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Caught between rock and a hard disk

An alcohol firm's broadcasting of a music festival reveals corporate thirst for Net exposure, says Tim Perry
Next weekend's Phoenix Festival outside Stratford-upon-Avon is the pick of the summer's big outdoor events. David Bowie, Neil Young, Bjork and the Sex Pistols will be appearing on the main stage while 250 other acts covering every type of music will be playing in seven other arenas.

But you do not need to stir from your desk to experience the four-day festival - you can take part via Vladivar's "Goodcleanfun" Web site on the Internet. Just by staring at your computer, you will be able to listen to and see the vast majority of performances, get festival gossip and have an e-mail conversation with the stars.

The Internet is crammed with sites put up by music companies, and an increasing number of brand names think they can reach a youthful audience through the Web. Live "netcasts" are also becoming more commonplace as the big record labels seek new ways of marketing their acts. So what is the big deal here?

The Vladivar site, run by the vodka people, seems to be rather different - or at least more successful. In March, it broadcast a gig by the band Supergrass that scored an impressive 200,000-plus hits - more than any previous broadcast on the Internet.

While music fans might believe the Phoenix netcast is just there for their enjoyment, the commercial aspect is more significant in the long run. The Phoenix deal has been assembled for Vladivar by Traffic Interactive, which brings together marketing and technology skills to package material for the Internet. Its director, Alex Johnson, sees its job as producing quality broadcasts "to stand out from the quarter-million other sites out there". Purists might want this kind of Net coverage without corporate intervention, but it would be impossible to fund such an elaborate site in any other way.

It is certainly highly ambitious. Over the weekend, Traffic Interactive will have 50 technicians and designers working round the clock, while a dozen journalists equipped with Apple Powerbooks, mini-digital tape recorders, and Quicktake and CuSeeMe cameras will interview festival-goers and artists to create a rolling electronic magazine.

All performances should be available in audio and all acts on the main stage will be covered by four CuSeeMe cameras, which will broadcast pictures onto the Web site. Bands playing on other stages will have photos flashed up every 15 seconds during their shows.

There will also be an opportunity for fans to have live e-mail conversations with some of the stars backstage, though in truth they are unlikely to consist of the odd "hi". All of this will be backed up with festival facts, band biographies and so on.

Given the limits on band width and connectivity, this is not going to be a slick stereo broadcast (netcast video footage is grainy and jerky, and sound will be on a par with AM radio). But fans of the 250 acts - from the Alabama 3 to the Young Gods - will at least be able to create their own little festivals, and to download lots of cool stuff.