The MP3 Phenomena and Innovative Music

Unknown composers and improvisers have also benefited from the MP3 phenomena. One of the most obvious, locatable and centralized resources for this new Internet “scene” of innovative music is MP3.com.

MP3.com has over one million listeners visiting their site daily. Since 1998, it has offered artists free web pages and disk space for uploading MP3s of their music. It does not require artists to relinquish the rights to their work in any way or pay any fees to MP3.com, though the artist does agree to offer the downloads for free. In the future, artists may receive payments from their respective performing rights organizations as compensation for their free participation on MP3.com. MP3.com does not censor music for content, and it allows all styles and genres. The only sort of music not allowed is that which is in violation of copyright, such as cover songs and works using obvious sampling from copyrighted sources.

There are all sorts of promotional schemes and advertising schemes that currently define the larger structure of the MP3.com site, all which seem to change rather frequently. More and more, MP3.com is focusing on the mainstream popular acts. You will not find innovative music in the Top 10 listings of MP3.com. In fact, there are no official categories for genres such as contemporary, minimalist, electro-acoustic, computer music, sound art, free jazz, free improvisation, experimental noise, and so on. This type of music is not particularly easy to locate on MP3.com. However, this certainly does not mean innovative music is not there.

I located innovative artists on MP3.com by entering the name of a not-too-well-known contemporary composer or improvisor into the “artists we sound like” meta-tags search engine. Names like “Morton Feldman,” “Annea Lockwood” and “Harry Partch” helped me to find music I considered to be non-commercial and risk-taking. Email discussions with the artists led me to additional innovative artists on MP3.com.

I surveyed twelve composers and/or improvisors from North America and four from Europe. Two respondents were music teachers, one was a part-time professional musician and two were music students. The other respondents supported themselves in non-music professions. None of the respondents made any significant income from the sales of recordings and downloads on MP3.com or otherwise. Respondents had offered their music on MP3.com anywhere from a few months to two years. Some respondents had many downloads of their music available, while others offered only one or two pieces. All respondents self-produced their music using home equipment.

The number of downloads and plays that the artists received monthly varied widely, from only two or three, to hundreds, depending on the popularity of the artist and whether the artist had participated in various internal and external promotions of their sites. Almost all of the artists said that their music had reached a worldwide audience because of their web presence, which was indicated to them by the emails they had received in response to their site. A few artists had received record-deal offers and/or offers to perform as the result of their participation in MP3.com. Most did not sell regular CDs of their work, and sold relatively few MP3.com “DAM” (Digital Automatic Music) CDs (a promotion whereby MP3.com burns requested MP3s to a CD for a fee).

Most artists felt that the opportunities generated by the availability of their music on the Internet far outweighed any problems with sound quality. However, two respondents, a solo instrumentalist and an artist working with psychoacoustic concepts, did state that they were disappointed at subtleties that had been lost due to the filtering processes.

The majority of the artists interviewed enthusiastically described internal networking as the primary benefit of their presence on MP3.com. Connections with other artists had led to collaborations, tour partners, organization of live concerts and exchanges of helpful information. Some said that exposure to the works of other artists on MP3.com had spurred their artistic growth. Supportive emails from fans and other artists had given several respondents the inspiration to continue or resume composing. Artists also supported each other through organizing collaborative MP3.com promotions and reviewing each other’s works online. While MP3.com had not provided significant financial gain for any artist I interviewed, it had provided a positive sense of community and inspiration. These musicians and composers have found free rent and a community of artists, not in a big city, but in cyber-space.

Doug Kolmar, a composer from New York City, summed it up best by saying:

“It (MP3.com) has helped me regain a connection to the community of artists that I had pretty much lost touch with and rejuvenated my activity as a composer. Once you know there’s someone out there listening, you have a much more compelling reason to turn those ideas that have been kicking around your head into reality.”

Highly significant is the independence with which these artists work. They had not received commissions, they had not paid a recording studio, they did not have a record label, and many did not even organize a performance of their work. They worked other jobs to pay the bills, they wrote the compositions in their free time, they often performed the compositions themselves, they recorded the work themselves, and they released the recording without the assistance of a label. Their overhead was relatively low, a large audience heard their work, and many liked it. In the case of MP3.com, as the old saying goes, Mohammed did not go to the mountain, the mountain came to Mohammed.

Artists maintaining independent sites do not have the same level of networking opportunities that a central service such as MP3.com provides. Pamela Z, a San-Francisco based composer of electro-acoustic music, has featured audio on her website since 1997. Like the MP3.com composers, she has received emails from around the world commenting on her music and has established new contacts with fans and other artists. She was even contacted by a small label purely on the strength of hearing her music on the site. But her independent site does not enjoy the advantages of MP3.com’s structure, such as the central search engine, the easy-to-maintain websites, the internal promotions and the statistical information concerning site visitors. One MP3.com artist, who has maintained a web presence since 1994, noted that his MP3.com site received far more hits than his independent sites.

MP3.com features sites called “radio stations” as a promotional mechanism for their artists. These “radio stations ” usually present a group of 10 to 20 soundfiles by various artists. The MP3.com stations I listened to (which included noise from a rebel moon, David’s Eclectic Listening, Brax-Tone, and PIANOCOMPOSERS) were actually more like compilation CDs than radio stations. Any MP3.com artist can set up a “radio station” for free, and there are several experimental samplers available.