Rockers Catch a Wave on the Net

San Francisco Chronicle (Datebook, Sunday Pink)
Issue: March 30 – April 5, 1997

You don’t need to stay out all night anymore to keep up on the new trends in music. Your online access — whether through home or work or school — is your all-access pass to everything you could ever want to know about the latest local live action. Simply visit one of a multitude of sites devoted to the San Francisco underground music scene for one stop sound shopping at its simplest.

Two of the best local resources, the ‘Bay Area Underground Music’ (BAuM) site and the ‘Concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area’ page, were created as a labor of love by a musician and an avid music fan, respectively. Together, these sites present a very broad picture of what’s happening with music in the Bay Area, with information about local bands, concert dates and venues, as well as links to artist websites, musician’s classified ads and online ticket centers.

Acknowledged worldwide as a web success story is another site that includes local artists — IUMA, the Internet Underground Music Archive. Co-founded by Jon Luini, also a Bay Area musician, IUMA’s original intent was to “flatten the playing field of the music industry” and to “push the reality of electronic marketing and distribution of music.” To date, electronic distribution of entire albums in lieu of a trip to the record store is at a distance, though few doubt the merit of the internet as an excellent promotional medium. Major artists, including Smashing Pumpkins, The Beastie Boys and The Cure have participated in “cybercasts” — concerts or interviews presented live to a ‘virtual’ audience. Others, such as David Bowie, have premiered songs exclusively on the web.

Despite such high profile neighbors, the virtual community isn’t so exclusive that bands without a dime to their collective name can’t stand proudly alongside those with million dollar record deals. With resources such as BAuM and IUMA as well as most standard search engines, it’s easy to for even the casual internet explorer to find out all about even relatively unknown artists. “The Internet basically allows equal time and access for any band, no matter how popular,” says Mike Drake of local rock act American Sensei. The egalitarian aspect of the ‘net is just the one of the perks of being online.

Another advantage is that it is cheap promotion. Far more vivid than a few lines of text in the back of a newsweekly, a website offers a creative forum to promote the artists’ works. Most bands acknowledge that an address in cyberspace offers an excellent value for their marketing dollar. For $20-30 per month, the cost of webspace and an e-mail address, Joan Martin of Soul Divine explains, “It’s a really cost-efficient way to give a lot of information about the band to someone who otherwise may not make the effort to find out who we are.” And it’s easy.

Sweet Virginia’s Clint Bennett says, “If someone has heard our name from radio or a friend, they can check any number of the search engines and find a link to our page to then find out how to get our CD or see a show.” As for the creation of the site, a lot of bands have taken punk’s “do it yourself” ethic to heart and have at least one member heavily involved with the concept and layout of the site, if not the programming aspects. This move preserves budgets and ensures that the band’s personality is accurately portrayed. The fact that the ‘source code’ — the programming behind the web pages — can easily be copied from other websites helps the bands along. Matt Sherman of Lula Miss’ initial foray into website development was an exercise in creative theft: “I looked at what other people were doing, stole their code, destroyed their designs, and put it on the net.”

Of course, there’s more to the Internet than just the web. Most of the major commercial online services (including America Online, CompuServe and the Microsoft Network) host music forums, often featuring bulletin-board style message boards where musicians and fans can promote, review and discuss local music.

One of the more innovative sections of America Online, hosted by Spin Magazine, is the CyberGarage — a place for unknown bands to make sound clips, photos or ‘interactive press kits’ (an animated combination of sound, graphics and information) available to other users. Says Spin Online Editor Ron Richardson of the concept, “it took advantage of the best of the guerrilla nature of the web and gave a voice to people outside the rock music machine.” Although that area of AOL has been recently dormant, Richardson assures us they have grand plans for its resurrection, including a CyberGarage compilation CD and a contest for bands to upload their best cover tune.

And there’s always the power of the simple written word. Many musicians utilize newsgroups (Usenet), globally accessible electronic bulletin boards similar to those found on commercial online services. Add to that e-mail — used to send updates and information to fans and to communicate with bandmates about upcoming shows — and that world in your monitor is even closer than it appears.