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Record Labels Aim for Net, Hope to Score

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; Page E01

In 1996, the Internet was a curiosity for most, the record labels were swollen with cash from CD sales, and R.E.M.'s "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" could only add to that hoard. Critics and fans drooled for the alt-rockers' follow-up to their last two hit albums, and the media counted down the days until the CD hit stores in September of that year.

But when it was released, music buyers yawned -- the start of a steady decline in U.S. album sales for R.E.M. as hip-hoppers and pop divas eclipsed the band. The record industry itself didn't do much better, as sales overall shrank from its halcyon days of routine multi-platinum hits. Record labels are quick to blame Internet piracy; many fans point to high CD prices instead.

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe thanked fans for listening at MySpace.com. (Kelly West -- AP)

In 2004, both R.E.M. and the record industry are turning to the Internet to reverse their fortunes. Today, the band releases its 13th major album, "Around the Sun" -- but for hundreds of thousands of fans, there's no suspense. They've already listened to the entire album for free on the Internet over the past two weeks, and with the band's label's encouragement.

That label, Warner Bros. Records, allowed "Around the Sun" to be posted, starting Sept. 21, on MySpace.com, a Los Angeles-based Web site launched last year that combines content and community. The site allows users to post personal profiles with pictures, set up blogs, chat on bulletin boards, play games and so on, combing elements of Friendster.com, Match.com and America Online.

The move represents a new strategy for an aging band hoping to recapture a youthful U.S. audience and an ailing record industry finally embracing the promotional capabilities of the Internet.

"It's a unique opportunity for [R.E.M.] to reach out to a new demographic and a unique opportunity for us to expose our demographic to a superstar band," said Chris DeWolfe, MySpace's chief executive.

R.E.M. is one of several bands featured on MySpace. In addition to streaming all 13 songs on "Around the Sun," R.E.M. fans can use MySpace (www.myspace.com/rem/) to see band tour dates, buy the album at Amazon.com, download cell-phone ring tones that sound like some of the band's singles and read a band biography.

There are some hitches: The band and Warner Bros. required MySpace to disable the "forward" and "reverse" buttons on the Web site's media player, meaning that users have to listen to the album in its entirety, unable to skip from song to song. Also, the songs cannot be downloaded to computers or any other devices, such as MP3 players.

More than 600,000 users listened to the album the first week it was posted, DeWolfe said. Now that R.E.M. is what the industry terms an "adult alternative" act -- meaning its songs are almost never played on pop music stations and the bulk of its listeners are over 30 -- exposure on sites such as MySpace is critical. Most of MySpace's users are between 16 and 24, DeWolfe said, and the market-research firm NetRatings Inc. estimated that the site drew 2.5 million visitors in August. (Parents of younger MySpace users should be aware that some of the site's personal profiles contain nude photos.)

"I'm really honored that so many MySpacers tuned in to our new record on MySpace," R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe wrote on the site. "It's a great site and we've enjoyed the feedback."

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