March 8, 1999

Musicians Want an Internet Revolution


Visionaries, hopefuls, hucksters and self-described geeks mingled over the weekend at the first New York Music and Internet Expo, a convention held at the New Yorker Hotel. While Web pages flickered on monitors and cellular phones beeped, musicians and computer entrepreneurs swapped business cards and ideas about how the Internet could revolutionize the music business.

Rahav Segev
The rapper Chuck D at the Internet Music Conference.
Optimists, in the majority, saw it as a force that would inevitably democratize the market, a way to bypass recording companies and radio stations and offer music directly to listeners. "The Internet has made it possible for people to get consistently what they want, their way, without censorship," said Steve Zuckerman, a former music journalist who organized the event and plans to produce another one in Los Angeles on Aug. 7 and 8. "Artists, for a change, have hope. The people here all want something similar: creative control of their products and their companies."

Chuck D, the rapper who leads Public Enemy, gave a keynote speech and predicted that there would be "a million artists out there and 500,000 labels or more." He added, "Major labels will not be obsolete, but they're going to have to learn how to share."

It was a convention aimed at the grass roots.

The Internet expo cost $15 a day to attend and $700 for exhibitors, considerably less than more established and expensive events like the CMJ Music Marathon. Zuckerman estimated that 2,000 people would come to the two-day event. Speakers included musicians, software and equipment makers and Web site operators. Absent were representatives of most major labels or their trade group, the Recording Industry Association of America, which is playing catch-up with the Internet. It is working to set a standard for digital distribution of music that will prevent unauthorized copying. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which presents the Grammy Awards, had a booth to promote its programs for emerging musicians.

Michael Robertson, the chief executive of the Internet site and company, said: "We think the music industry is broken, no matter how you look at it. We need to change the whole business of music."

Robertson's company, and many other Internet sites, offers music in the form of MP3 files, which can be sent quickly over the Internet and copied at will. Because delivery via the Internet eliminates the need to package, manufacture and distribute a CD, it allows musicians to send their latest work out immediately. "An artist can have a creative urge at 2:30 A.M., upload it at 3:30 and have it on the Web at 4:30," Robertson said.

Related Article
Public Enemy Fights the Music Industry With Online Releases
(Dec. 4, 1998)
Established stars have begun giving away music on the Internet to promote themselves. Last Monday, Tom Petty made a new song available free on the site; during the three days it was available, it was downloaded 157,699 times. In return, Petty and his recording company have a marketing tool: e-mail addresses for fans, who can be reached when his next album is released. Alanis Morissette made a new song available through AT&T's a2b Music, which does not allow copying; the free song was downloaded 285,000 times, while links to the song sold 22,000 tickets to her concert tour.

Last year Public Enemy made songs available as MP3 files, but was stopped by the threat of legal action from its label at the time, Polygram, which owns the master recordings. Now, Public Enemy's contract with Polygram has expired, and it has a new MP3 song, "Swindler's Lust," on its Web site, Chuck D said that in future contracts, Public Enemy would keep its rights to master recordings and enter joint ventures with companies to release the material on disks and tapes. "I'm an Internet presence first, and everything else follows from that," he said.

Public Enemy's next album would be available in digital form on the Internet before appearing as a CD, he added.

Robertson said that distributing music through the Internet could restructure the recording business. In a typical recording contract a label finances and promotes an album, and the performer receives a 10 to 15 percent royalty after costs are recouped -- $1 to $2 for each album sold -- while the label owns the master recording. Musicians who finance their own recordings and distribute them through the Internet could receive more for an album, making a profit without blockbuster sales.

"The record deal up to now has just been the engine that drives the tour bus," said Ken Hertz, a partner in the law firm Hansen, Jacobson, Teller & Hoberman who represents Ms. Morissette, Hole and others.

A few skeptics warned that the unchecked distribution of music on the Internet could rob musicians of income from recordings. "Today everyone's happy and everything's beautiful and everything's free," said François-Xavier Nuttall, whose company, Audiosoft, makes software to track copyright and royalty information. "But in the future we will need an economic model."

Other panelists noted that the sound quality of music transmitted over the Internet was inferior to CD's. "It's a lot easier for people to make records now," said Joe Alexander, a producer. "I might be able to do it on a wristwatch in a taxicab. But it's not the same as going in and taking the time to make the sound you've worked a lifetime to develop. Don't let this technology lower the standards." Other speakers insisted that appearing in cyberspace was no substitute for hitting the road, and that most of the free music on the Internet was not worth hearing.

"A lot of people envision this friction-free future, where everybody has access to everything immediately," Hertz said.

"But if you have to spend your whole day figuring out what's good, you're not going to have time to listen to it." He predicted that filtering -- sites and formats that winnow the choices, as recording companies and radio stations do now -- would be a profitable Internet service, paid for through advertising or subscription fees.

For musicians, meanwhile, the promise of the Internet was simpler. "We just want our music out there," said Ricky Byrd, a songwriter.

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