Broadband celestial jukeboxen at Farmclub!

Christmas is an humbug.

After months of trying, we still cannot figure out Farmclub. (Perverse corporate nomenclature: Jimmy and Doug’s

We read, way back in July, some kind of interview or other with Jimmy Iovine, an addled music-industry executive with a Cube and a Cinema Display who is breaking out the elastic bands to tie back his ponytail and get jiggy with the kids online:

If we don’t figure out this Internet space [sic] soon, we’re heading for trouble.... We need to move right now. I don’t mean tomorrow. I mean this second. If we do, there is an upside that is enormous. If we don’t, we’re going to see that what happened to the movie business is going to happen to us. Thin margins. If we don’t win this one, we deserve it.... [The] consumer is trying to tell us something. They enjoy music online. They’re telling us they want a new kind of access. Let’s give them what they want: real simple, real convenient. If we make the experience too difficult, they are going to go somewhere else and get it, somewhere where it’s easy.

Wow. Progressive. Gotta keep them margins up. (So much for “reaching the audience.”) And didn’t margins double back when CDs came into being?

Farmclub, however, is also a weekly television series and a record label. is repulsive. We have given it every single chance to redeem itself. The show tosses bones at eclecticism (the occasional R&B artist, a punk band), but all the show features are mooks: The Limp Bizkit/Korn/Kid Rock axis of déclassé trailer-trash noise, conjoined with the most gruesomely dumb-arsed variants of rap heard in 20 years. It’s vulgar in the wrong way, cheap without being fun, assaultive without a target for the assault; it lowballs the audience. We yearn for a musical variety show, and this ain’t it. (Guess which program came closest? Rita & Friends!)

On the Web, Farmclub invites you to upload your music. The value-adding features? You can search for bandmembers and musicians and DJs and MCs. And the Farmclub record label might sign you. Or you might make an appearance on

And did we mention that Edgar Bronfman handed over 25 million Amerikanski dollars for this venture? (Can you say “burn rate”?)

Why isn’t this working?

Categorizing music

Farmclub is staring down an intractable content-management problem. We tend to forget that “content” is intended for human enjoyment. You can hide that fact pretty thoroughly when your site is text-only (particularly if the text is mostly data or information rather than prose), but when it comes to music, the emotional component is paramount. And we can’t automate that yet.

Napster is a household word because you can download music that you already know about. You’re living in a dreamworld if you think people use online music services to discover new bands. (We’ve read this claim over and over again, sometimes even in legal defenses.)

You can’t even use such services to discover new bands who already have record contracts and are moderately famous. (You know about the Offspring, but how will you learn about Less Than Jake?)

Remember collaborative filtering? As epitomized by one of the more misguided Web sites of the mid-’90s, Firefly, you sit there and type in ratings for album after album after album (which you likely will never have heard, wasting your time as you watch Web pages slowly materialize over a 1996-era 28.8 modem) and the system will magically suggest other albums that, statistically, you are bound to like.

(“Name that tune, Mr. Spock!”)

In the pre-digital era, it was already difficult to broaden one’s musical horizons. Specialty television services and hideous computer-programmed radio formats gave the misleading impression that people really do have limited interests – country only or hiphop only, that sort of thing.

Well, give us five country fans who reject every other genre and, without even a Firefly-style interrogation, within five minutes we’ll have a list of bands that some of them hate, others like, and others love. Any kind of disagreement at all queers the whole system. (You might sit through a music video you don’t particularly like in the hopes of seeing one you do like later on, but you won’t buy the album!)

Gross categories have no bearing on listening enjoyment. And that’s what discovering new bands is all about.

How does this translate into online content?

The suits are right

Unfortunately, another Hindenburg of idealism must ignite and plummet to the ground. You need a record label to make it in the business. It can, however, be an indie label, and “making it” comes in different forms.

You cannot avoid “offline” promotion. It is the only way to sell records. Dress it up any way you want: Live gigs; music videos; articles in the music press (in the press, not on Web sites); somehow getting your records onto a film soundtrack (best-case scenario: High Fidelity). What spurs people to download your music online is knowing you offline. Period.

All Farmclub does is collapse the process a bit, removing a few ribs from the thoracic cage. Why are you uploading your music if not so you can get on TV? Why do you need to get on TV? It’s the fastest way to become known.

Face it: You’re not uploading your music so unnamed average people can listen to it. “Doing it for the exposure” is a myth, a self-delusion, when it’s not an active con.

Accordingly, we dismiss the entire premise of online music sites. Will the future prove us right? Is it true that online downloading will work only for already-famous bands?

In a word, yes.

And that’s not the half of it.

That pesky infrastructure

Charles C. Mann delivers a stunning, possibly deadly blow to the legitimate alternative concept of online music distribution: Subscription services. You pay a certain amount per month for all-you-can-eat access to a major label’s library. And oddly, the piece ran over at Inside, which itself is trying to prove that subscription models work.

In “The Hot New Bad Idea: The Celestial Jukebox,” Mann explains that it is pretty much technically impossible to serve music on demand.

That’s it. That’s one hell of a bowling ball knocking down the pins.

But there’s another problem: Small and mid-sized independent labels, and truly independent musicians, wouldn’t be included in any all-you-can-eat subscription service. That fact would eventually become known, and resentment of the major labels would replicate itself all over again. It would suddenly be impossible to find Green Day before they signed to a major, and it would also be impossible to find Stiff Little Fingers.

And if even one major label refused to sign on (entirely likely: We’re talking about getting North and South Korea at the same table here), the whole project is useless. A video store that stocks no movies from Disney is a video store no one shops at.

So how will it work?

We like the Offspring’s aborted approach: Give away an album and people will buy it.

Artistes should provide some kind of downloading, secure or otherwise. Content sites unrelated to music should license downloads, too: If Universal sells a day pass for US$3.95 and you only want one single, your content site could strike a wholesale deal with Universal and sell single downloads for £0.75.

There are a few options. But online music sites won’t do anything for undiscovered bands. Mark our words.

Coming soon: What’s wrong with official band Web sites?

See also: The Offspring: “You can always go on”; Chinks in the armour of the E-music war.

Posted on 2000-12-25