"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 29 March 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.


[The Beat Goes Online Part 1: MP3 Plugged - No One Plays for Free]

Want to know the only band that

matters anymore? You won't find

it in the Billboard 200. You

won't find it on MTV or in the

pages of Spin or XXL or URB. And

it's certainly not at Tower or

Sam Goody's. But enough with

this less-than-suspenseful

suspense - after all, you

already know what the answer is,

right? The only band that

matters is Big Poo Generator. Or Gox

Blamp. Or Poingly. Or any of the

thousands of other bands now

offering their music for free at



In the sort of extraordinary

reversal of fortune that only

extreme technological change can

spur, hapless guitar zeroes

whose middling chops and

minor-league, substance-abuse

adventures will never be

celebrated by VH-1's Behind The

Music now dictate the future of

the US$40 billion a year music

industry. Empowered by MP3,

they're flooding the market with

product and turning the Web into

a music-store clearance rack of

infinite capacity. Call it the

Revenge of the Unheards.


In the wake of this assault, the

music industry's retaliatory

efforts have been woefully

misguided. Indeed, why target

budding music enthusiasts like

"Filter," an industrious

16-year-old, who, according to a

recent LA Times article,

routinely distributes pirated

songs in MP3 format to

approximately 35,000 of his

closest Internet friends? Why

spend money developing

complicated encryption and

watermarking technologies

designed to prevent such

unauthorized distribution?

With an ever-increasing number

of MP3-enabled bands

willing to sell their

work for the low, low

price of $0, will the concept of

music piracy even exist in

a few years? Is it possible to steal

something when it's being given

away for free?



Of course, there are still some

old-guard myoptimists who

believe the $0 price point is

not yet inevitable. At

GoodNoise, MP3 albums are

available for $8.99; single

songs go for 99 cents each.

Given that $17.99 is the high

end of bricks-and-mortar

retail pricing on CDs, a maximum

discount of 50 percent seems a

little stingy. After all, the

efficacies of doing business

online allow e-commerce

retailers of old-fashioned CDs

to routinely discount their

products by 30 percent, and they

have far greater costs to cover

than the almost wholly virtual

digital music business does.

Indeed, with an MP3 "album,"

there's no longer any physical

product to manufacture,

warehouse, package, and ship.

Shouldn't the disappearance of

those costs result in a higher

discount than what GoodNoise is

currently offering? A larger

obstacle than the $8.99 album

price, however, is GoodNoise's

buck-a-single standard. At the

moment, singles pricing seems

fairly arbitrary - a2b music

charges $1.99; at Liquid Music

Network, songs go for $1.49. But

while GoodNoise's 99 cent price

point offers the best deal of

the three, it still seems too

expensive in light of its album

price. After all, when the

physical product and its

associated costs disappear, why

should individual purchases be

priced any differently than bulk

ones? The economies that

make 50 percent album discounts

possible are the same

ones that apply to singles.

Ultimately, then, 99

cents seems like a price point

more tailored to record labels

than consumers - anything lower

would foreshadow the grim,

everything's-free future a bit

too graphically.


Indeed, with Big Poo Generator

and Gox Blamp and Poingly

driving prices down to nothing,

how long will digital music

retailers be able to compete,

even if they lower their prices

to, say, a quarter a single?

Sure, there are bands that

undoubtedly offer better content

than MP3.com's burgeoning posse

does, and for a while, a small

percentage of music lovers may

actually pay for it. But when

enough passable bands start

giving away their content on a

regular basis, will fans keep

paying for what they can just as

easily get for free? If you're

not sure of the answer, just ask

Slate lead singer Michael



In other words, we've seen the

future of music, and it looks a

lot like a Gap commercial. Now

this doesn't mean that record

labels and record stores are

going to disappear. Sample a

dozen random tracks from MP3.com

and you'll quickly realize that

the model doesn't really work;

someone has to filter the music

for you, and whether it's

Interscope, Tower Records, KROQ,

GoodNoise, or Rolling Stone that

ends up fulfilling this function

online, the reward for such

service will be the temporary

rent of our eyeballs and



Of course, banner ads hardly

excite anyone these days. No one

believes they can single-handedly

finance content anymore. And

yet, in this context, they

shouldn't be taken lightly - a

million hard-core No Limit fans

clicking daily on the label's

Web site to see what new songs

it's uploaded is a pretty sound

business plan, at least

according to current IPO

standards. And it's only a

matter of time before someone

modifies the Netscape "saving

location" popup to accommodate

advertising. Think of the

additional impressions that

would generate during the course

of those endless 15-minute

download sessions.



As promising as banner ads are

in the MP3 space, however,

what's really compelling about

music as an ad medium is its

potential for extreme

persistence. Imagine, for

example, a single MP3 file

in which a 30-second commercial

is sandwiched between two hit

songs. That's an ad that will be

heard again and again for weeks

on end! It's also a format that

would actually benefit

from the rampant

bootlegging that characterizes

the MP3 space: Each time

"Filter" passes on that file to

his 35,000 Internet friends, it

becomes a more valuable

mechanism for ad delivery.


Of course, MP3's open standards

will no doubt make such

advertising problematic;

developers will quickly create

players with the ability to

filter ads. Luckily, there's an

easy way to combat this: just

make the advertising as valuable

to the listener as the songs

are. For example, if a Motorola

ad featured Limp Bizkit's Fred

Durst discoursing on the virtues

of the company's StarTAC cell

phones, fans would happily

listen to the ads. In fact, the

songs featuring such ads would

probably become highly

sought-after collectibles. There

could even be multiple remixes

of the same song, each one

underwritten by a different

sponsor. Thus, a popular hit

like the Beastie Boys' "Body

Movin'" would be available in a

variety of versions - the Burger

King Remix, the Bud Light Remix -

and suddenly, instead of one

copy of a song being passed

around to multiple fans, each

fan would be collecting multiple




Will nasally integrisaur Neil

Young balk at the prospect? Who

cares? Today's most popular

artists have fewer qualms about

such mercenary endeavors.

Witness Fatboy Slim, who has

pretty much turned commercial TV

into his own private DJ booth

during the last year or so. Or

consider any other artist who's

ever sold his or her soul to

Nike instead of to rock 'n'

roll. These artists understand that

advertisements are one of the

best ways to reach people and

that certain advertisers can

offer them just as much cachet

as the artists offer the advertiser.

Indeed, would any stylish

boy-band clone pass up a chance

to endorse FUBU or Prada? Not

likely. The most amenable

artists will likely follow the

lead of the Gap tunesmiths and

create songs that actually

incorporate the product itself.


If it all seems like too much to

stomach, remember: Songs have

never been anything more than

ads themselves, commercials for

the band. In the new world,

they'll continue to function

this way - and if bands don't

want to lend their powers of

persuasion to other products and

services, they'll just have to

create "ads" so powerful that

they generate an acceptable

level of revenue from concert

tickets and merchandise alone.

In other words, now more than

ever, a band is a brand, a name

to slap on a T-shirt, a logo to

accessorize a lawn chair. And

songs are now freeware - the

stuff you give away in the hope of

building a user base. The bands

that recognize this first - the

bands that fire their copyright

lawyers and hire "Filter," the

Wunderkind online promoter who

can get their music out to his

35,000 Internet friends

overnight - are the ones that

will profit the most.

Tomorrow: Rock Around
the Clock -
The Aesthetics of MP3

courtesy of St. Huck


[Purchase the Suck Book here]