Digital Nation: Old-School Approach To New Media At SXSW

Dot coms and artists at music conference are still finding their footing in the online arena.

(This is another in a continuing series of reports about music on the Internet.)

Senior Writer Chris Nelson reports:

This year's South by Southwest music conference, informally hailed as the "invasion of the dot coms," was supposed to be all about bands that release tracks online, along with Web sites and other Internet companies leading the digital-music revolution. More than 70 online companies took part in panel discussions or the conference trade show.

But time after time, folks at the Austin, Texas, conference highlighted just how little we know about this burgeoning realm and how highly we value traditional band and label operations.

"We're waiting for someone to throw money at us," said Skot Alexander, the singer for 400 Blows, a band that releases tracks online. So far, the money hasn't come, Alexander said, although the group is distributing its goods by download on Riffage.com and MP3.com.

But nothing on those sites could capture the raw power of the group's live set Thursday, as Alexander, dressed in a black Marine uniform, slashed and twirled his half-sized mic stand like a sword.

Although more than 1,000 bands came to SXSW, that was hard to remember while the Los Angeles three-piece was onstage. If Ivan the Terrible had ruled Russia with metal bands, these are the guys he would have sent out to keep order. Even without a bass player, 400 Blows are heavier than a dump truck hauling two tons of dirt.

Alexander said he's not good at selling his band's sound to labels. But it seems as if that's just the kind of elbow grease it's going to take to distinguish the group from the 50,000 others on some free download sites.

Deals For Unknowns

Musicblitz (www.musicblitz.com), a new record label with a heavy online component, offered deals to 20 unknown SXSW artists to record new singles for the site.

But Musicblitz's president, Kevin Nakao, has a hard time categorizing what his company does in the new digital landscape. Most people know Musicblitz as an online singles company with free downloads from John Doe, Aimee Mann and others. And yet in May, it plans to issue a hard-copy album by the re-formed Presidents of the United States of America.

Nakao hesitates to call Musicblitz a label, because artists sign deals for one single or album at a time. "We don't want to own their career," he said. Musicblitz positions itself as an incubator, where bands can grow before jumping to old-school major labels.

The goal of many dot coms at the conference was simply to define themselves for labels and artists. Creating a brand name is hard enough in a familiar space, such as the auto or food industry. It's harder still in the unknown territory of the Internet, said Michael Crotty, vice president at Myplay, an online music storage Web site.

Musician, Technologist, Entrepreneur

New-wave singer Thomas Dolby Robertson is approaching the new world in multiple roles, as a musician, technologist and entrepreneur, he said during an SXSW presentation. His company, Beatnik, allows users to more seamlessly integrate music into Web pages.

A Beatnik project with Yahoo allows fans to create their own online remixes of Moby's "Body Rock" (RealAudio excerpt). Such promotions will encourage album sales, he said.

"If you spend half an hour playing with a song, you spend the rest of the day singing it."

But like most of us, the majority of participants in the first dot-com South by Southwest were still finding their footing in the cyber world.

Old-Fashioned Roots

In July, emo-core buzz band At the Drive-In will release Relationship of Command through the music arm of the Digital Entertainment Network, the label led by Beck and Beastie Boys managers Gary Gersh and John Silva.

The band seems more interested in the Net as a way for artists to leverage some control over their careers, rather than as a new avenue for distributing music.

"It's called the music industry, and the musicians should take it over again," guitarist Jim Ward said at the conference.

The group's members don't know yet if their new songs will be available in a downloadable format. But as the first band signed to this new digitally focused label, At the Drive-In have made sure of one thing: Relationship of Command will most definitely be available on old-fashioned vinyl.

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Public Enemy rapper and digital activist Chuck D hosted the first edition of his "Beats, Rhymes and Life" Internet-radio rap-news show Saturday. The show airs at 9 p.m. EST Saturdays at www.BringTheNoise.com. "My goal is to try to become the 'dark Dick Clark' of this genre space," Chuck D said in a press release. ...

Pop singer Mariah Carey will take questions from fans during a webcast at artistdirect.com at 5 p.m. EST Wednesday (March 22). Rather than sifting through queries from thousands of online fans, Carey will talk with 15 contest winners by telephone during the event. ...

Singer, model and actress Bijou Phillips will host a syndicated TV show featuring bands that place music on the Riffage.com Web site, Riffage announced. The 13-episode "Riffage Live" will be broadcast through the Burly Bear college television network later in the spring. Among the bands to be included are old-school punk acts Electric Frankenstein and Streetwalkin' Cheetahs. ...

Sire Records, the onetime label for artists such as Madonna and Talking Heads, has signed a deal to promote and sell music by some artists through MP3 retailer EMusic.com, EMusic said. Among the first to take part in the project will be rock outfit Primitive Radio Gods, who had a left-field hit in 1996 with "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand." ...

Bertelsmann, the parent company of major label BMG (Santana, Foo Fighters), has signed a four-year, $250-million partnership with America Online. The company will provide music and publishing content to AOL's various online outlets. AOL is in the process of buying out Bertelsmann's stake in AOL Europe and AOL Australia.