False Profit?

Is surfing the cyber tidal wave to fame and fortune really possible, or are websites like Mp3.com cashing in on a digital mirage

by Lee Abraham

Technology is exploding. New hardware and software race down the information highway so quickly that todays innovation is yesterdays news before sunset. Want proof? Look at the stock market. Everyday is a wild ride. And no ride is wilder than the technology heavy NASDAQ. Bottom line - technology is one big biz that moves fast. Like never before, anyone armed with a laptop and dotcom vision can become an overnight millionaire. Or at least famous. From Wall Street to the cyber cafe in Anytown, USA, every web surfing entrepreneur with an extra nanosecond of leisure time is searching for an angle to cash in.

So are the pillars of industry. Some more than others. At the top of the chart with a bullet - the music business. Technology has been a major hit - both to, and for, various factions of the badly splintered music industry. Record companies are scrambling to preserve the lucrative stranglehold on record distribution they have enjoyed for decades. Lawsuits are flying fast and furious. Most of the legal action pits the record companies, under the umbrella of the Recording Industry Association of America, against websites like Mp3.com and Napster, which accuse the websites of illegally using copyright protected music.

The lawsuits are complex. At issue: royalties. And ultimately, control. But while the heavyweights and their teams of lawyers slug it out in court, the peons of the music biz, up and coming artists, are working to turn the tables on the bigwigs. The logic - use technology to bring music directly to fans and eliminate the middle man. After all, who needs to manufacture and distribute records if bands can upload music into cyberspace for their fans to download in the comfort of their home?

That was the question Mp3.com asked when they burst onto the scene last year. Offering bands a central, high profile website to host their music online was a great idea. Creating a Payback for Playback cash promotion and helping artists sell CDs, was a stroke of genius. Instantly, Mp3.com became the cyber battleground for independent musicians declaring war against the record company monolith. As we go to press, over 40,000 recording artists and 500,000 visitors a day have joined the revolution.

----------New level playing field or cyber illusion?

Todd Janko is optimistic. His acoustic instrumental project, The Reunion, based out of Las Vegas, seems tailor made for Mp3.com success. Not the type of music you hear on the radio or see in the clubs, The Reunions melodic soundscapes nonetheless have a broad appeal. Assuming people have an opportunity to hear them. "The Reunion gets about 30 hits a day on mp3.com calculating us in the top 100 for the Las Vegas scene, says Janko. "But, Rollingstone.com broke The Reunion at number 5 for the most downloads for a week, right behind Powerman 5000 and Coal Chamber, which made me quite ecstatic."

News of hitting the charts, -any- charts, is good news. But the buzz of notoriety doesnt pay rent. Or studio time. Survival in the music biz requires cash flow. Mp3.com claims it will distribute $200,000 to its most popular artists for the month of February. "Please send me a check soon," jokes Janko. "Yes, one may get many downloads, but since this isn't like real publishing, no real money is made through this. The only way to acquire a significant income is selling DAM (Digital Automatic Music) CDs through them or selling CDs directly off your site. It will be quite some time before any band can really quit their day jobs from making money of Internet download sales."

Mark Hlobil is one Mp3.com artist who may not have to wait much longer. Still a college student at UNLV, Hlobil is an Mp3.com monster. Ghost In the Machine, Hlobils cyber alter ego, is a fixture at the top of Mp3.coms techno and trance charts. "Early on it wasn't much at all, basically a few hundred a month," says Hlobil. "After I released Liquid Dreams, downloads began to soar. From February 99 to August, it went from about 10,000 a month to peaking at about 100,000 in August, and descending to 30,000 a month since then."

Hefty numbers. And big enough to translate into real money. Hlobil reports earning over seventeen hundred dollars a month in both November and December for the download activity. Information he points out, that is posted on the Mp3.com site itself. In January, the figure doubled to over thirty five hundred. -And- Hlobil has also sold over 1,900 CD's through Mp3.com, pocketing another nine grand. "Now if you add all these numbers up theyre really nice," says Hlobil. "But not enough to live on comfortably. I still write music for websites and special projects to supplement this income. So if anyone needs music, give them my name."

-------Winners and losers, who decides?

Cynicism lurks on any corner where music and business meet. The Internet is no exception. Critics claim the way Mp3.com and similar sites operate is flawed. "Boston.com has a similar, yet smaller site called mp3.boston.com which I posted a tune of Canine," says Dan Millen, manager of the popular Boston area band. "We have thousands of fans all over the Northeast, and we sent out a spam about our placement on the page. Our numbers shot up. Big whoopdie do. We were preaching to the converted."

"I don't even bother anymore," continues Millen. "As far as I'm concerned, mp3.com is a waste of my time. I've never had a fan walk up to me at a club and say, Hey, I heard your tune on mp3.com and figured I'd check you guys out. Meanwhile, they are raping artists by giving music away for free and making money off of selling advertising based on these artists fan bases, and utilizing the multitude of artists to send them their fans as advertising."

Criticism of any non-musician making a buck in the music biz is long-standing tradition. Record companies, promoters, managers and even journalists, are traditional targets. Lots of distrust and conflicts of interest behind the scenes. Competition and infighting among musicians themselves is often the nastiest and download technology has raised the acrimony to new levels. Now musicians themselves can play the same games that the radio conglomerates and record companies have been playing for years.

"Unfortunately, the MP3.com charts are bogus because an artist's place on a given chart is decided by the number of downloads they receive in a given week," says David Avery, president and founder of Powderfinger Promotions, a company headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., that introduces new music to college and community radio stations across the country. "This encourages most artists to post their mp3s at MP3.com and then contact everyone they know, asking them to download their song as much as possible during a given week. Then voila!--they're #1."

Hlobil disagrees. "The volume of downloads were talking, you and your friends have to be on your computer all hours of the day downloading to even get remotely close to the thousands. I really don't know what the value of that would be, it wouldn't suit the feedback mechanism that the charts are supposed to provide. You wouldn't know if anyone really likes you or not."

Whether or not it does any good, consensus among artists is that some ballot box stuffing type cheating does go on. On the other hand, promoting ones interests is the basis of a free economy. So where does the ethical download artist draw the line? "Linking other artists, using word of mouth, passing news on my personal webpage," says Hlobil about he promotes his music online. "I joined a couple of compilations early on, such as 52nd Stream music and Stop the Violence. I hope that the music and the message are a promotion in and of itself. You have to create name recognition with your band name, that is probably the best promotion."

---------------Mp3.com isn't the only game in town

Just as Mp3.com was leading the revolution a few short months ago, it is now the grizzled veteran, taking on newcomers and lawsuits with a big bucks war chest and brand name market power that has the traditional powers in the music industry furious. Fine and dandy. Let 'em squirm for a while. Record companies have been toying with the lives and careers of artists for decades. They are also way behind the curve on using the Internet to help promote the artists they represent. They need a jump start into the brave new world.

For independent musicians looking to break the star making machinerys stranglehold, the new opportunities created by Mp3.com and its competitors are attracting a lot of interest. Garageband.com is a new entry with a twist on the Mp3.com formula. Owned and operated by legendary music producer George Martin and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, Garageband.com runs the website as contest, and the artist who ends up at the top of its chart wins a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar production deal with the two studio gurus.

For Janko and The Reunion, whether or not his project hits the big time, going online has its own rewards. "There are few downsides when the whole world can now have access to your music, says Janko. "Of course, when you give away freebies like downloads, then your not making a goddamn penny. But, don't you want to be playing in Duluth Minnesota one day where someone heard your music and sang your lyrics before anyone else did? That is worth more then money itself, being a starving independent band on stage, pissing your pennies away to tour, and some kid from Duluth Minnesota knows everything about you."