THE MUSICIANS INTERNET REVOLUTION
An Indie Band's Use of the Internet Reveals How the Business of Music is Changing
article by Su Wong / photos by Dorie Hagler
It might read, one day, like the musician's manual of how to make it big using the Internet. That is, the story of how an unknown band, Sticky Pistil, made it all the way to Woodstock '99 by going online.
In the present as in the past, rock bands commonly have to play in obscurity, hence the term "garage bands," hoping that they would be discovered by a big-time A & R (Artist & Repertoire) person on the lookout for new talent. It is safe to liken the probability of getting discovered to the remote chances of winning the lottery. This probability would be further reduced if the band was nestled in a remote mountain town with less than 7,000 in population.
Taos, NM, less than two hours' drive north of Santa Fe, may not have a history of producing influential bands but what it does have is phone-lines. To this four-member band, the phone lines translate into Internet dial-up which connects them with a national and international community of music identities.
The band's achievements, part of what some call the Internet music revolution, is made possible with the development of MP3 technology. To the uninitiated, MP3 is just another acronym. To the people who created it and the people who use it, MP3 is a powerful technology, developed in 1987, which compresses digital audio data enabling sound files to be saved in a computer without occupying large chunks of memory space. The technology was approved by the Moving Pictures Expert Group (MPEG), under the International Organization for Standardization, in 1992. With faster modems and faster computers becoming increasingly commonplace, songs in the form of MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, abbreviated to MP3, could be downloaded in virtually a few minutes.
The technology spawned a gamut of MP3 websites, which encouraged musicians to post their music on the sites, hoping to make money through advertising dollars. At first all the bands who put their songs on these sites were unknown and unsigned. Their music found sympathetic ears among the net-savvy and alternative music loving college crowd. As the listening numbers grew, so too did the advertising dollars. The potential of such ventures to shake up the way money is made in the music industry is staggering. It is prodigious enough to frighten major music company executives into restricting their artists from releasing their songs in MP3 format but simultaneously excite investors looking for the next tech-stock wunderkind. For instance, MP3.com, an MP3 website which bought the unique domain name "MP3.com" hence lending an immediate legitimacy to the site, recently had an IPO which peaked at $6.9 billion. Compare this to the market cap of the "Big Five" record label EMI Group which pales with $4 billion in 1998. This fact can only inspire incredulity as MP3.com was only formed in 1997 and amassed a paltry $1.2 million in revenue last year.
Ideas on how to do unconventional things in the music world using the Internet are as endless as the boundaries of human ingenuity. Among the most ingenious was AMP3.com's, another MP3 website, idea of collaborating with Woodstock organizers to put together the Emerging Artist Stage at the 1999 music festival. Once the deal was clinched, AMP3.com opened what would be the competition of a lifetime to the thousands of artists with music on their site. Selection was based on the bands popularity with the sites MP3 listeners and a videotaped live performance. Sticky Pistil was one among the final twelve selected to perform.
Sticky Pistil made it because, first and foremost, they are true musicians and great live performers. Citing P-Funk, Beck and Public Enemy as among their greatest influences, their music is a strange but effective fusion of funk, rock and hip hop -- to make their unique music easier to describe, the band invented the word "funkinmental." A highly topical band, all members are strong in their respective roles; Mark Hershiser is the band's leader, lead vocalist, and brain behind the technology; Scott Kesson is a brilliant guitarist; Shawn Perry plays an infectious bass guitar and finally Mike Caron is the band's power drummer. Their musical talents on display leaves their audience with very little doubt that they are as good as big-league bands. Doug Cornell, music director of AMP3.com, has confidently compared Sticky Pistil to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
These talents might have remained a Taos secret if not for the band's frontman, Hershiser's, manipulation of the Internet to overcome the band's geographical disadvantage. Getting to Woodstock 99 through AMP3.com's competition is only one aspect of how the Internet has worked for the band although it is obvious how this recent addition to their resume would open many doors previously stubbornly closed. It's a boon that resulted from the band's talent and the old adage of being at the right place at the right time.
The band calls itself "The Internet Band" because its members believe that the Internet will provide unprecedented opportunities for them to create music, to get it heard, to distribute it, and handle most other aspects of being a rock band, on their own terms. They do not have the utopian dream that the Internet will make stars out of every musician who harnesses its power. Becoming a rock star is as hard as ever, says Hershiser, but what this powerful new tool is capable of doing is revolutionizing the position of the musicians relative to the record companies.
Musicians aspiring to gain a following
were traditionally beholden to the major record companies as the latter
commands the large resources necessary to buy effective management,
production and marketing. Sticky Pistil believes that the odds of 'getting
discovered' in the past was a reality eagerly exploited by the large
record companies. Conventional contracts between discovered musicians
and major record labels contained terms which often meant that musicians
who failed to recoup production costs would be deftly dropped from the
label. Committed to these terms, the artists did not wield much influence
over production and marketing costs which were often unfairly inflated.
John Morris, legendary organizer of Filmore East and the original Woodstock,
acquainted with Sticky Pistil purely by chance, lent his opinion on
the monetary side of the music industry; "Accountants have run
record companies for the past ten to twenty years. It's the dollars-and-sense
guys who are running it and it has been bought and sold the way you
buy and sell stocks."
Sticky Pistil has made it all this way without needing to sign their creative or business independence away. The band hopes for and expects a future, not too far away, where there will be a proliferation of many moderately successful musicians instead of having just a handful that won the record labels' lotteries. This means, in actual terms, that musicians can use the Internet to generate an income level adequate enough to make creating and playing music their "regular job."
The potential and means of achieving this vision are dizzyingly vast.
An income can be generated from certain digital music websites. For example, AMP3.com pays the artists a nickel for every song downloaded. The company was the first among digital music websites to compensate their artists. Other emerging sites, such as Riffage.com, allow the musicians to set the cost of downloading their songs whereupon the site keeps, for example, a 15% commission. Some sites are also sale-points for their artists' merchandise.
There are also numerous possibilities of nascent music websites collaborating with household names or interested companies, like Woodstock, to launch the careers of the sites' artists. Similarly, realizing the business potential of Internet music, established music authorities like Rolling Stone have also thrown their support behind unknown bands. Their website, RollingStone.com encourages independent artists to put their MP3s on it and these songs are reviewed by the site's editors. It's a case of forging new paths using these innovative means in the conventional direction of a music career. Playing Woodstock has afforded Sticky Pistil almost instant credibility with radio stations, record companies, and with the music listeners. AMP3.com is following their Woodstock deal with another competition called "The Million Dollar Star Search" which will select 20 of their musicians, again according to their popularity by downloads and other criteria.From this group ten finalists will be selected to play a New York main stage, the winner of which will receive a million dollars and a record deal.
Executives from major record labels and industry groups, like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), have so far been unaccepting of the new technology. These individuals were slow to acknowlege the technology and slower still in embracing it. Their restraint has left the virtual terrain open to Internet-friendly record companies who are not averse to but rather celebrate the Internet's potential as a production, marketing and distribution channel. For example, an established band like Public Enemy, which was prohibited by their recently dumped record label, Def Jam, from releasing an MP3 song, has now signed with an Internet-friendly record company, Atomic Pop, and recently released an MP3 album.
The established record labels argue that MP3 translates to millions in lost revenue for the musicians as it encourages pirating. Sticky Pistil's guitarist Kesson retorts, and it is not an uncommon one, that the current situation is not too different from the recent past. "The Internet is not different from the tape deck at home -- everyone's copying songs off the radio, someone's bought a new CD and has made a tape for their friends. That's the way music has always been." He maintains that there will always be music-listeners who prefer to own CDs. Keeping in mind that MP3, although of a good sound quality, still falls short of CD-quality sound, it is not hard to deduce that the revenue-generating CD-buying listeners will continue to buy the CDs. The difference will be that all music consumers now have more talent to choose from, across the genre spectrum, and can sample the music they are interested in at will before buying.
That is not to say that the pirating issue is negligible. As necessity is the mother of invention, record labels, industry, and technology representatives have joined forces to form the Security Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) whose goal it is to produce safeguards to pirating, in the context of the said technology. The multifarious forms of protection include watermarks which allows the authorities to trace a pirated item to its source, programs which encrypts song so that it can only be played on a brand-specific product that also controls its duplication capacity, and some companies have produced something akin to a use-by date which means a song can be distributed only within a limited period before expiring. Most MP3 websites have expressed compliance with whatever standardized security measures SDMI produces. It is safe to assume that musicians will, on the whole, not have their intellectual property rights severely compromised what with the scope for legal recourse and technology protection.
It is more likely that aspects of computer and on-line technology have suffered the consternation of the mainstream music businesses because of its potential to empower the musician just as it empowers the individual's right to choose. For example, Sticky Pistil's completely self-recorded album, "hi-fi superfly," is proof that a professional-standard album can be produced without the trappings provided by a record company -- all they needed were a PC and a hard disk recorder. In a consistent DIY fashion, Hershiser founded his own production company, "Vinylgrooves Inc.," and it is from the computer alone that the band's publicity is generated and monitored. The band's news and music are posted on bulletin boards which are checked by Net users interested in, for example, finding the latest alternative band. Sticky Pistil is also active among Internet discussion groups and chat-sites like ICQ ("I seek you") whereby they can literally chat with potential and current listeners. They can distribute album information and generate interests in their songs by connecting directly to their target audience. They also have the e-mails of their supporters as means to disseminate new information inexpensively and literally with a click of the mouse button.
Internet technology also provides for webcasting to become a form of broadcasting other than television or cable. Musicians like Sticky Pistil can transmit their public performances, live or otherwise, over the Internet to fans who are logged in. An unlikely fan, in Japan for example, who would not have known about Sticky Pistil if not for the fact that the fan was surfing the Web and was particularly interested in alternative American bands, can watch them in a live performance at the cost of a local phone call. In fact, this fan can watch the band's, or any other musician's, performance at the Woodstock 99 webcast which was the largest music webcast to date. It registered over 1.4 million visitors around the world who watched live performances, live interviews, perused millions of photos, chatted with other viewers in chat rooms and posted opinions on bulletin boards -- all through a computer screen.
Bands like Sticky Pistil do not have to wait to hit the big time before commanding an international audience as the Internet dissolves national boundaries. The Internet can also solve the problems associated with limited resources. It allows musicians to be creative in their own time, keep their regular jobs to put food on the table, and still generate more interest in their music than was ever before possible. The members of Sticky Pistil all have regular jobs which naturally take up a sizeable amount of their time. Yet they can all still boast of over 70,000 visits to their website, www.stickypistil.com, last month. Now that they can legitimately call themselves a Woodstock band, they can expect to boast of a lot more.
The band has explicitly stated that signing the traditional record deal is not part of their future plans. They see themselves as part of the pioneers on board the H.M.S. Internet Music Revolution and are indeed, conceiving a modus operandi which might one day be standard procedure for a start-up band wanting to go the Internet way. The band believes that the Internet can augment the position of the artist to a partnership level with Internet-friendly or Internet record companies as opposed to being mere depersonalized chattel of major record companies whose minds are wholly in the business of profit-making and not at all in the business of music-making.
The Internet way of making it in the music world does not neglect conventional means. The work remains just as hard and the competition as tough. The musicians who will most likely succeed this way are those who combine conventional methods with the new tools of technology. By doing so, their chances of being rewarded will be greater and the terms fairer. There will be more slices in the music industry pie and more music creators will be able to taste the sweet reward of having their creations listened to and, eventually, bought. The major record labels have so far, by virtue of their size and lack of competition, been able to dictate unfair terms. Thankfully, for the musicians who learn how to use and tap the potent and potentially democratizing power of the Internet, they do not have to subscribe to these terms any longer.
© 1999 VinylGrooves, Inc.