Downloadable Dreams 

Specialty shops in cyberspace

Wednesday, Oct 7 1998
Out there, the Web is humming and the sound pours through the digital window I've just thrown open, like insect hum in high summer. One click brings me to Washington, D.C., where R.E.M. performs on the Mall for 100,000 people. Another click places me in a coffee shop in Idyllwild, where a bongo-guitar-standup-bass ensemble interprets Nirvana's "All Apologies" in Dead-language, somehow transforming that song's bitter self-castigation into country-standard self-pity. "Got a request for that last week," the bandleader says. He could be talking to his cyber-audience, or maybe he's telling the people in the coffee shop. "On e-mail. From Sweden."


On thousands of personalized Web sites in locations throughout the world, home DJs spin discs from their private collections 24 hours a day. Legal and illegal recordings, compressed into easily downloadable chunks, float on the information trade winds like spores, waiting only to be clicked on to blossom into glorious, perfectly transferred sound. The complete digitization of the music industry has begun in earnest.

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"There really is going to be a great music jukebox in the sky," says Scott Becker, publisher of the outside-the-mainstream music journal Option. "That's where people are going to get their music." And to the joy of many, the proliferation of not just Web-centered music, but also inexpensive recording equipment and new, Net-based distribution alternatives, seems to be serving consumers and artists at the expense of the major labels that have dominated the industry for so long.

From their home in the Mojave Desert, former Jayhawks vocalist Marc Olson and wife Victoria Williams can market their Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers project on their own, with no label help whatsoever. This month, Goodnoise.com, purportedly the world's first exclusively Net-based label, has released Frank Black's new album in downloadable MP3 format (MP3 is a virtual CD player; free MP3 players can be downloaded from http://www.mp3.com) for about $4 less than the retail price of a store-bought CD. Meanwhile, anyone who wants to can load MP3 versions of their own songs onto the MP3.com site for around $30, providing potential consumers with both an opportunity to sample the music and easy links to home pages where full-length recordings can be obtained.

Ironically, the technological revolution seems to have provided the generation that grew up with stripped-down, no-synthesizers, DIY punk rock with the most viable landscape in which to create its long-imagined brave new world. "The whole punk philosophy really changed the way everything worked," Becker says. The goal became not to listen to what the people around you listened to, but to "make a record, start a band, be a fan of something unpopular." In cyberspace, anyone with 10 minutes and a search engine can locate an all-but-unknown music to devote oneself to.

Lou Russell, owner of Encinitas-based Lou's Records, the top independent record store in the San Diego area for nearly 20 years, also sees enormous possibilities in the digital future of music. "People who have no chance of selling anything or even reaching anyone can target an audience on the Web," he says. And the audience can find and hear them. But this summer, in the midst of a solidly successful year, Lou opened one of his monthly staff meetings by asking his employees for ideas about how the store could survive the next 10 years. Meanwhile, in Santa Monica, Becker came to the realization that his magazine, long a refuge for restless listeners who crave exposure to quality non-mainstream music, can no longer fulfill its stated purpose and remain viable in its current format. Becker has announced that Option will suspend publication, and he's not putting any date on its return. "It was time to get off the merry-go-round and actually see what the ride looks like," he told me. "This magazine was built for the '80s. I want to build a magazine for the year 2020."

And so, in the space of a week, the directors of both of the primary sources from which I have drawn virtually all of the music that I care about confronted the possibility of their own extinction, or at least radical transformation. Almost from the day I moved to Southern California in the spring of 1980, Lou's has been my corner store, the place with the irreproachably knowledgeable clerks who steered me to hidden treasures in the bins, and the quietly communal scene that seemed to swirl so naturally through and around it. One of my high school dreams was working at Lou's, which I finally did during the summer of 1986. And it was one of Lou's oldest workers who introduced me to Option and the 50 or so pages of smartly descriptive reviews in the back of every issue. Now, the thought of a world without either has me asking questions about the relentless digital current, even as it sweeps me up. The Web has done considerably more than increase access to both product and the means of production, more than fundamentally alter the face of a struggling, aging industry. It has begun to change the way people listen to and pursue music, and, quite possibly, the nature of artistic expression and discourse as well.

  • Specialty shops in cyberspace

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