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At this very moment, you can go to They Might Be Giants' Web site (www.tmbg.com) and download, in its entirety, the band's brand-new 15-song "album" Long Tall Weekend. In fact, that is the only way the "album" is available: by downloading it, in the much-vaunted MP3 format, for the low, low price of $8.99. Or, if you so choose, you can purchase each individual song for 99 cents a pop, which means you're going to save a little cash if you buy bulk. (And there's always the freebie sample taste!) Tough luck if you actually want a disc to hold in your hands, to play on your car stereo -- that is, without burning your own disc using a CD-R (CD-Recordable). Too bad if you want a booklet to read or a jewel case to sit beside your other They Might Be Giants discs on the shelf. It's their way -- the information superhighway -- or no way at all.
That the Giants are making their latest odds-and-sods collection available only through download is hardly surprising or revelatory. After all, the band has been giving away its product for more than a decade through Dial-A-Song, which allows fans to dial a phone number and hear the latest TMBG tossed-off ditty for mere pennies. And it's hardly novel anymore for a band to sell its music through the Internet. Public Enemy's Chuck D became the veritable spokesman for MP3s when his band initially sold its latest album, There's a Poison Goin On..., in the downloadable format. And almost every label has made at least one single by its major artists available only through the Internet, from Tori Amos to Alanis Morissette to Tom Petty. Trying to find a band without at least one MP3-only single is like trying to find a 12-year-old girl without a Britney Spears CD.
A year ago, the format was nothing but whispers and nudges -- the thing that had the music business running scared, so sure the compressed files would be the death of the industry as we knew it. For a while, the industry talked itself to death over issues such as piracy (download a song and burn a thousand CD-Rs for your friends) and lost revenue (free singles for everyone!). Then, almost in an instant, every label had come to embrace the MP3 as though it were a long-lost child -- so much so that it's already old news, yesterday's Next Big Thing. It's as easy to find a punk-rock or klezmer or field-song MP3 as it is to find naked pictures of Gillian Anderson. Next revolution, please.
"I don't mean to sound like some rainbow world of love, but if you're interested in music in any sense, whatever kind of music you're interested in, chances are you're more interested in it than what is being carried in the local store," says They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh. "That's a bad situation for musicians who aren't just pop musicians. This is a great boon for people like me and people like whoever -- whatever kind of stuff you're into."
But in the artists and media's rush to christen the MP3 as the savior of music -- the great equalizer, giving superstar and unknown equal opportunity to get their work in the hands of a global audience in a split second -- one thing seems to have been forgotten: the music itself. That is: how the music sounds, how it's being presented, how the artist who makes the music is being represented. Lost in the discussion over ease of distribution and all the gimmicks associated with MP3 (Hey, maw, look at all the pretty lights!) is any serious conversation about what the new format will do to music -- specifically, the long-playing album, which could well go the way of the reel-to-reel or the eight-track.
Granted, every time a new medium is introduced, the naysayers predict gloom and doom -- think of the negative press received by the cassette or the CD -- but consider what the MP3 means to the full-length disc. No longer do consumers have to purchase an entire album to hear a handful of songs they want; now, they can click on a couple of songs, download them, transfer them to a two-buck CD-R, and ignore the so-called detritus -- ya know, the filler (or what musicians like to think of as "the other songs not necessarily the hit single"). No longer will fans have to listen to an album in the order the artist intended it to be heard. It's a cut-and-paste-and-record world now -- a culture of mix CDs.
Sequencing will be a thing of the past. Why should an artist bother putting songs in any kind of order when the audience will just mix and match to their heart's content anyway? Forget about trying to tell a story, trying to build a mood, trying to make a point. The consumer will be the ultimate arbiter -- a DJ creating personalized discs according to taste or whims.
That's all well and good, until you stop to consider what this means to the musician who looks beyond the charts, who actually considers the album a piece of art -- "a work," to use the words of Bad Livers co-founder Mark Rubin. (This, incidentally, does not refer to the likes of Limp Bizkit, Britney Spears, 'N Sync, or any other former Mouseketeer or Top 40 artist.)