Riff Raff

Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, Download No Evil Robert Reid's favorite artists are the Clash, Green Day, Kate Bush, and Black Grape, and none of their songs are available on the downloadable music Web site of which he is founder and CEO, listen.com. You see, the site, which launched last week, is completely legitimate from a legal standpoint, and prides itself on having no illegal files that might peeve bands and labels. With online ventures, peeving people only makes a shaky proposition that much shakier.

Reid comes from an entrepreneurial background -- he worked as an associate at San Francisco-based 21st Century Internet Venture Partners -- but notes that while some people are "inherently VCs," he himself wasn't. From his office in an industrial park near the baseball field formerly known as Candlestick Park, he has a perfect view of a big hill that obscures the entire city; the company moves its offices to the so-called "Audio Alley" of Potrero Hill in early July.

Reid's main passion has always been music, so he jumped the venture capital ship last year. Gathering up investors and financing from other VCs -- including Silicon Valley's August Capital, which has been publicly cynical about funding Another Damn Internet Start-up -- listen.com has $10 million to use in figuring out its trajectory.

Which involves, mainly, trying to be the Yahoo! of downloadable music. No music files are on the site proper, but listen.com provides links, broken down by genre, and is rife with recommendations by an editorial staff of about 30, which sits mainly beheadphoned in a darkened array of cubicles, busily typing and surfing. "There's no substitute for human intelligence and judgment," Reid points out.

While the editorial content isn't blithely chirpy and upbeat -- there's a wacky little site coming out of San Jose called Rock Love that proudly offers an all-positive-all-the-time approach -- listen.com certainly isn't in the business of criticism: Name artists get heavy play, while smaller ones crop up when searches for bands in the same genre come up empty. While Reid says that his writing and editing staff is "unbribable," he also notes that "we're not heavy-handed editorially. We leave that to other folks."

And income? That's coming from the usual suspects: banner ads and strategic partnerships. On Monday, listen.com aligned with 11 sites -- including Emusic.com, Audio Explosion, IUMA, Riffage.com and Tunes.com -- to speed up placement of downloads on listen.com's site. By fall, though, syndication of its content and a share of the profits from pay-to-play MP3s may be in the offing. Of course, with higher-ups in the music industry currently designing a system of secure online music distribution (for all the secrecy involved, the Rosicrucians may be in on this as well), listen.com might need a completely different approach by the end of the year. "There's definitely fog on the battlefield," says Reid.

It's a Benefit On May 7, Paul Pena played at Chinatown's Clarion Music Center, a different affair than was anticipated when it was originally scheduled months before. In the beginning of the year, nobody could have foreseen that Genghis Blues, the film documenting Pena's merging of blues and Tuvan throat singing, as well as his trip to Tuva itself, would become one of the most celebrated movies to come out of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Genghis Blues took an audience award, as well as the grand prize for best Bay Area documentary. The night before the Clarion show, at the film festival's closing night screening of Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club, Pena took the stage, thanked the audience in song, and received a standing ovation.

Pena's performance at Clarion was a more subdued affair, but celebratory in its own way. On piano and guitar, Pena sang blues, Tuvan songs, and folk songs from his family's homeland in the Cape Verde islands, and was joined by a cast of friends including bluesman Big Bones and didgeridoo player Stephen Kent. As previously reported in Riff Raff, Pena had been diagnosed at the time with pancreatic cancer and wished to finally visit Cape Verde himself; since then, friends and colleagues have been working to arrange a benefit concert to collect money for the trip. So, on July 11, the Great American Music Hall will host "Genghis Blues: A Tribute to Paul Pena." Performing with Pena will be Kongar-Ol Ondar, Pena's mentor in Tuvan singing, and an array of musicians from the blues rock and world music worlds: Merl Saunders, Big Bones, Stephen Kent, George Brooks, Danny Heines, John Santos, Alan Kushan, and the Ali Khan Band. Also promised are "special guests," a favored rubric for big-name musicians who can't announce their presence due to contractual obligations. The show begins at 7 p.m., and tickets are $20; call 885-0750.

Also: Six months ago, Eric, the drummer for local oi-punkers Workin' Stiffs (whose members all eschew surnames), suffered from a debilitating stroke. In order to help cover medical costs, the Cocodrie will play host to a benefit concert on July 3 at 8 p.m. featuring the Shifters, Randumbs, Reducers SF, and -- once again -- "special guests." Tickets are $10; call 986-6678.

-- Mark Athitakis

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to mathitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail it to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

 
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