When it comes to breaking new ground in cyberspace, former Pixies leader Frank Black
and They Might Be Giants singer/accordion player John Linnell are hardly the first
names that spring to mind.
Not that either musician would call himself a Luddite. It's just that neither has a reputation
for pushing technological boundaries in music on the order of, say, rock pioneers David
Bowie or The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
It's a sign, then, that the Internet has found a home in the rock world when Black and
They Might Be Giants are standing at the forefront of cyberspace musical developments.
Rock and punk songwriter Black has landed himself in the cyberspace history books as
the first major artist to make a new album available for fans to purchase through digital
download. His latest collection, Frank Black and the Catholics -- available on CD
in stores in September -- will go on sale this month as a series of audio files available for
99 cents per song, or $8.99 for the full 11-track set.
"From our point of view, it wasn't something that was going to take the place of a
traditional release; it was something extra," Black said. "My manager and I are
computer-literate, but we're not obsessed with the idea, like, 'I've gotta get my stuff on the
Web; it's the wave of the future!' People do seem to be in an upbeat mood about
computers, even people who don't know a lot about them or use them a lot in their lives."
Meanwhile, offbeat popsters They Might Be Giants are bringing to the Internet world
dozens of unreleased songs that have previously been available only to those who
called their New York-based Dial-A-Song service. The new offering will allow fans
around the globe to keep up with their ever-growing song catalog, free of charge.
In the rapidly evolving world of online music, the efforts of Black and They Might Be
Giants are just the most recent developments. Musicians such as The Artist and Bob
Dylan have long offered music -- with lesser sound quality than the state-of-the art MP3
downloadable format -- for sampling over the Net. Also, artists such as Massive Attack,
the Beastie Boys and Liz Phair have posted songs prior to their CD release on their
websites, although sometimes for a limited time only.
Art-rock veteran Bowie has pushed the envelope still farther by founding his own Internet
service provider. Starting Sept. 1, his BowieNet company will offer fans not only unheard
music, but basic dial-up access to the Net and an "@bowie.net" e-mail address, all for
$19.95 per month.
Black, who doesn't even maintain an official website, however, said his foray into online
distribution was a matter of a choice opportunity presenting itself at the right time. He had
already secured a deal for his album's traditional CD release when the Internet label
GoodNoise approached him about selling the music early online.
Two songs from the album, "All My Ghosts" and "King and Queen of Siam," are already
available for purchase as near-CD-quality MP3 files at www.goodnoise.com; the full
album is expected to be ready for download as MP3s in the next week. SpinART
Records will issue the regular CD on Sept. 8.
Gene Hoffman, president and CEO of GoodNoise, said Black was a natural candidate for
the Net label's first release, particularly in light of the fact that the Pixies -- a huge
influence on 1990s acts such as Nirvana -- were always ahead of the curve musically.
"Early adopters, the people who already use this Internet and MP3 technology, like what
is classically called alternative-rock," he said.
Although They Might Be Giants' Linnell said he's fond of the simplicity of offering songs
through a simple phone call to Dial-A-Song, he also said there are distinct advantages to
distributing his group's material at www.dial-a-song.com. First of all, the songs -- which
currently change on the site twice a month -- are available throughout the world without
the cost of a long-distance call to the 15-year-old Dial-A-Song phone service.
Secondly, Linnell said, fans can now save the music on their hard drives or burn copies
onto recordable CDs. "You can keep it now, so you don't have to keep calling up to listen
to it again," he said. "People like the idea of owning something."
Black said that while his split last year with American Records -- after Frank Black and
the Catholics was already recorded -- had no bearing on his decision to license the
album to GoodNoise, he's thankful for the additional avenue that the Net affords his
The singer and guitarist laughed while expressing surprise at how much attention the
Internet offering has brought the album.
"A radio station -- one that won't even play my record -- likes to say, 'Did you hear the
news? Frank Black's making his songs available online for 99 cents a pop!' " he said. "I
wouldn't be surprised if it was Pearl Jam, but I didn't think a little cult guy like myself
would warrant much note."