Dear SF Weekly: “So if the Rolling Stones are online, does that mean I can have virtual sex with Mick Jagger?!?”
Pulsing on Potrero Hill
Dear Pulsing: Well, no. But thanks for asking. We're glad to see your imagination fired up by the possibilities the Internet offers for new ways to, um, enjoy your favorite musicians.
If the key to the '60s was “Tune in, Turn On and Drop Out,” the motto for music fanatics in the '90s is “Jack In, Down Load and Rock Out.” That squealing you hear isn't a horde of teenyboppers rushing the stage, it's thousands of high-speed modems dialing in to the Net.
Hooking up is a heady feeling. At first, you'll probably spend hours sending your friends personalized Beatles e-mail greetings, downloading excerpts from the Club Foot Orchestra's soundtrack to Metropolis and reading the Official Voodoo Lounge Press Kit. You'll breathlessly fill your hard drive with scores of nifty sound and image files.
But it won't take long to see the drawbacks and some of the more disturbing implications of this new technology. That snippet from Hole's latest album, for example, takes more than a half-hour to download, and it sounds pretty shitty through a four-inch computer speaker. Those color images of Penelope Houston or Michael Stipe look great onscreen, but you can't put them up on the wall without that $10,000 color laser printer you keep meaning to purchase.
And isn't most of this stuff just a shill to get us to buy more albums?
Ah, there's the rub. While the online services get their pound of flesh for every minute you're logged on, everyone else who's offering text, sound and images has to find some way to pay for the hard drives and phone lines that make it all possible. But even if the Rolling Stones site is just a glorified commercial, at least you have the choice of not buying Voodoo Lounge, or of not visiting their Web site in the first place. It turns out that even the hip Internet Underground Music Archives (IUMA) is “powered by Sun Microsystems,” apparently to help polish their image as a hip, groovy and ever-so-likable Fortune 500 hardware manufacturer. But, hey, if you can ignore the ads in SF Weekly, you can do the same on the Net.
Be warned: The technology is still slow, there are limits to what's out there and French kissing the screen is as close as you'll get to Mick Jagger. Dive in anyway. We're seeing the first pale glimmerings of the dawn of a new era, and before we get charged for every mouse click, surfing the Net remains a damn cheap way for you to control how you hear new music.
Musicians should be especially interested in the varied delights of the online world, and particularly adept at jacking in. No need to master the mysteries of MIDI — anyone who's ever plugged in an amp or noodled a four track can quickly learn to play the Net like a Stradivarius.
So where to start?
First, you need a basic home computer with sound capabilities and a modem. As much as it hurts, buy the fastest modem you can afford. Sound and image files are huge and take time to download. Because the new 28.8-baud hummers will soon be the standard, the 14.4 models are starting to be discounted as low as $100. Next, you'll need a connection to the Net. If you can't wangle access through an academic or corporate computer system, you can subscribe to a consumer-oriented info service or a direct Internet service provider. If you're new to the online world, it's best to go with a consumer service like CompuServe, Prodigy or America Online (AOL). Check the ads in the back of any of the computer monthlies for info on signing up for one of these services.
So now you're revved up and ready to go. Where to?
If you're a data junkie, the most comprehensive list of musical info that's available via e-mail is called the List of Musical Mailing Lists. You'll find it at ftp.uwp.edu in the directory /pub/incoming/faq/lomml. Also available through ftp is an immense archive of song lyrics, at ftp.uwp.edu, in the /pub directory.
Your next stop should be the Usenet newsgroups, which are accessible through any of the online services. Dave Barry calls the Usenet “just like CB radio, but with more typing.” Make fun all you want, but there are already over 10,000 different electronic bulletin boards where you can meet and greet like-minded souls to discuss everything from a cappella to world music, and artists from Amy Grant to Ween. Browse through the various groups called alt.music.[whatever] and rec.music.[whatever]. Scan the comp.music groups for the latest word on computer-based music-making. Definitely stop by the Bay Area's ba.music group; lots of local bands post their performance schedules there and it's a great free place for classified ads to buy and sell concert tickets and musical gear.
Having mastered all the Net's text-based resources, now you're ready for the World Wide Web, the razzle-dazzle, point-and-click, multimedia future of the Internet. Each “page” on the Web can display an infinite variety of still pictures, moving images and sounds. Once you've got your Web browser fired up, start with the “granddaddy” of musical Web sites, IUMA, at http://www.iuma.com/IUMA/index_graphic.html.
Barely a year ago, IUMA was the Net equivalent of a garage band, with three young guys holed up in a Santa Cruz apartment loading donated disk space with samples and pictures of their favorite local bands. Today, you'll find those same unsigned bands sharing Web space with industry monsters DGC and Warner.
The paradox in this new technology is its relative primitiveness. The Internet today is at the same stage of development that black-and-white TV was in the 1950s. If Vice President Gore and the techno-weenie business types are correct, soon everyone will have a blazingly fast two-way data link to the rest of the world, combining and superseding the telephone and cable services that exist today.
So forget Marx's dream of the workers owning the means of production. The key to the digital future is the fight over who owns the means of distribution. After all, why schlep to Tower if you can sit at home in your undies and quickly download an entire album, complete with liner art and maybe even a few music videos. We'll likely pay through the nose for the privilege, but our bucks may not go to Geffen or Time-Warner. The record labels are largely in the business of pressing, printing, warehousing and distributing CDs and tapes, which is a nice little list of four major industries that could virtually disappear in a few decades.
In the meantime, when your fingers and your butt get sore from sitting too long in front of your computer, the best new music is still playing — live — all over town every night of the week. Or better yet, get out there and make some of your own.
Ted Weinstein is music commentator for NPR's All Things Considered.