MORE AND MORE, MUSICIANS ARE USING THE WEB TO MEET FANS AND POST MUSIC. RECORD COMPANIES ARE SINGING A DIFFERENT TUNE.
”There’s a fat man on the corner with a gigantic shopping bag of M&M’s,” says Public Enemy’s Chuck D, describing the relationship between the music biz and the Internet. ”And he divvies them out to people who want them. Then all of a sudden the bottom falls out, releasing a million and a half M&M’s on the corner. And then the fat man says, ‘Hey, stop picking up my M&M’s!’ That’s what’s going on.”
Chuck got it right: Record companies are losing control over music distribution and sales, thanks in part to the proliferation of websites created and maintained by their own stars — who, on their end, are relishing the taste of independence. And it’s not just the cyberheads or has-beens like David Bowie, Prince, and Todd Rundgren setting up shop online. These days, hip-hoppers (Public Enemy), hard rockers (Korn), and a thoroughly new and unpredictable passel of veteran popsters (the Kinks) are all getting Web happy, with or without label approval.
In fact, Chuck D found out just how his record company really felt about digital distribution recently. He posted a free MP3 remix of an old Public Enemy song (”Bring the Noise 2000”) on his band’s website (www.public-enemy.com) last November, and Def Jam/PolyGram threatened to sue. He removed the song but shortly thereafter the label released Public Enemy from their contract — much to the delight of Chuck D. In early January, the rapper posted another track on the site, ”Swindler’s Lust,” using a newer format (MP4). Def Jam has no comment.
Chuck hopes to make a statement about the record industry and get a better profit margin. But that’s just one end of the spectrum. There are many motives behind these websites: to release music sooner rather than later (that’s why the Kinks’ Dave Davies offers an unreleased CD online), because they can escape artistic censorship (Korn), because MTV probably won’t play a band’s video (the Brian Jonestown Massacre), because technology is fun (Radiohead, Dave Navarro) — or maybe to just ride Net hype with the occasional webcast (Paul McCartney). If there’s one thing all these acts agree on, it’s that they’re finally connecting with fans directly.
Korn, the lone platinum-selling saviors of hard rock in 1998, were among the first to reach out with a webcast: Their two-hour Korn Mangles the Web aired on LALive.com in 1996 and was so successful that the band launched a separate site, http://www.korntv.com, to offer more one-hour-long ”shows” whenever possible. Lead singer Jonathan Davis appreciates the Net as a rules-free zone: ”You can put whatever you want on there. We can cuss, we had porno stars, all kinds of stuff. That was awesome.”
Other artists seek an unlimited distribution outlet. Dave Davies, the 52-year-old cofounder of and guitarist for the Kinks, shares his whole life at http://www.DaveDavies.com, proudly posting pictures and descriptions of his guitars, excerpts from his 1996 autobiography, Kink, information about his new two-CD retrospective (Unfinished Business on Velvel Records), and a Net-exclusive film score called Purusha and the Spiritual Planet that Davies and his son Russell recorded last year (he’s only now working on the actual film).