They came to San Diego's MP3 computer music summit with their music, their dreams but most of all their deals.
The artists of digital music are making room for sharp-eyed entrepreneurs who are trying to wrest some of the $38 billion worldwide market for recorded music from traditional labels. The summit, held at the University of California at San Diego this month, was as much about money as anything else.
Web surfers have long known there's a trove of songs on the Web. MP3, a basic format for music on theWeb, has surpassed "sex" as the most sought-after term in Internet search engines. Last year came the first drop in record sales to the 14-to-24 age group, says the Recording Industry Association of America; the trade group attributes the drop to music on the Web.
At past Web music gatherings, musicians discussed their latest uploaded song or a Webcast concert. A New York Internet Music Expo in February featured back-to-back bands.
But in San Diego much of the hair was shorn and slicked back with mousse. "It's a slick little site," one entrepreneur declared into his cell phone, "and I can brand the hell out of it."
Brand is joining hands with bands in the world of Web music. Get young fans to flock to talented bands on the Web, the idea goes, and they will buy not only recordings but concert tickets and high-margin merchandise like T-shirts bearing the band's logo.
Twentysomethings Eric Garrison and Dykki Settle of Chapel Hill, N.C., could easily be mistaken for the San Diego students intermingling with the conferees. But in the last year they have merged and partnered with a dozen Web-based retailers, creating a business called www.catalogue.com. They came to San Diego to learn how they might add downloadable files to their offerings on the Web.
Asked when the downloadables might be added, they answered in typical short-product-cycle style, "In days or weeks."
On the other end of the spectrum would be John Perry Barlow, the former lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Long active in Internet issues, he is turning his attention to the Web as a purveyor of music.
In his keynote speech to the conference, Barlow said the Grateful Dead members held thousands of tapes of concerts in their vaults. They would be releasing them on the Web and allowing them to be passed among fans, much as the Dead facilitated amateur sound recording enthusiasts to tape their rock shows. He said the effort would encourage fans to remix the sound of the concerts.
He also took aim at the major record labels that are trying to maintain their franchise over recorded music, comparing them to bottlers of drinks. "Now that they aren't able to keep the music in a bottle anymore, they are selling it by the sip," Barlow said.
Soon after Barlow left the platform, a lawyer introduced himself. "We have a lot to talk about," the lawyer said as he and Barlow locked in intense eye contact. "Yes, we do," Barlow responded.
Hardware makers want to be part of this new world. There were 15 digital music listening devices on display at the summit. As recently as February, only two were being marketed actively.
One of the few pure moments of music came when Lisa Loeb performed. Sporting a Taylor acoustic guitar and her alto singing voice, she was a counter-ego to the get-it-online-now mentality of the conference.
But even she had her moments of the mercantile.
She asked if her performance were being captured by a computer or if it were being Webcasted. "I've got a new record coming out next year and this song is on it," Loeb told the audience. "It's better if it doesn't go out over the computer right now," she said, as she launched into a beautiful ballad.