”Fight the powers that be.”
A decade after throwing down those words, Public Enemy still hold them to heart — only this time the power being fought is the music industry itself, and the battleground is the Internet. On April 16, the veteran rappers stunned industry watchers with the announcement that their new recording, There’s a Poison Goin On, would, for its first four weeks of release, be made available exclusively for mail order and download through Atomic Pop (http://www.atomicpop.com), the Santa Monica-based music site headed by former MCA Music Entertainment Group chairman Al Teller. This marks the first time an album-length recording by a major act has been offered for purchase in downloadable form — a development most in the industry didn’t expect for another several months, if not years.
And Public Enemy are not the only act bum-rushing this show. An expected announcement of a tour-sponsorship arrangement between Alanis Morissette and MP3.com — with rumors of Morissette getting an equity stake in the controversial website — led to further rumblings of emergency meetings at Morissette’s label, Maverick Records, and its parent company, Warner Bros. (The website devoted to the singer’s tour with Tori Amos now makes vague promises of ”streaming…concert performances”; a spokesperson for Maverick denies that any changes were made to the initial agreement.) Then, on May 3, Real.com unveiled its free RealJukebox — software that makes creating, organizing, downloading, and playing MP3 music as easy as putting a CD in that little sliding tray on your computer.
Still, the Public Enemy announcement, along with Teller’s heavyweight rep in the music biz, has put Atomic Pop at the head of the pack. Offering music, videos, articles, and an online store, the site comes across as equal parts record label, music magazine, and retail outlet. ”We’ve deliberately blurred the lines between those categories,” says Teller. ”That’s why we call ourselves ‘the 21st Century Music Company.”’
The deal itself is pretty futuristic: Public Enemy will retain ownership of their masters while netting a bigger chunk of the royalties, even while pricing Poison at a Fugazi-like $10 online (the CD, which will cost approximately $16, hits stores June 21). But aren’t PE worried about alienating fans who aren’t online? ”We’re not worried about anything,” replies lead singer Chuck D. ”There’s nothing romantic about walking into a record store, spending $400, and coming out with 20 CDs.”
Despite these developments, music industry analysts are still awaiting the emergence of a truly Net-driven hit artist or recording. ”That’s what we’re all chasing,” says Teller, ”the ability to break artists online.” Some in the industry doubt it will happen. Tower Records COO and exec VP Stan Goman calls proponents of Net-driven music ”a bunch of 30-year-olds living in a dreamworld. The total sales of records over the Net are just not that significant, and direct delivery through the Net is even more insignificant.”