First you had to wait a couple of months, fingers crossed, for record stores to release something you thought was hot. Then, Mp3s arrived and everyone stopped waiting. Suddenly there was this powerful wave of compressed music waiting for anyone with a modem.
Music labels were hit pretty hard. Revenue tumbled drastically, with an estimated annual loss of over $600, 000 in 1999. Then came the ban on file-sharing software utilities like Napster and Gnutella, but file swapping didn’t stop. People merely switched to newer utilities.
Today, Mp3 is more than a mere format. It has brought obscure bands to the forefront, helped widen the reach of marginalized genres, and changed musical tastes around the globe. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? If your neighbourhood record store simply didn’t stock Massive Attack before MP3s arrived, how could you fall in love with trip hop?
Vedic Chants, new upstarts on the indipop scene with a vibrant mix of rock and traditional Indian chants, want to carve a niche for themselves. To tell the world what their music is all about, they converted their tracks to MP3 and uploaded them “to all major file-sharing music sites like Napster, Audiogalaxy and some popular FTP (File Transfer Protocol) servers,” says Siddarth, the lead guitarist.
What about the money? “Let’s build a rapport with fans first, letting them decide whether or not they want to buy our album. We can think about the money later,” say band members.
They are not alone. Indipop star Abbey is enthusiastic, too. “A utility like Napster can put singers like me on the world map.” Erstwhile rapper Jai Menon a.k.a. Stylebhai, echoes these sentiments. “As an Indipop artist I can’t get too experimental and have to function within the confines of commercial saleability. But I would love to include hip-hop, reggae and rap as an offshoot project and do it the way I want. This is possible online, where I can avoid intrusion from a music label.”
Pentagram, the Mumbai-based rock group, also recognises the viability of Mp3 as a promotional tool. However, Papal, the band’s bassist, is worried about its cutting into album sales. The answer to that issue may lie with sites like Singapore-based Soundbuzz. It deals with exclusive online distribution as well as promotion of music encoded in Microsoft’s proprietary WMA format. A registered user can have access to free downloadable sample files from international as well as Indian musicians. Since these files are encoded with a time limit though, they refuse to play after a certain period, compelling users to delete them.
Ironically, it’s the ‘illegal’ nature of Mp3s that have made labels sit up and consider making online music cost-effective. Individual preferences are changing to such an extent that some labels now prefer promoting experimental genres online before moving to retail sales.
For probably the first time in music history, people from around the planet are beginning to play a role in defining choices. Even as you read this, some musicians somewhere have managed to get around constricting record labels to release what they think is a sound all their own. With or without public approval, one may add.
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