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Battle of The Bandwidths

‘Rolling Stone’ and MTV go one-on-one in a heated contest over websites, Net radio, and downloadable music

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The difference between Rolling Stone and MTV used to be obvious: 30-minute ”Dark Star” jams vs. 30-second attention spans; Dylan and the Stones vs. Beavis and Butthead; Hunter S. Thompson vs. Jesse Camp. Since magazines don’t compete with cable TV, however, there was enough room on the back- stage of the music world for both to prosper — that is, until the Internet came along. On the Web, distinctions between print and television break down, and for the first time these two music powerhouses are in a celebrity death match for the same audience.

Rolling Stone‘s online offerings didn’t pose a threat to MTV until late 1997, when founding father Jann Wenner allied with Tunes.com, a Chicago company that specializes in netcasting (it boasts more than 1,000 streaming music videos and 1 million downloadable songs, in varying formats, from 350,000 albums). Suddenly Tunes.com, now the umbrella site for Rolling Stone (www.rollingstone.com), hip-hop journal The Source (www.the source.com), and jazz chronicler Down Beat (www.downbeatjazz.com), had all the news, music, and music videos of MTV.com — and none of those annoying VJs.

MTV, meanwhile, couldn’t let Wenner’s 32-year-old geriatric case steal its thunder, so in May the cable pioneer expanded its online collection to include the music-video-on-demand site Streamland (www.streamland.com), as well as the indie-music webzines SonicNet (www.sonicnet.com) and Addicted to Noise (www.addict.com). Another acquisition, Imagine Radio, will supply the technology for MTV’s new Qwert.com, a personalized Net radio service that learns what you like and plays it. The music news and reviews at the sites will expand to match these new categories too, which ought to make Little Jukka big-time happy.

Rolling Stone, however, already has its Net-based RS Radio station and will soon offer Tunes Tips, a recommendation service that personalizes its site based on your CD collection. In addition, Tunes.com (along with indie record labels Big Heavy World and Songs.com) is part of a digital-music experiment called the CranberryGrove project that could lead to a secure pay-per-download music service by Christmas. If it works, Rolling Stone will leap ahead of MTV, and most of the recording industry, in the race to supply an alternative to pirated MP3s.

While there are still no MP3s on MTV.com, Fred Seibert, president of MTV Networks Online, promises that downloadable music in one format or another is ”around the corner.” Meantime, MTV. com’s home page (www.mtv.com) will introduce theme music, by such artists as DJ Tricky and DJ Scratch, that you can remix with software created by Thomas Dolby’s Beatnik Inc., plus an animated mascot named Omar who talks while you surf the site.

Who’s the champion in this generational info street fight? It’s far too early to call. But with Rolling Stone and MTV constantly one-upping each other, Net music lovers — be they fans of the Isle of Wight or The Isle of MTV — stand to win.

Hotlink to The Web Guide at http://www.ew.com (AOL keyword: EW)