July 15, 2002

Can newspapers help make record companies obsolete?

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I just downloaded Internet Porn from The Washington Post's Web site. It's one of the quirkier songs available from MP3.washingtonpost.com, a section of the Post's site that allows local musicians to self-publish their work online for free. MP3 download sections are not yet common in daily newspapers, but if enough of them pick up on the idea, newspapers could become as strong a promotional force in the music industry as traditional record companies.

Howard Parnell, managing editor for local news at washingtonpost.com, came up with the idea of a Post-sponsored MP3 download site. He lived in the Boston area for 15 years, and liked the download area at Boston.com (which apparently closed for a while but has since returned), and thought something similar might go over well in the Washington, D.C., area. He says, "I grew up in this town, and I'm a big fan of the local music scene."

When Howard found that the Perl code behind the Boston.com MP3 site was Open Source, and that he could get a copy free upon request, the idea of a Post MP3 download site suddenly became financially attractive, and he presented it to his bosses. "The publishers had to approve it," he says, "but that was no problem. The idea fit in with a core part of our mission: To encapsulate the Internet for our local audience ... it seemed like a no-brainer."

Some of the Boston.com folks came down and worked on the code with the Post's people. This was a couple of years ago. Since then, Howard says, "we haven't had any real problems with the code."

Howard says Post management is happy with the site. While he won't discuss financial specifics, he says, "we aren't losing money on it."

The artist's view

Cliff Mays' band, Heydevils, is promoted almost entirely on the Internet and by word of mouth. They currently have three songs available for download through the Post's site, and, Cliff says, "The Post has helped a lot with exposure. People go from the Post's site to our heydevils.com site, where there are more MP3s to download, and they can buy our CDs."

"You mean," I ask, "you guys sell CDs through your Web site, and play concerts, and don't have a major record contract, and you manage to make a living as full-time musicians?"

"Yes, we're making a living, Cliff says. "We're all full-time musicians."

The Heydevils are not Internet beginners. At one point, about a year and a half ago, their novelty song, AOHell, was the top download at MP3.com. "AOHell was the first song we uploaded [to the Internet]," Cliff says, "and we got a lot of attention from it."

Cliff designed the Heydevils Web site himself. He says, "The 'Net's been good to us." The Heydevils had their own site up, and were using it to sell CDs and announce upcoming appearances, long before they knew the Post had a music download site. In fact, they didn't go looking for MP3.Washingtonpost.com. The Post found them.

A secret weapon named Maria

Howard says, "There are only two people working on MP3.washingtonpost.com, and they only spend some of their time each week on it." Those two people are tech guy Rhome Anderson and writer/producer Maria Villafana, and Maria says she spends much more than "some of her time" working on the site.

Well, maybe only some of the time she spends in the office -- she has editorial duties on other Post-owned Web sites -- but she says she works on the music download site "more than full time ... I'm in bars and clubs seven nights a week." Some of that time is spent recruiting bands for the download site. Cliff Mays of Heydevils says he first heard about mp3.washingtonpost.com from Maria in a Georgetown nightclub: "She said we should upload some songs to her site, so we did."

Knowing that this kind of personal recruiting is way above and beyond the normal call of duty, I ask Maria, "Is this a job or a labor of love?"

Maria says, "It's more than a job. It's what I've always done for fun and a living."

Before going to work for washingtonpost.com's predecessor, Digital Ink, back around 1995, Maria worked with the Washington Area Music Association (WAMA). This experience is what got her into Digital Ink, where she wrote about music, especially night club acts. When the Post decided to start featuring MP3 downloads, she was already on staff, and she was eager to take on the new responsibility. "When Howard approached me about doing this site," she says, "it was kind of like WAMA, except it had funding and the Post name."

Maria says she listens to every song that goes on the site. "I try not to be judgmental," she says. "It's fun, but it can be a real pain. I filter things because some people can take the freedom to do what they want just a little further than they should. Somebody once uploaded something glorifying date rape. That's the only song I ever turned down."

Beyond basic yea/nay MP3 posting decisions (and recruiting), Maria feels a large part of her job is featuring groups that deserve exposure over and above the basic "band pages" they all get free for the asking. She describes the features she writes about outstanding groups for the front page of the MP3 section like this: "If there's something that's really good, I say to the rest of the community, 'Hey, take a listen!'"

Maria claims she has only had one conflict, ever, with Howard over editorial policy, and that was the time she wanted to write a feature about a band called Da Vinci's Notebook, whose song, Enormous Penis, was getting downloaded like mad. "Enormous What???!!?" is Maria's recollection of Howard's reaction, so she held off on the story about Da Vinci's Notebook until the group had other songs available for download. (Now Da Vinci's Notebook has two more MP3s on the Post's site: Ally McBeal and Internet Porn, and they are both as funny as Enormous Penis.)

All kinds of music

A look at the Post's top downloads shows an amazing variety, from rock to rap to go-go (an ultra-danceable local funk variant) to country to -- at least in the weeks right around July 4 -- The Star Spangled Banner. There's bluegrass, klezmer, techno, classical, punk, jazz, and groups that are not easy to classify by genre. MP3.com may have more titles and bands listed, but the Post carries more than enough kinds of music to satisfy almost any taste.

Quality varies. Howard says, "We have rock and roll hall-of-famers on here, we have some kids from local high schools. This is an outlet for self-expression. We don't make many quality judgments here." He tells of one kid who recorded a song about his graduation from high school. "It was about what you'd expect," he says, "but it got a lot of play around graduation time, even made our 'Top 50' list for a while. A lot of people liked it and downloaded it.

"There's a certain old-school Internet thing about this site," Howard says, "like the commitment to self-expression. And the real power of it is the focus on local community.

"MP3.com, sites like that, are not really competitors," he points out. "They're a national thing. This is about the local music scene, Maryland, Virginia, D.C., West Virginia. You have to assert some localness ..."

There is a certain beauty in listening to an MP3 from a local band and realizing that you can not only buy CDs directly from them, but that you can probably hear them perform live if you're so inclined.

Maria also sees another piece of beauty in hooking music makers and music listeners up with each other through the Internet: "Destroying the record industry as we know it ... that part makes me feel good," she says.

We all know the current "major label" record industry, with its chronic emphasis on a few pop groups and near-exclusion of all other music, its archaic distribution structure, and its resistance to technological innovations, is on the way out. The real question has become, "What will replace it?"

Could newspaper Web sites, combined with musicians' own sites, be part of the answer? Daily newspapers have faced circulation losses for years, and, so far, few of them have managed to make up those losses with their Web sites. But newspapers still have cachet and clout. A band that gets mentioned in the local paper -- or on the paper's Web site -- has a greater chance of success than a band that doesn't. Conversely, music downloads offer newspapers a way to reach young readers they probably would not otherwise capture. Extend the concept one step further: Imagine a "music version" of the Associated Press getting into the act and carrying the top five or 10 MP3s from hundreds of local newspaper MP3 sites. Suddenly bands would have a chance to find big-time fame and fortune without being forced to sign recording company contracts to get "exposure."

The marriage of newspapers and MP3 downloads is -- on the surface -- an unlikely match. But if it gives me interesting and innovative music to listen to, and a chance to support the people who produce that music by going to their performances, and a chance to buy their CDs directly from them instead of from a record company that only shares a tiny fraction of its income with the people who actually make the music, I'm all for it.

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