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History's First Downloadable Song

Aerosmith releases an outtake from their latest album online, free of charge

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I’ll admit it: History was being made on June 27, but I was skeptical. Geffen Records had teamed up with CompuServe, the leading commercial computer network, to offer, for just one week, Aerosmith’s ”Head First” — an outtake from the band’s Get a Grip album that up until now was available only as a B side in England, Spain, and Japan. My computer would connect to CompuServe by phone, and as if by magic, the song would record itself in digital form on my hard drive. I wouldn’t even have to pay anything; Aerosmith had waived its royalties, while CompuServe suspended its usual $9.60 hourly charge.

Still I had doubts. You needed specialized hardware — an IBM-compatible computer (no Macs, please) running Windows software, preferably with a late-model modem. And even then, the transfer might take more than an hour. Besides, wasn’t this ultimately just a new kind of record-company publicity?

Yet the experiment clearly hit a nerve for music fans. Tommy Auth, an amateur musician in Greenville, S.C., ran the sound from his computer’s hard drive through his guitar amplifier. Sherry Curtis, a deejay at radio station KICT in Wichita, Kan., transferred the song to digital tape and played it on the air. Tom Thornton, of North Providence, R.I., would have happily spent five long hours retrieving the file for his son if CompuServe hadn’t stopped him from using his slow, antique modem. By June 28, ”Head First” was one of the most popular items on CompuServe — though the network refuses to reveal how many people (beyond ”in the thousands”) logged on to download the song.

”We’re not saying this is how you’ll get your music in the future,” says Geffen’s Jim Griffin. ”But we did want to try it out.” Geffen already uses on-line music in other ways: Its A&R department can log on to the noncommercial Internet to hear songs placed there by enterprising unsigned bands.

As for me, I’m almost a believer. ”Head First” rocks harder than most of Get a Grip. And even if the computer version doesn’t have the crisp power of a CD, there’s something almost supernatural about having the song at all. Someday, perhaps, we’ll pay to download Aerosmith (or John Mellencamp, who is pondering an on-line song of his own). But on June 27, I felt what Geffen no doubt wanted me to — that I can receive music directly from the source.

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