Silicon Bitchin'

Alt-rockers don't die. They go online.

People in Buenos Aires protest that the world never gives Argentines credit for their inventions: the radio, the bus, the ballpoint pen. Charly Alberti, retired drummer of South American pop phenomenon Soda Stereo, has a hi-tech version of an old complaint. He claims the Swiss watch company Swatch ripped off his idea for Internet standard time, the atomically set global clock he calls "i-time."

"People tell me I've lost millions of dollars because of this," the 38-year-old musician observes stoically in the shade of an umbrella at the Van Dyke Café on Lincoln Road, "but I say I bought experience at a really high price. Never send out a business proposal by fax." Despite expensive litigation Alberti remains enthusiastic about his invention. "i-time is the perfect hour," he says, "because it's nobody's time."

In practical terms i-time facilitates the synchronization around the globe of real-time computer activities such as chats and Webcasts. For the platinum-and-gray-shocked veteran of Soda Stereo, a world without time zones has an additional appeal. Between 1981 and 1997, the guitar-bass-drum trio moved more records and sold more concert tickets than any other outfit in Latin-American history. The band barely registered a blip, however, in the sonic consciousness of the pop-music superpower at the opposite end of the Western Hemisphere. As a borderless medium, the Internet levels the geography of culture and puts the rocker-cum-dot.com-entrepreneur on a global stage.

Where do burnt-out altrockers go to die? Why, the Internet, of course
Where do burnt-out altrockers go to die? Why, the Internet, of course

I first met Alberti late one night during the subequatorial winter of 1991, at the Buenos Aires club Bajo Tierra. Soda had just finished one in a series of fourteen record-breaking sold-out concerts at the historic Rex Theater. Earlier that same year, the group had broken another national record with an outdoor gig that attracted 250,000 fans. The cover of a local zine gushed, "Soda Won't Stop." An awed circle of models, artists, and writers kept a respectful distance while Alberti unwound. Although I had never heard of the drummer or his band while in the United States, a friend introduced me to the solitary figure bellied up to the bar with the air of privilege usually reserved for the presentation of kings -- or rock stars.

Indeed Soda Stereo's aural trajectory says much about the evolution of rock music itself; its discography describes a trend time line, which registers the same currents running through Argentina as in the United States. Formed toward the tail end of Argentina's final military regime in 1983, Soda Stereo blew up toe-tapping bubble-gum pop for an audience eager to be entertained after a long period of political repression. By 1991, however, the band had matured into a darker sound, winning critical acclaim throughout the Americas for its 1990 album Canción Animal (Animal Song). The disc's feel-good anthem "Light Music," which gets much of its kick from guitar riffs that swing between Rick Springfield and Boston, declares, "Nothing will liberate us from that love of light music. There is nothing else." Nevertheless the eerie guitars on the title track carve out a desert soundscape pierced by synthesized animal wails. The lyrics confess a less-than-innocent passion: "Words are useless. Moaning is better when the body can't wait for that thing called love."

As the recently released compilation Serie 2000 Soda Stereo demonstrates, the rockers found an increasingly electronic sound in the Nineties. On "She Uses My Head as a Revolver," from 1995's Sueño Stereo, the driving guitars are only an occasional accent cutting through lush harmonies of synthesized strings and wind.

The band's final electronic leap suggests that in the age of the Internet, old rockers don't die; they go digital. Alberti went from playing around with drum sequencing and sampling to founding his own e-corporation, Cybrel Digital Entertainment. Transmitted by Cybrel in 1997, the farewell concert of Soda Stereo at the Buenos Aires River Plate Stadium still claims to be the world's biggest Webcast, with 180,000 simultaneous connections.

The only Latin American selected by Apple computers for the company's promotional club of 60-some digital wizards feted as Apple Masters, Alberti is a pioneer on a continent where the expansion of the Internet is estimated by the financial analysts of the Garner Group to generate more than $600 million in revenue over the next two years. Eager to ride that boom, Cybrel provides consulting, Web design, and Webcasting services for the South American operations of clients such as Apple, Fox, Volkswagen, Telecom, and Microsoft.

A trip to the company's Website, cybrel.com, is like falling into a bath of e-commerce. A soul-soothing minimalist soundtrack accompanies spare white bubbles of information that skitter across a cool blue screen. With endearing Spanish-inflected grammar, the English-language version boasts of Cybrel's accomplishments with text that floats to the surface like a new-age Magic 8 Ball: the world's biggest Webcast in 1997; i-time in 1998; and the largest Spanish-language music portal in 1999.

"Within two months we became one of the most visited of all Latin-American sites, with 800,000 hits a day," Alberti enthuses as he pushes his latest offering, his new music Website yeyeye.com. The tattooed e-CEO adds, "And that was without anyone knowing that I'm behind it!" In the ether of cyberspace, such claims can be hard to evaluate, let alone believe. The recent bursting of the technology-stock bubble brings that smoke-and-mirrors point home to Latin America, where even the entertainment giant Starmedia, also based in Argentina, lost more than one-third of its stock-market value as investors re-evaluated the future of e-commerce. "There's a lot of Internet opportunists out there," Alberti admits, suggesting Cybrel will not go public, "but I'm not building this company to sell it. I'm not interested in being any more famous than I already was."

The site itself gives Alberti's claims some credence. Much busier than the minimalist-blue Cybrel site, yeyeye.com also is more dynamic than any other music site in Spanish. Many of the other Spanish-language sites popping up across the hemisphere -- and right here in Miami -- are either connected to a larger, general home in which music is a secondary consideration, or shamelessly promote musical product in a sappy tribute to sweet-faced celebrities. Alberti claims yeyeye.com has no interest other than the music itself. He points out that the site has eighteen journalists on staff, all of them formerly professional musicians, providing more comprehensive continental coverage than any other Spanish-language outlet. The upcoming concert guide is remarkably complete. Half of the reporting staff is located in Argentina, but even the criticism from those reporting on Chile, Mexico, the United States, and Europe shows delightful signs of that blend of arrogance and self-loathing for which Argentines are famous. A biting review of a Cranberries concert in Chile, for example, borrows its title from the Eighties novel Less Than Zero.

Just as Soda Stereo's music echoed global trends, the site covers all pop, with the emphasis falling on those genres not generally considered Latin in the United States. The featured "song of the day" gives a short history for monumental singles ranging from Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" to N.W.A.'s "Fuck the Police." A daily quiz asks questions about Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. When the articles on the site treat Latin-American music, they tend to fall under the categories of rock, pop, and, overwhelmingly, electronica.

Not surprisingly electronica also makes up the bulk of the MP3s, or digitally compressed music files, posted in exchange for exposure. Having amassed his fortune first as a musician, Alberti says the site has no selection criteria other than requiring all music be original to guard against piracy. Consequently the content of the MP3s differs markedly from the big-name bands covered in yeyeye's text. A lot of it is not worth the 30 seconds or so it takes to download. But in a region of the world where musicians are often given short shrift by both recording companies and media, yeyeye.com at least provides a badly needed outlet. A frequently posted set of recommended MP3s also helps cut out the static.

Because the site is more focused than the U.S.-based monster MP3.com, yeyeye can provide more content and context on many of these bands, providing the materials for musical exchange in a region where most ears tend to be tuned to the North, rather than to their neighbors. The chat room promises a space to "talk" with people who "think" about music, in a kind of virtual concert "without the sweat." Theoretically it's exciting. The times I've checked in, however, I've found the usual boorish keg-party banter found in most chat rooms written in slang from Mexico, Colombia, and the Southern Cone. A lot more fun is the "games" section, where a selection of original music from featured bands has been fed into virtual mixing boards. Here even the most novice wannabe music wizard can sculpt new sounds with samples and loops.

Just how many hands can get on yeyeye.com's nifty site remains to be seen. Although at present there are only somewhere between seven million and nine million Internet users in Latin America, analysts predict the number will grow rapidly. Perhaps more important, many of the select few who do have access to the Net have greater impetus to seek sites like yeyeye.com than do the kids in the media-saturated United States. Alberti estimates 50 percent of yeyeye's audience logs on from Mexico, another 18 percent from the United States, and a large portion of the remaining 32 percent from Argentina and Chile. For many of these kids, picking up music and music news in i-time can mean the end of waiting for bands to play themselves out enough in the United States to begin scrounging around for south-of-the-border tours. As the cannibalization of Northern styles by Soda Stereo suggests, the kids in the South have a lot at stake in being the first in the barrio with the next big global thing.

Where the next big thing comes from might shift. Living in i-time Alberti feels no pressure to relocate his headquarters anywhere in el norte. "People have started to call Miami the Silicon Beach," he scoffs. "The only 'silicon beech' I've seen around here," he says with typical Argentine humor, playing on the homophone of "beach" and "bitch" when pronounced with a Spanish accent, "is a blonde on Ocean Drive."

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