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Tune in, log on, download

There are hits and there are 'hits'. The Cocteau Twins prefer the second kind: a place in cyberspace where the adored can correspond with the adoring. It's a low-fi gig for hi-tech heads
Late last Wednesday night, perhaps for the first time, the Cocteau Twins wondered about "hits". Not, it should be noted, a hit - for the profoundly adult-orientated indie-pop Cocteaus create minimal disturbance in the marketing tear-up that is the Top 40 UK singles - but a "hit".

Conventional hits are units shifted, albums sold, territories cracked, the trusted fiscal mechanism by which artists traditionally assess their impact upon the swirl of pop culture. Forty years ago, Elvis Presley defined, understood and, ultimately, was shaped by hits.

"Hits", by contrast, are the mechanism by which a group can check if the sharpest, newest, oddest piece of rock marketing is actually working. Five years ago, this "hit" didn't exist: today, the "hit" is hip.

A "hit", to the Cocteau Twins, is the establishment of a direct link between an individual Internet user and the band's Web site; an individual connection between the adored and the adoring, devoid of record company aggrandisement or media interference.

In the Eighties, the Cocteaus trademark was a fluster of otherworldly sound - distant, off-kilter, beautiful. In the Nineties, they have slyly shifted - coolly and digitally - into cyberspace. So last Wednesday the Cocteau Twins played a gig to the World Wide Web.

It offered, simultaneously, the smallest concert and the biggest audience on their current British tour. In front of 40 people in their Twickenham studios, the performance included most of the expected accoutrements of the modern rock show - a lighting rig, indecipherable back projections, a drummer wearing headphones - and yet this could be watched, listened to and enjoyed by millions of people connected to the Internet. In theory.

"We have been involved with our Internet Web site since it began," says Cocteaus bassist, Simon Raymonde. "The possibility of doing something like this became apparent about a year ago. But, like everything in this business, it takes this long to get it together if you want to do it half decently."

There were no hairy-arsed roadies mouthing "one-chew, one-chew!" into microphones as showtime approached. In their place came unintelligible telephone conversations about reflectors and arcane technical gubbins: "reconfigure" and "click-return" seemed to be the night's catch-phrases.

The co-founder of the Cocteau Twins, guitarist Robin Guthrie, with vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, adores the technology of the Internet - he is even having a high-bandwidth telephone line installed at home, the faster to up and download. "I am the one that is obsessed with knobs and buttons and little lights. I produce and engineer our records. And I have got an interest in computers. Before I got into music I did an electronics job just as computers were coming into industry."

So how does a band perform in cyberspace? Rob Laurence works for Traffic Interactive, a company that links bands to the Internet. Laurence is a veteran of the Supergrass Internet gig which attracted around 16,000 "hits" as a live event and a subsequent stream of requests for film-clips and soundbites to be downloaded on to the hard disks of the world - 310,000 "hits" in total.

From the concert mixing-desk the sound is equalised and "goes into a computer downstairs, and the computer contacts another computer in the States via ISDN lines," explains Laurence. "It then goes to a whole bunch of servers in the States which then encode the sound. They turn it into digital information.

"Internet users go to the Cocteau Twins Web site. The Web site will say 'click here', and that will log on to the Real Audio servers and pick the sound up off there." The accompanying video-feed uses something called 'C U See Me' - not, sadly, a song from Prince's back catalogue - to digitise the images and hurl them on-screen at a flickering five frames per second.

By logging on to http://www.cocteau.com - a mouthful to the non-technical, but downright catchy to fans of a group whose recorded works include "Feathers- Oars-Blades", "The High Monkey-Monk" and "Great Spangled Fritillary" - Web surfers could enjoy the concert. In mono. With accompanying grainy monochrome images shown in a screen window about the size of a Swan Vestas packet.

While early Cocteau Twins EPs came with a nicely stewed aural ambience, a touch of tape hiss mingled with plangent guitar, their recent recordings have chased sonic perfection. A complex sound palette that the Internet cannot capture with any degree of fidelity.

"But, in a way, that is not the point," reckons Raymonde. "The point is not that it is going to look any good, or sound any good. The point is that we are embracing something that is brand new. It is high-tech low-fi."

"The major use for us on the Internet, as a band, is that it is one of the only ways that we get contact with our audience," says Guthrie. "It is feedback. People will come on to our site and say, 'I really like what you do, but I am not sure about that particular song'." Without that response we do not know what they feel."

"As a group, prior to the Internet, we would get about 10 fan letters a year," says Raymonde. "At the moment we get in excess of 200 e-mails a week. And that is purely in the development of this Web site."

There's a commercial benefit, too. Each hit is logged and the Internet addresses of the recipients stored. Potentially, this is database marketing to a very high order. "We have not done that yet," says Guthrie. "But I think it would be a nice thing, if we had a record coming out, to say, 'get out there and buy it' on the same day. Yes, I would love to do that."

"The Internet, despite all the new rules being set up in the States, is still a bit like anarchy," explains Raymonde. "And while that remains it is still quite an exciting place to work."

Anarchy? Could be. After all, the gig started at 9pm. Or in America, where the band has its largest, most dedicated fan-base, it took place during the working day - the unspoken intention was for US Cocteau fans to tune in, turn off and log on at work. And enjoy the band on company time.

"We are 15 this year - about the same age as the PC," muses Robin Guthrie. "That's a bizarre thought. I think we are just starting to do interesting things now," says Simon Raymonde. "The possibilities are enormous. It is not just another year, another album. I cannot wait to get on with it."