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Developing Selective Hearing

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, March 18, 2007

My iPod is filled with about 20 gigabytes of great tunes that I mostly don't listen to anymore, but I'm not sure which music to download next. Tower Records is gone. And Washington's local rock stations, whenever I tune in, seem to be aggressively pushing John Cougar Mellencamp's back catalogue.

I wonder, sometimes -- is there a big missing piece to this whole digital music revolution thing?

For the past few months, I've been asking all my friends about where they find fresh music. They range from a college student who downloads everything from BitTorrent file-trading services to a guy who owns a record store in the District. Some of them say they have more music than ever, and others are feeling out of the loop.

Everybody in my circle, it turns out, seems to have a different favorite solution for getting or finding out about new music these days, and there's little overlap from one approach to the next, whether it's from blogs or satellite radio.

My friend Nick, for example, is a video game junkie who learns about new bands mainly when they're featured in, yup, video games. The Australian hard-rock trio Wolfmother was featured in the baseball title MLB 2K7, Guitar Hero II and a bunch of other games. And now, the group has at least one new fan.

My TiVo-addict friend Jean gets her music ideas from favorite shows like "Charmed" and "Smallville." And she's not alone: "Grey's Anatomy" is particularly appreciated by music industry marketers for introducing music to receptive audiences. For the same reason, it was a slight blow to some independent labels when Fox's "The O.C." recently went off the air.

Peter, a programmer I know, says he's found dozens of new bands he likes by logging into a shared iTunes network at his office and poking through the personal collections of his colleagues. And yes, he says, he has actually bought the albums of bands he has discovered this way.

My buddy Arne raved that the Internet radio station WOXY.com has inspired all of his music purchases in the past few years. And others favor the music site Pandora, where you enter the names of a few bands you like and the service constructs a channel of the sort of music it predicts you'll enjoy. I've sometimes enjoyed the site Live365, where you can check out the playlists of thousands of music fans who have paid to create personal "stations" and uploaded some of their music.

I've thought about buying gadgets designed to wirelessly connect Internet radio stations to my stereo system just to enjoy music this way. And really, this might be the best solution for those of us actively looking for new music that we can't find on terrestrial radio. But I'm also afraid that the Internet radio station may be an endangered species.

Internet radio stations, including services like Live365 and Pandora, have to pay royalties to play that music, and it looks as if the rates are about to go way up because of a recent decision by an obscure, congressionally appointed governing body called the Copyright Royalty Board, which is in charge of setting those rates.

Pandora has said the new rates "will end Internet radio, period." National Public Radio plans to file a petition tomorrow for reconsideration of those fees. There are other grass-roots movements afoot aimed at returning the lower fee structure, but it's hard to predict how this one will play out.

If the worst happens and Internet radio starts to disappear, one popular theory holds that every time some taste-making magazine or record store goes belly-up, something else inevitably pops up to pick up the slack.

"Nature abhors a vacuum, and the music business abhors a vacuum," says Michael Azerrad, editor in chief at eMusic, an online music service that some of my friends favor because it sells songs in the restriction-free MP3 format. (He wasn't speaking specifically about the current situation with Internet radio, so please don't send him angry e-mails.)

At eMusic, the No. 2 online music service behind iTunes, it's hard to predict what will become popular. When an eMusic reviewer posted a thumbs-up review of a German compilation of late-'60s lounge music last week, the album became a surprise hit, with 600 downloads in one day.

"The In-Kraut Vol. 2: Hip Shaking Grooves" isn't bad at all, by the way. But what I still want, I suppose, is some version of the Netflix "friends" feature where you can look over the shoulders of your friends who subscribe to the online movie company to see what they're watching. The online interface for the Xbox 360 game console, for that matter, tends to work the same way.

Despite all the technological tools out there, spreading the word about new musicians is an ongoing battle for record labels and artists. People still find out about music mostly by some version of word of mouth, says Michael Kaufman, of a small record label called Asthmatic Kitty. Right now, says Kaufman, the label pretty much goes by its gut instincts on the matter.

When one of Asthmatic Kitty's employees became a fan of games from a certain video game company, Double Fine Productions, the label sent that company a few CDs. And when the label learned that a fan was making available music from its most famous artist, Sufjan Stevens, as a download through her Web site, it didn't send the usual threatening record industry "cease and desist" letter -- instead, it sent the fan some albums by its other artists in the hopes she would help promote them, too.

"It's kind of all over the map," said Kaufman, of the label's efforts to reach new listeners. "Where the rubber meets the road, there's no formula."

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