After two decades of meteoric success in the mainstream record industry, rapper Chuck D's new personal goal is to take on the industry. His weapon of choice? The Internet.
The frontman for the rap group Public Enemy, Chuck D is one of many established niche artists bypassing corporate distribution channels to make, sell, and market music through Web sites, where they can forge closer bonds with fans.
Music lovers are responding to the personal touch of Web sites by maverick artists such as Ani DiFranco, Todd Rundgren, Matt Wilson, and Cowboy Junkies. Here they can get news updates, access multimedia archives, and, sometimes, observe recordings in progress or even participate in the creative process (see story on veteran musicians, page 17).
Releasing the umbilicals from big labels that birthed their careers is allowing musicians to escape bureaucracy. Record companies, meanwhile, are all too aware that the successful tunes of these Pied Pipers could induce major stars on their rosters to try their own Internet ventures. They know the rules of the business are being irreparably altered.
"I saw that traditional areas such as television and radio and retail had almost made it an impossibility to ... market a project without pouring five or six figures into it," says Chuck D during a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. "I began to immerse myself into helping [create] a new wave, without financially getting destroyed in the old way."
Singer Aimee Mann is another artist who'll never willingly traipse the carpets of a record company boardroom again.
"I was so eager to get out of there," says Ms. Mann, in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. Her Web site links directly to artistdirect.com, an online store which distributes her new album, "Bachelor No. 2." Mann took the drastic - and expensive - action of buying back the master tapes from Geffen Records. They'd complained that the album wasn't "radio friendly."
"I am so uncomputer-savvy," Mann says, "but for ordering records [the Internet] is great! So I figured, well, if I'm doing it, a lot of people will."
The Web liberated Mann - just nominated for an Oscar for her song "Save Me" from the movie "Magnolia" - from trying to sell her records directly from home because she "realized pretty quickly that it ... takes up all your day to stuff records into mail orders and mail them out."
Mann had also been frustrated that, having barely survived troubles with her first label, her second album, "I'm With Stupid," then suffered an ignominious two-year delay in release by Geffen.
"The fastest you can get a record out with a major label is about three months," observes Reeves Gabrels, David Bowie's guitarist and co-writer for the past decade. Mr. Gabrels released his second solo album, "Ulysses," through his Web site in MP3 format (a downloadable audio file of music), because of the quick turnaround.
"It's like in the old '50s movie when someone goes to Sun studios, cuts a record, they bring the record down to the sock hop, to the dance hall, and people are playing it when the vinyl is still warm," he says, sitting in the Monitor's newsroom.
Gabrels says that MP3 allows him the freedom to add a track to an album at a later stage.
Chuck D, meanwhile, is questioning the traditional album format altogether.
"Lawyers and accountants have dictated that ... an artist turn in 12 tracks, so they can justify selling it to retailers with a minimum suggested price of $12," says the Public Enemy mastermind. "Well, who says an album should be 12 tracks?"
By cutting out the middleman, musicians can dictate price and the size of their cut. "I might be able to make a deal with a wireless phone company to sell [an] album for a dollar to a million people globally," Chuck D predicts, "or even give records away for free ... you don't think people will come and buy three records for a dollar ... if they like that artist?"
The trade-off for all this artistic freedom is that musicians underwrite the commercial risks themselves; not easy without the vast marketing arm of a record company.
But "that's a perfect case of what the Internet is good for ... low-cost marketing," says Bob Goodale, who oversees the running of Bowie's Web site.
It means that these established brand-name artists are concentrating on their most important asset: their fan base.
Whereas fans used to stake out hotels, stage doors, and tour buses to talk to their rock heroes, nowadays they can chat with them without leaving home.
In addition to responding to e-mails, Bowie hosts scheduled chats with fans - sometimes with special guest stars - and he regularly drops in on fan-chat Web forums using a pseudonym.
The level of interaction between artist and fan goes even further.
Public Enemy is not averse to fans remixing tracks for his possible release, and Bowie has consulted Web fans about his song mixes. He used the winning lyrics from a Web contest on his recent "Hours..." album, which was released on his Web site weeks before it appeared in record stores.
"He really considers this to be a living, breathing, working community to whom he can turn and communicate intelligently," Mr. Goodale says. "It's something more than a great big focus group."
Beyond deepening their fan base, musicians are expanding their listenership through Web radio channels and through Inter-networking. Gabrels is one artist who is "tagged" to Bowie's Web site. A "click" on Gabrels's name from any of the Web pages of people he has recorded with - like The Rolling Stones or The Cure - leads to his personal Web site.
Similarly, links to discussion forums about politics, art, and culture on the publicenemy.com site has drawn interest from all over the world.
"We put together eight tours in two years on the strength of the Web," Chuck D says. "Publicenemy.com was a major... ...statement that was known by few and missed by many because the media couldn't understand the magnitude of it."
The rap band has used its live concerts to promote its Web site, and vice versa, to build momentum on a global scale. "We went into Australia, which we considered a growing market ... with a heavy Internet promotion outreach," says the rap star, noting that his former record company didn't expend much energy on global expansion.
Last November, Public Enemy broadcast a concert from Zurich, Switzerland, on the Web.
An online concert is something Gabrels looks forward to doing, too. He may even "bootleg" his own work.
This is already happening elsewhere: Bands like Phish and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, together with The Black Crowes, are selling downloadable concert recordings not available in stores.
Goodale even envisions a time when devotees will follow a tour on their Internet-wired telephones without becoming a commune of traveling groupies.
"The difference between a live experience and an interactive experience will become less and less," he says.
The potential of multimedia interactivity of this sort has prompted major labels to suddenly lurch into this market, as EMI did when it linked arms with the AOL/Time-Warner merger in January.
The infinite plains of the Internet suggest there is homesteading room for both major corporations and the independents. But it is the latter who are setting the rules on the frontiers of the Web music landscape and competing on their own turf through a focus on niche genres.
Chuck D has a message for the AOL-Time-Warner-EMI conglomerate: "Getting involved with the Internet requires more heart, body, mind, and soul than just having a big volume of content," he warns.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society