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Music, Down Stream

Artists and their labels discover that streaming is steaming when it comes to capturing Net audiences

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”Yes, no, maybe, I don’t know.” The catchy lyrics from Fox’s hit series Malcolm in the Middle might as well be the music industry’s mantra this year. Artists and executives alike just can’t decide how to make music out of the Internet’s digital cacophony. It’s even more appropriate that the aforementioned song, ”Boss of Me,” is by They Might Be Giants (http://www.tmbg.com), a quirky duo that, after 20 years, is still innovating and still capturing new fans. The band started its own telecommunications revolution in 1983 with an answering-machine gimmick called Dial A Song (718-387-6962). ”In a way, it was a precursor to the Internet,” says Giants cofounder John Flansburgh. They’ve just finished work on a CD to accompany next month’s issue of Timothy McSweeney’s (the print counterpart to mcsweeneys.net). And last month they inaugurated a $9.99-per-month online music magazine, TMBG Unlimited (emusic.com/tmbg). ”It’s kind of the ultimate fan club,” says Flansburgh. ”People have access to everything we’re doing.” Including a half dozen tracks — some of them new — in every issue.

EW Internet’s Spring Music Preview underscores what an unusual move the band is making. In the age of Napster, labels have largely replaced sample MP3s with Eminem Radio, live Coldplay webcasts, and Jennifer Lopez ”listening parties” — all of which are streamed instead of downloaded. ”The illegal stuff is forcing them to do something they should have done sooner,” says David Goldberg, CEO of LAUNCH, one of the leading Internet music sites. ”It’s easier to control access to streamed content than downloaded content.” Because once an MP3 begins trading online, no one can guarantee the sound quality, or even that a file labeled ”U2 — Beautiful Day” is actually a recording of Bono belting it out. Streaming audio is just the opposite: ”You can turn it off, you can regulate it, you can track who’s using it and sell through to them,” says one label head who asked to remain anonymous.

While there will always be artists like the Dave Matthews Band to take a new single straight to Napster (in part because they’re signed to BMG, which is owned by Napster ally Bertelsmann), don’t expect to see Christina Aguilera Unlimited available via subscription anytime soon. And even though songs from the artists in our lineup can probably be found on Napster, you’ll still want to find out what No Doubt puts on their custom radio station, catch the music-video history of Janet Jackson, or stay old-school and get the latest from They Might Be Giants delivered directly into your telephone.

Noah Robischon

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