site, either individual songs or CDs that are compiled from a musicians uploads. They have a large (gigantic, actually) community with access to chat rooms and independently can create its own streaming radio programs using music found on the site. Some of my music has found its way to these stations without my lifting a finger. Its a good system but requires, in lieu of a fat payola budget, a large amount of time finessing the entire system in order to get anywhere. But thats what success in this business requires anyway. I dont know, though, if success outside of the MP3.com community occurs as a result. The site lets you design your own home page. After six months and repeated attempts to input my design preferences according to the options offered, my page still hasnt been set up. Its still in its most basic dont-give-a-shit looking form. Customer support is non-existent, unless you find autoresponders to your very specific emails helpful. If you dont know what autoresponders are -- imagine sending an email to tech support asking what day of the week it is. You get a prompt, automatic email response saying, Thank you for your question. You are a valuable member of our community and we care about your needs. There are seven day in a week. Well get back to you ASAP. End of story. To be fair -- I dont have a few hours each day to devote to the numerous possible machinations required to bring me success on MP3.com. So, I suppose I cant legitimately expect to succeed there.

Broadjam.com which does not have a huge corporate behemoth as a sponsor has another approach. At Broadjam you pay a reasonable monthly fee and upload up to eight songs. But first you have to review the music of up to twenty-four other Broadjam artists (three reviews per song you upload). This is actually fun and you get to size up your competition. After eight uploads you can purchase, for $5 each, the right to upload more songs. Once you review other artists your songs are then put into the review pool and youre notified when youve been reviewed or make its Top 10 charts. You get loads of feedback about your music. Their charts are determined, not by number of plays, but by the relative positive response your music generates from other Broadjam artists, Broadjam staff and outside listeners. Its a nice merit-based system. I currently have two different #1 songs on two different charts and bounce within the top 5 on a few more charts. Been bouncing around the upper half of the Top 10s for months. But so far it hasnt amounted to anything outside of the world of Broadjam. Their customer support is great and very personal but they dont have radio streaming or chat areas. And theyre not set up for selling your music. A prospective buyer is sent to the bands website or some site the band designates as its retail outlet. You dont get to design your own page but the layout is consistent, crisp and well-designed.

There are dozens of other sites using different combinations of the above strategies -- StarPolish, BeSonic, IUMA, Vitaminic, etc. But the bottom line with these sites, despite the possibilities they encourage for the future, has three glaring problems. One is that if a band is not on their charts (if they have charts) or other form of page real estate, how will it get heard? At each site you have the online version of a warehouse-sized fleamarket CD stall with thousands and thousands of CDs with names youve never heard before.

The second problem is the genre issue. In all these sites, before uploading your music you have to assign it to a preset genre based on the options offered. You have a few subgenres of Rock, about a dozen subgenres of Electronic, one or more of Jazz, R&B, Hip Hop, Folk, Religious, New Age, World, Latin, Alternative. This is a very easy turnstile to get through as long as your music is genre-bound, which would cover around 95% of what gets uploaded. But if your vision defies easy categorization, as youd imagine many indie bands would, youre cooked. If you choose Alternative youll find yourself in a slot filled mostly with standard VH1 type rock bands that somehow imagine themselves as an alternative to something that is already a clich. If theres an Experimental category you may find yourself, literally, a stranger in a strange land when a bit of creative thinking on the site designers parts could have offered more precise categories for the more unique offerings. Clearly, these sites have not thought much about those Explorers out there and what theyre/were interested in.

The third problem concerns quality standards.

There is a vital need for some sort of quality control. The major labels definitely have it. We might not agree with the particular quality theyre looking for, which is commercial appeal. But they do not sign everybody that sends in a demo. The sad and true fact is that not all artists are working at a high level of creativity and/or technical proficiency. In fact, most of us kinda suck. Some have spent decades at music but just dont have it. Many never played music at all like Bob Bobbb. In those many cases where somebody croons into a portastudio for the first time and believes he/she is now ready for stardom -- the music is sadly amateurish (how could it not be?). But there they are -- fighting with your truly brilliant stuff that represents the culmination of years of hard work and endless dues-paying.

Maybe 99% of the music in each genre category sounds boilerplate. The Electronic genre might have a dozen subdivisions but most sound like stock four-on-the-floor house tracks with little or no variation or texture beyond a two-bar loop, some synth filtering and a couple of stops where some of the instruments drop out for a few bars. The jazz selections are almost all Smooth Jazz, that talk-show theme muzak. Theres virtually no free jazz, challenging fusion or the new wave of Knitting Factory type stuff.

The unfortunate fact is that these indie websites are jammed with truly crappy music because all you have to do to post your stuff is to pay a few buck a month, or in some cases, nothing at all. We lose our market if people are wasting their time wading through endless piles of amateurish junk that never would have been released if there were gatekeepers with standards to uphold.

Why is so much mainstream pop music so uncompelling? Because its intended for a huge market of people who dont really know much about music and dont much care; like I dont care what car I rent as long as the sound system is decent and it gets me to where Im going. This market buys whatever Clear Channel and MTV are paid to program. Quality and vision are co-incidental. In other words -- there are high standards but theyre not musical. Theyre based on good looks and a strong, easy-to-read attitude with its ancillary marketable cultural signifiers.

Our new system has to do better. Our audience of Explorers doesnt care whether the musician is a babe or some 60-year old wino with no teeth. But the music should be visionary and in the pocket (even if the pocket is 4:33 of silence). That means there must be gatekeepers. These are, traditionally, record labels, radio programmers, and journalists.

We all have fallibility, prejudice and self-interest along with our idealism, commitment to quality and creative curiosity. regardless of how pure our system turns out to be, there will always be somebody at the gate who will blow off my music, and I have to accept that. Maybe its not as good as I think it is or maybe its a groundbreaking work of genius but nobody likes it. Or maybe it just doesnt suit that one guys personal taste. Somehow we have to have faith that a machine built on the principle of quality will have better judgment than a machine built purely on profiteering. You have to assume that anybody who would invest in this community knows that riches are to be more easily made elsewhere. The corporate system is ideal for artists and entrepreneurs who are striving for a career in show business. That generally includes even the most attitude drenched rock and rap. These folks should work that system. Its designed for them.

All the feedback Ive been getting from readers of this series is very heartening. But we have to start doing something. Now. After this current stock market blip is knocked off our screens and replaced by well-timed Bush/Cheney military blockbusters. It will be biz as usual and we may see the fait accompli of monopoly ownership of opinion and creative expression by corporate entities for the sake of furthering their financial interests. Yes, there will be stuff for the rest of us but the rest of us are relatively few and will have not much more than sandwichboards on our backs as a means of reaching people. And there will not be be another Teddy Roosevelt rough-riding in to bust the trusts for the sake of truth, justice and The American Way. Monopoly by cartel has now become The American Way and for the first time the general public is unknowingly waving its flag.

Lets get pro-active. Put this series and other articles on all indie sites. Get the word out through email. lets set up a network at least to spread the word and get ideas circulated. Pool our resources to make a central resource site and make sure all sites are linked. Maybe some of those renegades suffocating in those corporate showBiz cubicles will get involved -- lawyers, A&R people, indie label owners stifled or bought out by their corporate overseers. We can start building something while our increasingly payola-based constitution still permits it.

Polar Levine
Editor, popCULTmedia.com
September 18, 2002