"Most of you know more about this subject [music and the Internet] than I." -- Richard Parsons, Time Warner Inc. president
Nashville Pussy lead guitarist Ruyter. Photo by Michael Goldberg

InsiderOne - The Drama You've Been Craving

Monday July 31, 2000

Head In The Sand

Old-school music-biz types and Internet-music digerati don't get it: it's about the music, not the money.

By Michael Goldberg

NEW YORK -- Chuck D, the brains behind Public Enemy, one of the most revolutionary hip-hop crews of all time, stared intently at the stage. It was after midnight at a party held at Chaos by the MTV Interactive Group July 25. The place was jammed with Internet music-biz insiders, celebrities and the usual assortment of beautiful-on-the-outside, not-so-beautiful-on-the-inside V.I.P.s one finds at these exclusive functions.

But Chuck D seemed oblivious to all that. He was watching three turntable wizards, the X-ecutioners, improvise, creating daring, intoxicating music on the fly.

The dance floor was packed. If you were paying attention and not trying to pitch someone on your latest Internet-music play, it was damn near impossible to keep from moving to the radical beats and wack rhythms shaking the club.

Even the great Chuck D, the man whose group pioneered the sonic-collage approach to music-making that went on to influence generations of artists (including the young men on the stage), was hearing something new.

For at least two years, Chuck D has been outspoken about the promise the Net holds for new music and new artists. He was one of the first artists to release an album, There's a Poison Goin' On, in downloadable form on the Net. He is one of the few stars who has defended beleaguered Napster, believing that it exposes people to new music, some of which they subsequently purchase. As Chuck D told me last year, speaking about the radical stance he and his band took regarding the music business, "Not only did we bite the hand that fed us, we tried to chop it off."

Taking in this scene was one of the highlights of plug.in, an ever-growing annual event (1910 attendees this year, up from 1550 last year, according to a plug.in press spokesperson) that brings Internet music-biz veterans, newbies and wannabes together for two days of panels, tech exhibits, networking, parties and schmooze.

There were a few other musical highlights: performances by hard-rocking Nashville Pussy and former Beastie Boys turntablist DJ Hurricane at a party (July 23) thrown by CDDB, a biz-to-biz Internet music company (just renamed GraceNote), and equally powerful mini-sets from Aimee Mann and David Bowie at the third annual Yahoo! Internet Life Magazine Online Music Awards (July 24).

Fooled Again

At the conference itself, held on two floors of a midtown hotel, music seemed to be a low priority. Long, long ago, way back in the mid-'90s, the Internet presented itself as an apparent alternative, a place where music and musicians (both popular and obscure) might flourish.

Here at plug.in, seven years after the first web browser hit the street, it seemed to all be about money -- and who's going to get it. When you cut through the old-school major-label jive about protecting artists' rights and the Napster/music-be-free rhetoric of equally cynical Internet gold-diggers, most people who frequent Internet conferences like this one are about business, not art. As one attendee put it, quoting from the Who's hard-rock anthem "Won't Get Fooled Again": "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Thus it was fitting that Time Warner Inc. president Richard Parsons (due to become co-chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner Inc., once the merger of the two companies is complete) gave the opening keynote speech on day one (July 25) of the two-day conference. "Major labels [have been] asleep at the switch," he said during a speech that some attendees found laughable. At one point, Parsons compared Napster to hijackers, pirates and the devil.

The devil?

As for his music division and its competitors, Parsons said they "have to get in the game." That game isn't about music, it's about "...content made for the broadest audience and delivered on all platforms..."

Tell that to Neil Young. Or the Make-Up. Or Chuck D. Or the X-ecutioners.

"...Content made for the broadest audience..."

During the morning's first panel, Def Jam chairman Russell Simmons, who discovered and signed Public Enemy and whose label is now owned by Universal Music Group (UMG), told UMG exec Larry Kenswil that he knows many hip-hop artists who want nothing to do with major music corporations. "No one wants to talk to you, ever," Simmons told Kenswil. "I'm with you and I work for you, but I'm just making a point."

Unclear On The Concept

If the old-school music corporations don't get it, some of the Internet-music crew are even more clueless.

With utmost sincerity, Mark Cuban, mega-rich thanks to the Internet, told 1000-plus attendees filling one ballroom that he was going to start a new Internet-centric, "Napster-friendly" record company (three days before a federal judge shut Napster down with a preliminary injunction). Cuban said he was going to keep costs down by eliminating "artist development" and just signing artists whose major-label contracts had lapsed. Bands like Foreigner. Or the Human League.

Of course, artist development has been critical to the making of successful recordings (both artistically and commercially) since long before the beginning of rock 'n' roll in the '50s.

Artist development involves finding unknown talents, helping them refine their skills over time, hooking them up with an appropriate producer, and much more. In the '60s, for example, Motown took raw talent and transformed it into the Supremes and the Temptations. More recently, Macy Gray's debut reflects the work of sympathetic professionals who spent serious time working with her to refine singing, writing and production.

The point here is that much of the music people love does not come direct from the garage to you.

Cuban seemed to be saying that he was going to ride on the backs of the major labels, signing up the talent they had spent millions developing and promoting. What a concept.

Fighting the threat of Napster and Napster-like programs, which some say could destroy music as we know it, are companies such as EMusic.com.

At plug.in, Emusic president and CEO Gene Hoffman spoke about his company's solution to the Napster problem (Napster may soon be history, but peer-to-peer sharing of music files ain't going away): a subscription service that allows subscribers to download as many songs as they want from EMusic's catalog of more than 125,000 songs, mostly from indie labels, in MP3 format.

One problem: EMusic doesn't have access to currently popular music. The majors aren't playing ball.

Another problem: As anyone who has actually spent a bit of time with successful artists knows, they take a lot of pride in their creations. Neil Young, for instance, creates albums. His songs are sequenced to create a desired impact on the listener. The cover art and album package are part of a total experience he wants his fans to have. I suspect that Neil Young and many others would not be thrilled to have the songs on their latest albums available la carte, separated from the packaging.

What was most clear at plug.in was the disconnect between the suits and the fans. EMusic's Hoffman said at one point that consumers want something easier to use than the CD.

Wrong. I've never heard a normal person (one not in the business) complain that CDs were hard to use, or even that going to a record store was such a drag. What people don't like are $17 price tags.

Conversely, the reason some 20-plus million people (according to Napster Acting CEO Hank Barry) have used Napster is because they could get the music for free. Music they otherwise would have to pay for.

Chuck D and Public Enemy had it right, long before the music business knew there was an Internet: "Bring the Noise" and "Don't Believe the Hype."

Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

© 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.