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 label?

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 contract?

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 result?

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.