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From CBGB to MP3

Former-Talking Head Jerry Harrison lends a hand to baby bands via his new Web site

Jerry Harrison knows all about the music biz. While he built his
early reputation as “that guy in the Talking Heads,” he’s also been
a member of theModern Lovers, a solo artist and a producer of
several bands including Live, the Violent Femmes, Fine Young
Cannibals, General Public and Crash Test Dummies. Now he’s taking
all his experiences — as fan, musician and producer — and merging
them into, “an on-line community…where fans,
emerging talent, and industry pros meet as equals, listen to tracks
uploaded from [its] members, and vote on which bands will earn
$250,000 record deals.”

When did you first go online?

I had taken computer studies when I was at Harvard. I worked for
a software development company after I was in the Modern Lovers and
before I joined theTalking Heads. This would have been about 1975.
They wrote both applications as well as operating systems. It was
called Cambridge Computing Associates. They’re still there. I was
helping them basically with a marketing plan. I was not a
technician, but I did do some programming.

Why did you leave?

I realized when I was dealing with these people that I would go
home and listen to records and they would go home and study code. I
[also] saw shortsightedness in some of the people I met at the
computer industry. I thought they were neglecting the long-term
value of a program that could have been a big help to them but
looking [instead] at quarterly profits — and cutting off at the
knees something we were developing. So in a way, it helped me
decide it was okay to go back to music because I felt pretty
burned. That’s probably the first time I’ve talked about that.

How did come to be?

It came about because a friend of mine, Tom Zito, the founder of
the company — who lived near the studio — would come by all the
time. And I think I had just come back from [the] South by
Southwest [music conference] and I had this box of cassettes and
write-once CDs. After one of those producer forums, you are
surrounded by people who want to give you their demos. And he said,
“What’s all this?” And I said, “Those are the tapes I collected.”
He goes, “Well, have you listened to them?” And I go, “Tom, frankly
I don’t have time to listen to them. I’m in the middle of producing
this record, and I don’t know when I’ll get to it, if I’ll ever get
to it.”

He had had a company before this, a game company called Digital
Pictures. Someone who had been in that company became the director
research at Netscape. She had done a lot of research into more
effectively using the Internet and statistics. And he asked her if
she thought there were ways to use statistics that could be of
value in finding potentially successful music. And she thought
about it for a while and she said, “Yeah, we have new ways of using
statistics that subtract bias.” So the company was basically formed
to use her methods and then we hired people to [create] a way that
quantifies music rather than using qualitative [gauges.]

How does it work?

What we have tried to do is create an online community for
musicians. There’s going to be what I call a battle of the bands.
People are uploading their music and rating and giving reviews of
other music. [Fans can earn prizes by listening to the uploaded
songs.] There’s going to be a rising tide of successful music and
eventually there will be a winner. And that person automatically
gets a record contract.

In which formats can bands upload songs?

Liquid Audio or MP3. And if someone does not have a computer,
they can send it to us. We’re not intending to make any money on it
but there will be a cost for someone’s time in doing that [transfer
to digital format]. We’re talking like five dollars. We then
convert the songs to RealAudio files, because when people listen to
songs, we want it to be a kind of immediate experience. If they
want to listen in more depth and less compression, they can
download it as an MP3 file.

What else does the site offer?

We are putting an advisor’s group of producers and engineers who
are going to occasionally be available to answer questions or have
some sort of Internet forum about how to improve your music. So
people can get advice. It’ll be like: “At 2 p.m. on Saturday
afternoon, Jerry Harrison will be giving his advice about what to
do.” It’s not like tech support. We’ll also have people who aren’t
that well-known but can tell you how they use [music software like]
Pro Tools. I’m going to have a friend of mine who’s a criminal
lawyer have a chat: “What do you do if you’re arrested and you’re
on the road?”

Are you working with a specific record

We will have our own label. And we have not decided on a
distributor yet. We are not about focusing on direct downloads and
eliminating the major record companies. We think we will be finding
musicians who fall beneath the radar screen of normal A&R.
Having grown up in Milwaukee, I knew what it’s like to not be
anywhere near a media center. And I think the Web can sort of
modify that so you can be discovered without having gone to New
York and played CBGB’s.

How soon will you be awarding a record

Eventually there will be one contract a month, but that might
take until next year. But we’ll offer contracts to people earlier
on if one of the producers who’s an advisor (or myself) goes, “You
know what? I’m not going to wait. I think this band’s great.” We’ve
also offered enticements to our advisors: If they find something,
and we don’t agree, and they want to take it someplace else, they
can do it. We anticipate thousands of bands [will post songs]. The
first winner will be announced sometime in November. And then the
next group will come up. We haven’t finalized whether we’re going
to roll over songs or if people will have to resubmit.

Does the ‘Net make it easier for bands to get heard
nowadays, as compared to,say, 1979?

There’s always an ebb and flow of the availability of venues.
People often talk about what a disaster it was when all the states
moved their drinking ages up from 18 to 21, because it meant that
the amount of rock & roll clubs shrunk. And so there are times
when it’s easier to get record contracts and people are more
open-minded and then it becomes very difficult. I think that the
Net is great because it’s shaking the bowl again. I don’t think MP3
will eliminate record companies, but it will force them to examine
how they make decisions and what they’re doing. And that’s always a
good thing. One of the good things about the record industry is
that independents always come up. And when they have success they
shake things up. A major label can never get a monopoly on talent,
no matter how much money they spend.

Won’t there also be more crappy music as a

We hope the algorithm we developed will help filter the music.
One of the things that traditional record companies do is filter;
they get demo tapes and filter what we hear.

Won’t the most popular artists be formulaic bands, like
Backstreet Boys clones?

The Backstreet Boys have value to the people who love them.
Though I don’t find it as challenging as, say, the Velvet
Underground. I don’t think it is valueless. If you’re trying to run
a record company you want both. Sometimes it’s been the Backstreet
Boys who pay for people to be able to put out Miles Davis.

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