Digital Nation: MP3s Punk Up The Net

The digital downloadable files and their fans are like the Sex Pistols of the World Wide Web.

(Editorial Note: This is the first in a series of weekly columns on

music on the Internet that will run Wednesdays as part of SonicNet Music News.

The opinions of the writer do not express the views of SonicNet Inc.)

You know why MP3s are the coolest thing going for music right now? It's

simple: They are as punk rock as anything gets in this day and age -- and

it's all because of their die-hard fans.

Before I go any further, let me say that I don't typically go for electronic clutter in my rock 'n' roll -- I'm not an audiophile, and my core musical taste runs more toward the rustic likes of Chuck Berry, Dylan and Wilco.

But even with those old-school interests, I still think that MP3s are the hottest and most radical development to hit music since I don't know when.

What makes the MP3's arrival one of the most invigorating music stories of recent years is not the intrigue that comes with downloading music you should be paying for. It's the sense that this is a musical movement utterly fueled by music fans -- be they pirates passing files or penny-ante bands from nowhere offering their demos in MP3s form to anyone who will listen.

It's the antithesis of electronica, teen pop or any of the other so-called trends propagated by the suits in record company marketing departments. Millions of kids with computers are dictating where the Big Five music corporations are channeling their R&D budgets.

Now that's punk as all get out in 1999.

Whether MP3 wins out as the format of choice in the months ahead remains to be seen, but the major record companies will, in some form or another, be trying to sell you music by download in short order. And that's because of the fans who forced them to get on the stick.

Of course, it's not just fans pushing the envelope. Both musicians and corporations are hopping on the bandwagon to satisfy those fans' desires and make a buck without someone skimming off the top in the process.

Onetime Pixies guitarist Frank Black just released his second album in MP3 format through the Internet music label GoodNoise. The single, "So. Bay" (RealAudio excerpt), is available for free, while the rest of Pistolero can be downloaded by the track or as a whole album.

Now, Black fully expects some listener will buy the songs and then re-post them so others can snatch them for free.

"I don't see why they wouldn't," he told me recently. "Isn't that how a lot of kids are getting their music?"

It's not that Black doesn't care about piracy -- he just considers it one of the unavoidable evils of the way the Internet is changing the music industry.

Meanwhile, over at Creative Labs -- the folks who brought you SoundBlaster PC cards -- engineers are readying their new NOMAD series of portable MP3 players.

While the company is involved in the music and tech industries' plans to standardize copyright protection for downloadable music, vice president Hock Leow said his company won't sit by while those standards are put in place.

"As new standards emerge, Creative will embrace them, but our primary focus is to create products that satisfy the consumer demand," Leow said.

Now, I'm not saying that major music corporations shouldn't be focusing on copyright protection. If I ran one of the Big Five's zoos, I'd plow dollars in that direction, too.

But heretofore, the industry has also directed its funds toward shutting down artist websites -- both fan-run and official sites -- that made use of MP3s before the labels were comfortable with them. Last week an international trade association filed legal proceedings against the largest MP3 search engine on the Net, and its American arm is considering the same.

Of course, in the near future, all this will be worked out, and music-by-download will be just another option like CDs or cassettes.

Until that time, the industry might better serve itself by relaxing its fearful stance and taking a page from Black's book. It may just garner some good will with the fans who are behind this movement -- the same folks they're hoping to sell downloads to in the months ahead.

* * *

One of the models in Creative's NOMAD series will also feature an FM tuner,

according to a source close to the company ... Just four days after

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played two reunion concerts in

New Jersey this month, unauthorized MP3s of one show began appearing on

the Net. Shore Fire Media, Springsteen's publicists, had no comment on

the files ...

Microsoft will debut its new digital music software at the House of

Blues in Los Angeles on April 13. Although the company has been

tight-lipped about the project, several published reports say that the

"Audisee" player will feature better sound quality than MP3s, along with

encryption technology to prevent piracy ... Rockabilly rabble-rouser

Mojo Nixon has posted a typically incendiary rant in favor of MP3s on

"MP3.com" (www.mp3.com/news/205.html), along with his new song "I Don't

Want No Cybersex" ...

Guitar Wolf's "Jet Generation" is one of many free MP3s of upcoming

releases available on the Matador Records site. Upon hearing their

high-octane screech, listeners unfamiliar with the group may wonder if

there's something wrong with their MP3 players. There's not.