"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 30 March 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.


[The Beat Goes Online]

In 1899, if you were an

ambitious musician eager to cut

an Edison wax cylinder, you

stood a better chance if you

played trumpet rather than

violin - recording devices were

still too primitive to

effectively capture the latter

instrument's complex sound. It

also helped if you were a member

of a relatively small ensemble;

the total number of instruments

that could be recorded at any

one time was limited to

approximately 15. Every

subsequent recording and

distribution technology has had

its own intrinsic biases.

Jukeboxes, with their placement

in taverns and nightclubs,

weren't exactly God's gift to

gospel singers. Albums, with

their 20-plus-minutes-per-side

capacity for artistic

self-indulgence, presented

opportunities to windy bards

like Bob Dylan that 45s never

would have permitted, and at the

same time, made

taciturn, three-minute lovers

like the Everly Brothers and Roy

Orbison look unfashionably




With MP3 and other digital music

formats, it's no different.

Characteristics of MP3 in

general and aspects of its

distribution in particular, will

shape, or at least favor,

specific types of content. But

with the commercial brouhaha

surrounding Net-distributed

music, MP3's impact on an

artistic level has been largely

overlooked so far. At this

point, the disturbingly

unlimited opportunities for


"self-expression" that MP3 will

grant to armchair DJs has

received the most scrutiny; its

impact on actual content has

been described only in terms of

a utopian abstraction.



That is, we're told, MP3 will

allow artists to be more

creative. Freed from the

artificial constraints of the

music industry (wherein a

product reaches the record-store

racks in accordance with

touring, marketing, and

merchandising schedules rather

than an artist's muse) groups

like, say, the Spice Girls will

be empowered to release their

inner Zappas. If they want to

indulge their occasional

penchant for improvisational

jazz without alienating their

core audience, they can do so in

a relatively low-risk manner. If

a spontaneous Spice

Girls-Barenaked Ladies weekend

jam session yields really great

material that nonetheless

doesn't fit in with the theme of

the Girls' much anticipated

follow-up to Spiceworld, they

can still get this music out to

their fans.


Cynics, not surprisingly, have

been quick to point out the

negatives to such artistic

freedom. Don't we have enough

Phish already? And won't the

ability to rapidly deploy new

products simply lead to more

copycatting, rather than more

innovation - as starving,

hit-hungry musicians race to

capitalize on whatever sound's

hot that week? Certainly all

these concerns are valid. And

yet we still have faith in the

ultimate efficiency of MP3. For

every overly productive band

that uses the new file format to

flood the market with more

half-baked studio hash than even

the most dedicated collector is

willing to catalog, another bad

band will be forced (in an

environment where every song

stands or falls on its

individual merits) to put more

effort into each song. In

effect, the MP3-enabled Web,

where thousands of artists will

be constantly competing against

one another for the scarce

attention of an increasingly

fickle audience, becomes one

giant, never-ending episode of

Star Search. And how can you

argue with that?



While any artist can take

advantage of MP3's capacity for

cheap self-publishing, certain

lucky ones will benefit the most

from the way users will soon be

able to distribute digital music

among themselves. At the moment,

MP3 files are still too large

for practical email exchange

between most of the Net's users,

but when new versions allow for

that, people will start

forwarding songs with such

impulsive thoughtlessness that

the current piracy orgy will

seem as chaste as a quartet of


what-would-Jesus-do? acolytes on

a double date chaperoned by

Wendy Shalit.


Songs, in short, will become

spam. Word-of-mouse email

distribution will have extremely

dramatic consequences. For the

first time ever, record labels,

or even artists themselves, will

have the power to do what

neither radio nor MTV nor movie

soundtracks nor Rolling Stone

cover stories can do - break

songs on an international basis.

What's popular in Los Angeles

could be equally popular in

Prague within days, perhaps even

hours. To encourage this kind of

industrious grassroots

marketing, musicians will no

doubt model their work on that

class of information that has

proven most popular with email

boosters so far - namely, the

endless stream of geek jokes in

dire need of a humor upgrade and

by-the-numbers top 10 lists that

clutter our inboxes every day.



In other words, Big Poo

Generator, with novelty songs

like "Abe Lincoln's Exploding

Pet Testicle," "Measure My Pubic

Hair," and "Sing It, Mrs. Ass,"

has the right idea, if only the

faintest skid marks of actual

wit. But imagine the success

that the still apparently

extant Al Yankovic might enjoy

as a result of email

distribution; with the Net's

undying appetite for parody, a

well-timed take on, say, Britney

Spears' tribute to Japanese

schoolgirl erotica might

actually do better than the

original itself. (Of course,

this scenario assumes that in

the wake of the market

fragmentation that MP3 will

likely inspire, there will still

be hit songs big enough to

parody. If not, then Weird Al

will be forced to resort to his

own original efforts, a turn of

events, which, we imagine, will

doom him to a standing slightly

above that of Big Poo



Along with humor, the other kind

of email people love to pass

along, of course, is news. In

the past, when the news media

consisted of loud-mouthed

English street peddlers, Indian

bards, and African griots, the

events of the day were often

distilled into


easy-to-remember verse. Now that

MP3 makes it possible to

distribute songs to a wide

audience only minutes after

they're created, it would be

relatively easy to resurrect the

phenomenon of news-as-music.

Artists whose work is extremely

topical would no doubt find

unprecedented success in a

culture where Jay Leno's

monologs, Entertainment Tonight,

The Daily Show, and The Onion

serve as the primary news

sources for an increasing number

of people.



The only potential bottleneck is

the artist's propensity to

fashion songs from events while

they're still newsworthy.

Hip-hop, with the importance it

places on freestyling skills,

wherein rappers extemporaneously

pontificate on any given

subject, much like MSNBC

pundits, seems well-suited to

the concept. Indeed, for many

years now, Chuck D. has asserted

that hip-hop is CNN for black

people; with MP3, it could be

CNN for everyone. Producers

could create a set of generic,

reusable beats. So when news

comes in over the wire, those

rappers most adept at

freestyling could quickly turn

these stories into rhymes,

record these lyrics over the

prerecorded background tracks,

then disseminate these

dispatches via mailing lists.

Mailing-list subscribers could

then pass along the most

entertaining dispatches to their

own network of acquaintances. In

a matter of months, one

imagines, a talented unknown

could attract a following big

enough to sustain a small

multimedia empire. After all,

who would you rather get your

news from - the no-checking,


hunting-and-pecking Matt Drudge

or Eminem, the slick-flowing,

audience-growing, sick-joking

Tom Brokaw of the 21st century?

courtesy of St. Huck


[Purchase the Suck Book here]