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NS Internet Column

After the liver transplant, the only thing left for an ageing rock star is a net presence, which is how I came to share the thoughts of David Crosby. I donít suppose thereís anyone more unfashionable alive: no one has ever wanted to revive his 1970 anthem "Almost cut my hair"; this reluctance is understandable. So, with the kind of bashfulness with which one might confess at a dinner party to finding William Hague sexually attractive, I admit that there are lots of Crosbyís songs that I love, though I had forgotten or repressed this knowledge until I stumbled on him talking on the Well, a San Francisco conferencing system where I spend altogether too much of my life.

Crosby came to the net when he was waiting for his liver transplant, in the long hospital nights when he was surrounded by electronics and the only friendly light was the screen of his laptop. Thereís always someone to talk with there, and the uncommitted intimacy of the medium suits the confessional or reflective mood perfectly. Heís still there, now being discreet about the progress of his friend Phil Leshís liver transplant. He talks about his upcoming concerts, though, and gets masses of feedback from people who attend, not all of it by any means grovelling praise.

For tragic demographic reasons, I find that I know more about ageing hippie heroes than any other category of musician. The net suits them perfectly. Their surviving fans tend to be educated, prosperous, and sparsely distributed about the world. These are exactly the sort of people who make and conserve lasting networks of friendship. The screen becomes a little warming corner of shared enthusiasms a long way removed from the unpleasantness of daily life. And itís fun, too, to be able to come home from a gig and send an email of congratulation to the musicians if you want to. Itís not an intrusive or public act of homage, just a way of expressing the intimacy we would like to feel. Since most of them still have to work for a living, they are happy to respond with affection.

I donít know whether the net sells records, except indirectly. Very few of the people I am thinking of have yet caught up with MP3 technology, which would enable them to give away samples of their music or even sell it to the scrupulous. Not that you need be particularly scrupulous to buy or even to refrain from copying MP3 music. Rykodisc has just made a huge chunk of songs available for download at a dollar each. Itís like a perpetual jukebox stuffed with people like the McGarrigle sisters, though there doesnít seem to be an Richard Thompson there yet. . I donít mind paying a dollar for a song at all, Iíll probably buy the CDs whose samples I like, since they are a less fragile resource than hard disks.

Mavericks like Todd Runtdgren find the web especially attractive, for it seems to offer them a way to get completely away from the record industry, and communicate with their fans directly. Of course this will only really work if you already have a fan base acquired with the connivance of the hated industry, and prepared to seek you out on the net. Once there it can be nurtured with real conversations of the sort that David Crosby joins in and which go on for months or years, like building a card house out of smoke rings in low gravity. These are entirely different to the so-called interactive chats, where forty or fifty people try to ask fannish questions all at once, and spend an hour watching illiterate banalities crawl up the screen. Itís not the technology, stupid.

Itís really the economics. The musicians you hear about who are trying to bypass the record companies now (and there are rappers such as Chuck D thinking of this already) were all heard of in the first place because a record copany spent a fortune promoting them. Itís hard at first sight to see how a genuinely unknown band could make its fortune on the net any more than it can do so with cassettes. The first thing that lowering barriers to entry will do in any field is to make critics and gatekeepers invaluable. But there may be an exception for the really dedicated fans, who are happy to put in the hours necessary to become critics and gatekeepers. I still think thereís a chance that MP3 music will turn the industry upside down, not because itís more convenient or cheaper, but because it becomes more fashionable than the older sorts.

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