Audioblogs making a joyful noise

Your iPod might hold 15,000 songs, but where are you going to find that much music you actually enjoy ? Sure, it’s nice to read about a new band in Spin or Rolling Stone . But without actually hearing a song, how do you know that a music reviewer shares your tastes? Do you really want to shell out $10 every time some kid fresh out of NYU’s journalism school gets dumped by his girlfriend and music begins to take on a special, deeper meaning to him? Enter the audioblog, where you can not only read about new music, you can download it as well.

Audioblogs, or MP3 blogs, can include a wide variety of sites—including everything from concert reviews to podcasts. A growing phenomenon for the last couple of years, there are even corporate audioblogs set up expressly for the purposes of promoting labels’ acts. For purposes of this article, however, when we refer to audioblogs, we’re talking about sites published by fans that link to MP3s on a regular basis. The extremely popular site Tofu Hut has catalogued an overwhelming list of other audioblogs, which would seem to indicate not only are there more people publishing audioblogs, there are far more people reading them as well.

Narrow Casting

One area where audioblogs have a tremendous advantage over traditional media is in their ability to document small, genre-specific scenes. With no printing or distribution costs, audiobloggers can go where music magazines can’t, covering music that may only be of interest to a small subset of music lovers. Likewise, without radio production costs, audioblogs don’t have to be commercially viable, and thus don’t have to sink to a lowest common denominator method as a way of deciding what to air. The result is a wonderfully eclectic range of music that one would be hard-pressed to find on the radio.

Honey, Where You Been So Long focuses on prewar blues. MasterMix is a site geared towards 80s hip-hop mixtapes. Boom Selection is all about mashups. Uncommon Folk documents the new folk scene.

“What I saw was a gap, a hole, where new folk music was becoming very popular in the underground sense but had no site dedicated to it,” Uncommon Folk’s Josh Honn tells Playlist. “I wanted to fill the hole with a seed and build a big tree where my site is merely the roots and the trunk but all the branches and leaves are the amazing artists and labels who create and release such outstanding sounds.”

Likewise, most of the more popular audioblogs are dedicated to new music by independent artists. Brittney Spears may have more fan sites, but The Arcade Fire gets more attention on the audioblogs. We corresponded with several audiobloggers, nearly all of whom reported scouring the Internet, band sites such as MySpace.com, and reading small zines and other audioblogs for inspiration. Most also noted that many new bands contact them directly.

Avoiding the Copyright Cops

But obscure doesn’t necessarily equate to copyright-free, and just because something has been posted to an audioblog doesn’t guarantee that it’s been posted legally. While some sites are religious in their avoidance of copyrighted material, others have considerably more cavalier attitudes.

“I’ve never really worried about copyright law—basically I’m not sure if the recordings I’m using are actually owned by anyone,” Peter Patnaik of Honey, Where You Been So Long tells Playlist. “JSP records has made a living off stealing other companies’ re-mastering efforts and packaging them in cheap box sets, so I’m not sure if these blues tracks are copyrighted by the CD companies putting them out. I’ve only been contacted by one copyright owner of a modern field recordings and he was amazed that his work was being put out there and thanked me for the exposure.”

However, most audiobloggers make an attempt to post material that isn’t going to get them in trouble with the authorities.

“I try to post only free and legal downloads,” David Gutowski of Large Hearted Boy tells Playlist . “The only music I post from my site is my ‘Tuesday Tunes,’ interesting live tracks, usually covers. The only time I have removed a track was when an artist requested it not be posted until his album came out, and I gladly obliged.”

“Basically, I have implied permission for a large chunk of what I post because it is sent to me on the behalf of the artist [or] label,” Fluxblog’s Matthew Perpetua tells Playlist . “Everything else is a gamble. I err on the side of caution and avoid stepping on the toes of labels. I try to keep the site responsible and respectful. I’ve been doing this for a while now and no one has ever asked me to remove anything, and the reaction from labels great and small has been uniformly positive. I think labels of every size are very eager to get good grassroots buzz, and are generally quite grateful to be featured on sites like mine.”

Indeed, nearly every blogger we spoke with indicated that he or she had been approached by labels seeking to promote acts. Uncommon Folk’s Honn says that this is because smaller labels have been shut out of commercial radio, and are looking to audiobloggers in place of airplay.

“MP3 blogs are being utilized by many independent labels these days and there is an unwritten rule that posting an MP3 and linking to the label or the artist is pretty much fair game,” says Honn. “Because of the state of media monopoly in America, especially on the airwaves, the Internet is becoming the new radio for independent labels and artists, whether it be an audioblog or a podcast. No one has ever asked me to take down their music even when I was reviewing things that were not sent to me.”

Tastemakers and Saviors

As the labels seem to recognize, audioblogs are increasingly acting as tastemakers. Although most of the bloggers we talked to were reluctant to take credit for “discovering” new bands, virtually all also said they had posted music by unsigned bands whose music was not commercially available yet.

“There are a lot of obscure artists that I’ve given time to, and have gone on to catch on or get signed,” says Perpetua, who says his site receives about 5,500 unique visitors per day. “I know that the site was key in getting label deals for Au Revoir Simone, Cadence Weapon, and Lo-Fi-FNK. I know that after being featured on my site, Annie, X-Wife, The Knife, The Fiery Furnaces, and United State of Electronica got a big boost that led to some greater success in Internet/indie circles. I don’t really like to take credit for this stuff though.”

Along with tastemaker status, of course, comes attention from the labels. However, all the bloggers we spoke with emphasized that attention from labels doesn’t affect their editorial decisions.

“Bands, labels, and PR people are constantly in touch with me, and I’ll gladly listen to anything sent my way,” says Gutowski. But he also notes that listening doesn’t equate to coverage. “My bottom line for posting is whether or not I enjoy the music.”

“My only reason for doing Uncommon Folk is to expose independent artists and labels to as many people as I can,” agrees Honn. “I make no money off of Uncommon Folk and in fact I lose money. The only benefit is the free records I get and great friendships (and sometimes enemies) I make along the way.”

This, of course, is only an issue for the new music sites. For bloggers like Patnaik, who cover older works, the troubling issue isn’t promotion; it’s salvation.

“It’s not really hard to find blues artists that have been looked over—it is very hard to find out any information about a lot of these people,” says Patnaik. “My latest post was about Jessie Derrick who recorded three songs in 1926 and then vanished into the California lights without any record about who she was or what she did afterwards. It’s very frustrating, but at the same time it’s remarkable that we were able to save their music.”

Mathew Honan covers digital audio for Playlist. His work has also appeared in Macworld, Wired, Time, and Salon.

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