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Big Mac Attack

In mock honor of my tenth anniversary as a professional music critic, I wonder if you might indulge my views of the future of music journalism: There is none. "Virtual reality" -- an oxymoronic piece of linguistic rubbish to begin with -- is now "virtuality." We've gone too far. We'll fall too fast.

What song's that from? She went too far/It wouldn't last/La la something something/She's come undone/doo dee doo. Hold on. I'll punch it up in my computer. Yeah, that's the easy way. What fun is there in conversing? In a little mental tomcatting, see who has the biggest rock-trivia balls, then crack on the Guess Who after we figure it out? The song, by the way, was called "Undun." But why bother when the info is a button-tap away?

Nostalgia is for has-beens and losers. Never get drunk with old journalists unless you want to hear endless stories about the days of "hot type," a primitive printing technique in which the words to be published actually went through a molten stage and curved plates were...but I do go on. Pass the Jim Beam while I change the ribbon in my Underwood. And never mention the Beatles to a gray-haired jazz musician.

The cold binary nature of computers always has seemed an anathema to the gutty, human endeavor of making music. (That goes for writing about music, too.) But let's be realistic: MIDI and other studio technology didn't ruin pop music; instead they've been integrated into it with only random casualties. We've gone, however, from harmless sequencing to a world in which Geffen Records is marketing a CD-ROM game, and American, Rick Rubin's label, is announcing proudly that it is the first "major company in the record business to have a fully developed site on the Internet." You -- meaning you personally -- can even see advance album art (for the Black Crowes's Amorica, not due out until November 1) via http://american.recordings.com or e-mail at americanoAMERICAN.RECORDINGS.COM. It's not clear whether you can shelve the Crowes project should you not like the album artwork. Doubt it.

Retail moguls and underground iconoclasts alike are revolutionizing the music industry with their mouses (mice?) and macintoshs. Previously, recorded music was distributed by real men and women, blue-collar joes and james who boxed up the vinal (later cassettes, and then CDs), put it in trucks, and drove it around to stores, where it was unloaded (as opposed to downloaded) by more janes and joes. Now you can get releases -- which haven't even been released anywhere - through your Mac.

Yes, kids, the computer world, once the damain of the nerd stereotype, is now cooler than sub pop. Two california undergrads have created internet underground music archive (IUMA), an independent distribution company. Except it's not really a company -- one of the founders told rolling stone that he wasn't interested in adding a credit-card download system because, "Then we start becoming a real business. And then it starts to get ugly."

Currently IUMA posts the names of more than 75 songs by unsigned/obscure bands. With internet and a "sound card," users can download the tunes and transfer them to traditional (old-fashioned, that is) audio equipment at no cost. The stone article suggests that this is the first step in a system that would allow the downloading of entire cds through fiber-optic lines -- the end of record distribution as we know it.

Which means Warner Bros. and Sony and the rest will be out of business presently. Except that the major record companies are already on-line themselves. And brother, in the case of the most freightening of these ventures, we're talking about a 320-by-240 pixel video aspect ratio! Earlier this month Geffen introduced a CD-ROM game called VID GRID. With about $35 worht of software, users get nine music videos by acts such as Aerosmith, Guns N' Roses, Jimi Hendrix. The videos appear on screen in scrambled form -- like a jigsaw puzzle or rubik's cube. The goal is to unscramble them as quickly as possible. This is the MTV of your unborn children.

VID GRID is, according to Billboard, the first such game that allows for the manipulation of "multiple segments of moving video pictures." Yes, but will it outsell time Warner's Woodstock 25TH Anniversary interactive CD-ROM ?

Geffen has been busy elsewhere in cyberspace. Through compuserve you can access album-release and tour information for the label's artists (Be your own critic!) and actual tunes by them. The first song to be offered is an unreleased Aerosmith ditty called "Head First". The band has waived it's royalties.

By the way, Geffen is a division of MCA, which is owned by Matsushita Electric Industrial. The VID GRID game uses video for Windows 1.1 software. That software comes from Microsoft Corp.

The cofounder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, purchased Tickedmaster about a year ago for some $275 million. What all this means is that some day soon, all concert tickets might be sold through services such ase America Online (or Prodigy or Compuserve). If you happen to be a cave dweller not in possession of a computer with a modem, well, tough luck, pal.

On the other hand, Cyberness might bring competition to ticketmaster. Enter Sonicnet, the most adventurous (or dangerous, depending on the particular perspective) entry in the drag race down the info highway. A bulletin-board service launched in June, Sonicnet also publishes a magazine (that's a thing made of paper with photographs and printed words in it), which they were nice enought to send me -- through the mail, and I don't mean e-mail.

Among the many Sonicnet developments, so the ability to download playlists, program guides, and other stuff from radio stations; access to World Aid Relief!; a way to buy recorded music; a dating service; entree to several record labels (including Sub Pop, Mango, Caroline, Matador). But SonicNet also claims that it will "give Ticketmaster a run for their money" through a ticket service.

And -- gulp! -- you can even read music journalism via the SonicNet linkup, and, with America Online, you can read the articles published by Spin magazine without ever touching glossy paper. You can also "converse" with Spin's writers, editors, and readers.

But why bother going through middlemen? As the punks said, do it yourself. The Mammoth label site on Internet, introduced in late July, lets you call up music, bios, videos, and tour dates A the sort of material that keeps music journalists employed. Capricorn Records, up on CompuServe, permits similar access, including the chance to win unreleased songs and to "talk" to the label's talent. A top executive at Capricorn notes that this is "an opportunity to communicate with the consumer directly." That, of course, eliminates the need for people like me.

Good riddance you say? All this technology might also eliminate -- and I'm not exaggerating -- the need for musicians. A company called Ahead is set to market Virtual Guitar. For about $100 you get software and a guitar. Hook it up to your IBM-compatible. Strum a beat. The computer will provide the chord changes. Buy a Bruce Springsteen album? Hell -- with this, you are Bruce Springsteen.

But I'm not ready to give up on civilization's human aspect. Maybe soon we all will be reduced to bytes, but I hold out hope, at least for a while.

In order to play Vid Grid, you need a 486 XS, 25 MHz, IBM-compatible with a mouse, double-speed CD-ROM drive, and 4 MB RAM. The system also requires 8-bit Digital Sound or SoundBlaster compatibility and a monitor with 640-by-480 pixel resolution that can display 256 colors. Not everyone -- and certainly not a newspaper writer -- can afford that sort of thing.

But we must find a way, we must all get on-line soon. Forget about evolving into a more compassionate, feeling, intelligent life form.

Let's spend our entire existence in cyberspace instead.
After all, computers make everything better. If you want to live in virtuality.


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