Jam session or jukebox, it's all going digital

Singalongs, cyberbands, tunes for all tastes: the Net is alive with the sound of music, says Helen Johnstone
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Indy Lifestyle Online
From Captain James T Kirk singing "Mr Tambourine Man" to the bhangra beat single "Tu Cheez Bami Hai Mast Mast", there's a tune for everyone on the Internet. With hundreds of newsgroups and World Wide Web sites, a "cyberband" that claims to be the first band to jam over the Internet and concerts broadcast live, rock 'n' roll is well on its way to conquering the digital frontier.

The major recording labels, including Creation Records, Geffen Records, MCA, Sony, Virgin Records and Warner Bros, have set up Web sites that provide potted biographies of the artists, details of forthcoming albums and samples of the bands' work. Some of the bands have set up their own sites, including the Rolling Stones and the Shamen. There are also Web sites for dance music, acid jazz, ambient music, industrial music, music equipment, music software, music shops, individual DJs and for connoisseurs of James T Kirk, there's the dedicated singalong page. There are so many, in fact, that the growth area is now for sites providing listings of what's available online.

Willy Henshall, co-founder of the cyberband Res Rocket Surfer and guitarist in the band Londonbeat, says moving on to the Internet was a natural step for the music industry. "Ninety per cent of music is now recorded on computer and mixed on computer," he says. There has been no shortage of musicians for the band, which he says has "700 members and increasing every day". Around 200 of them work as professional musicians.

The live jam session on 19 April was something of a first for the music industry. Using software developed by two Res Rocket Surfer members in Chicago, band members linked by the Internet were able to hear each other in play in real time. Playing in the early hours of the morning GMT to cope with time differences, Henshall linked up with the studio in Chicago and musicians in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oslo, Paris and Toronto. "The spirit was just like playing together in a room," he says.

This session used a standard link across the Internet, albeit with special software. To broadcast the full video and sound of a concert in real time, though, something fancier is needed. The Rolling Stones concert last November was transmitted over the Internet's MBONE (Multicast backbone), a subset of Internet servers which provides real-time distribution of video and audio signals. There are only around 900 such connections across the world. As one musician put it, the only people watching the Stones over the Internet that night were "a few professors of computing in the States".

Music and video clips can be downloaded from most Web sites. Warner Bros currently offers samples from the forthcoming albums of Madonna, REM, Dinosaur Jr and even Symbol (the Artist Formerly Known As Prince), despite the problems with his contract. Less mainstream music and new talent can be spotted at sites like the Internet Underground Music Archive (IUMA) and State51.

Most of the music is available as samples 30-40 seconds long. Some offer entire tracks, but there is a penalty to pay. Downloading a three- to four-minute single can take half an hour and uses up around 3Mb disk space. You also need a PC with a 16-bit sound card and speakers.

Most sound samples are in the Sun AU format. Those not using a Sun workstation will need to download software for playing or converting the AUfiles. PCs can use the WHAM (Waveform Hold and Modify) utility and Mac users an audio player called "sound-machine". Both are available at various music sites or can be found on the AU Audio Test page.

Some, however, see the distribution of music over the Net as a distraction. Paul Sanders of Internet creatives State51, which provides music information, says people still want a real CD or tape, not a computer file. "It destroys all the social aspects. Like the first time you go to somebody's house, and you take a surreptitious look at the CDs."

Despite the difficulties, one London-based company is preparing to launch an online jukebox this summer which will offer tracks from hundreds of signed and unsigned artists. The company's own compression software helps reduce the download time, and individual encryption codes prevent the music being copied widely. "You can still record it through the stereo on to a tape," says Eway Chen, media designer at Cerberus. Users will pay 50-60p for each track they download from the Cerberus Digital Jukebox and around 30p for graphics.

Cerberus is also planning to broadcast the Glastonbury Festival over the Internet this summer. Chen says he doesn't believe many people will avoid the mud and toilet queues and watch from behind the computer, as listeners will need a high bandwidth link into the Internet.

Addresses

Internet Underground Music Archive: http://iuma.southern. com/

Musicbase: http://www.music base. co.uk/music/

The Rolling Stones: http://www. stones.com/

Warner Bros: http://www.iuma. com/Warner/

Virgin: http://www.vmg.co.uk/

State51: http://www.state51.co. uk/state51/

Cerberus Digital Jukebox: http:// www.cerberus.co.uk/cdj/

The Web World Wide of Music: http://american.recordings.com/wwwofmusic/index.html

Captain James T Kirk's singalong page: http://www.ama.caltech. edu/mrm/kirk.html

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