Back in the old days, anyone in search of a viable local music scene had to stub their toes up and down the curbs of the downtown entertainment grid, littering cover charges and plastic drinking bracelets along the way -- and get out at least three times a week to keep up. These days, there's another option: Connect to the Internet and carouse through Orlando's virtual e-music scene. That's because a growing number of industrious local musicians are joining the exploding community of unsigned acts who showcase their music to the public using MP3 technology instead of a stage.
For many Orlando bands, the utility of digital-music distribution sites like MP3.com -- the largest, most established and industry leader -- is having a profound effect on the way bands connect with listeners (market their product). When MP3 technology put the power to distribute music into the hands of the artist, it leveled the playing field, so to speak. So, at least in theory, the unknowns of the world are as accessible as major-label juggernauts; worldwide distribution is just a keystroke away.
Powerful as that may seem, MP3 in no way buys a band that elusive pop success. The technology is just another tool, worth very little in the absence of the road-tested factors traditionally associated with the local climb: musical equipment, practice time, a van, a website, a CD and a little bit of sweat. It's not the proof; it's merely the packaging.
"It hasn't really altered our process, but it has accelerated it," says Craig Ianello of Alamout Black, a local favorite on the MP3 scene. The three-year-old band of electronic adventurists are just now breaking onto the live local circuit, playing out at Java Jabbers. (They sound as good live as they do digitally.) Compare that exposure to the 3,036 downloads in February alone of Alamout Black's 17-song inventory at MP3.com -- and all of that exposure comes for free.
For sure, not all of the MP3 postings from Orlando are a good score -- and that's really part of the MP3 allure: discovery. One needn't click too long to notice how bad it can really get. You see, in MP3.com's vacuum of bit maps and ultimate control, the extremes are left free to wander. And boy, does it show -- bad production and/or off-kilter singing, tracks with what sounds like a guy hitting himself on the head with a shoebox.
And the overall rock & roll landscape is bleak, even though many of the area's top club acts (Kow, Gargamel) post on MP3.com. There's Gemstone Blowout, a fairly middling blues/jam band that offers "Now I Know," which could be confused for a Kow track, were it a little better. Throe's march-metal opus "Psycho" fits snugly among its Korn-fed peers, with its "Kill! ... Hate! ... No!" refrain. (It's not all about screaming, they profess on their MP3.com artist's page, but more about melody and innovation.) Eye Q fulfills their demographic -- the cute ages 14-20 punk contingent -- with the premature pop-rocket "Sellout," declaring: "I wanna be a sellout/I wanna be on MTV." Certainly, but maybe MP3 will have to do.
"One man's junk is another man's treasure," reminds Ianello.
As Alamout Black and Bass Patrol, another fave, have found, Orlando's much-ballyhooed electronic-music community fares much better in cyberspace. It's a medium suited to a style, really. These already technologically savvy scribes are never far from their e-toys anyway, so it's snap to produce, mix from a single hard drive.
Moreover, a new distribution program on MP3.com comes with nearly no overhead. Artists make their individual tracks available (with cover art, even) for free download to an audience of CD burners, hard drives or portable MP3 players. But they are also encouraged to create full-length CDs, which are then made available inexpensively for public purchase. MP3.com burns the CD upon receiving an order and grants the artist half of the profits. No staffing. No royalties. No middle man. And also, no assistance.
"The spark of inspiration is still there," explains Ianello. "But then we have to do a little bit of grudge work, do things that are normally done by a guy in a soundbooth. It's more math and less art, but the trade-off is that you also have creative freedom."
But the reality is that there are few phoenixes rising out of the MP3.com heap. MP3.com is not a look into the future -- it is a fair peak into the uncultivated present. Uncultivated and, at least according to one interpretation, unremarkable. In its March issue, Rolling Stone blasted MP3.com CEO Michael Robertson about his company's lack of success in the star-making department, citing Robertson as the only bona fide wealthy celebrity the site has created. The 'Net maverick fired back, repositioning the influential site's role as merely a "data company." "People think of us as a record company -- we're not," he said. "We don't sign bands. We're in the highway business; you guys are the ones who build the cars."
And he's right in that MP3.com is loaded with searchable information. The site ranks each downloadable track by its number of hits, both regionally and within its applicable genre, allowing the artists to gauge their direct impact on both Orlando and the Internet itself. It encourages bands to form communities of association, including an "Other Artists We Like" reference list on each individual artist's page.
"As uncool and unhip as that might sound, it's really encouraging to see success," says Ianello, whose Alamout Black remains in the regional top 50. "MP3.com is the best thing that's ever happened to us." And that may well be. The interaction between bands and their fans is far more direct than anything the industry could scheme up (although they are working on it).
MP3 can never really take the place of music performed in the physical world, and Ianello agrees. "Playing out is still the most fun part," he says. "MP3.com is kind of test bed. It's just another way to get yourself out there."