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POP MUSIC

Now fans call the tune

The same era that has vexed the recording industry has brought more control to the consumer.

August 03, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

If you stroll down to the newest store on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, you will find an elaborate mobile in the front window that spins gently as customers and the coastal breeze come through the door.

Revolving on the arms of that mobile are album covers that suggest a music boutique with a zeal for the eclectic -- there's the Who, Willie Nelson, the Ramones, Marvin Gaye, 50 Cent, the Flaming Lips and dozens of others. Inside, though, you will find no CDs, much less vinyl, and with a bit of romantic license, you could imagine it's the winds of revolution that make those album covers dance.

The shop is the new Apple Store, and in its sleek interior you will find the computer company's hardware as well as assorted gear and software. The albums in the front window are essentially an advertisement for a music store that exists only in the digital ether of the Internet and sells songs for 99 cents apiece. It's called iTunes, which you may or may not know firsthand but probably have at least heard about via a series of engaging television commercials with bubbly fans singing their favorite hits.

In a music world in upheaval, iTunes, with its paid downloads of music, is the closest thing to an interim government in the lawless land created by Napster and its revolutionary ilk, and while its future is uncertain there is no denying that the real estate on Third Street in Santa Monica is a foothold in a brash new world.

The sunny visions of those Apple commercials are hard to reconcile with the gloom and doom that have been pervasive in the music industry in recent years. The grim chorus is now as familiar to the public as any Top 40 hit: Piracy has gutted profits, CD sales are going steadily south for the first time since the format was introduced in the 1980s, corporate conglomeration has stultified any art in the commerce of record labels, radio and the concert business.

All of that is true, and in private even the titans of the business express fears that probably echo the anxious mutterings of railroad barons in the days when Model Ts began rolling down the line. But here is the funny thing lost in the histrionics: Today may be the very best time to be a music fan, especially one looking for a connection to a favorite artist or guidance and access to the exotic or rare.

Be it the iPod (the popular Apple portable digital player), alluring satellite radio services such as XM, the fan-beloved minutiae posted on Web sites, the availability of live music performances on AOL, the esoteric music videos streaming off Launch.com or the self-tailored satisfaction of burning a homemade mix on CD at home, there is a singular zest to the modern fan experience today.

All that has been flummoxing to the formal music industry, which has little control or obvious major profit source in any of the above. Mainly because, in the past five years, the experience of being a music consumer has been increasingly determined by that consumer, not the artist or the industry.

The impact of the CD

The big screen has a map of the United States and, with a click of a mouse, it is filled with red dots, more than 50,000 of them, spread through every state but clustered in metropolitan areas like hot spots on a thermal chart. The dots represent music fans, mostly teens, mostly male, and they are part of a curious and potent community that finds its hub at the Web site of StreetWise Concepts & Culture. StreetWise uses the members to market and promote bands, new films, video games and anything else that skews toward youth, and the members in turn get cool merchandise, backstage passes and, most interestingly, a big say in the shaping of products and projects before they reach the public.

The company is the brainchild of David "Beno" Benveniste, also the manager for System of a Down. The early grass-roots promotion of that band led to the StreetWise model, but now the company has been contracted to use the same "viral" approach for Radiohead, Nokia, Coca-Cola, NASCAR and many others. The lifestyle and wants of the new music fan may be a riddle to major record companies, but they are the basic programming at StreetWise.

"Look, the kids are so smart these days, they can find, retrieve, disseminate, produce any piece of music or technology now on the Internet. They can take a song, send it to a friend in North Africa, remix it how they want, make their own video for it and make it their own. And that technology makes them so powerful. It's not about the radio programmers anymore or promoters. It's about a kid in homeroom in Iowa now. Everything is different now."

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