Musicians, NPR harmonize on free, live Web concerts

December 28, 2005|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

Midway through his set of country rock at the 9:30 Club in Washington recently, Joey Burns of the band Calexico paused to say, "Hello to all of you out there in radioland."

Never mind that the concert wasn't actually on the radio. Instead, it was on the Web. The show was streamed live on National Public Radio's Web site as part of a concert series that allows listeners to hear concerts in real time or download and save to their computers or iPods.

For free.

At a time when the music industry generally blames declining concert attendance and lackluster CD sales on the amount of free music available online, the NPR series represents an unusual cooperative arrangement in which everyone - the artist, the venue and the fan - is happy.

"I don't think a Webcast is ever going to replace a live music experience," said Donna Westmoreland, a vice president of I.M.P., which owns the 9:30 Club, where most of the NPR concerts are recorded. "But the more people listen to music, the more they want to hear. Maybe someone who caught some of the energy [from the Webcast] will buy a ticket next time."

So far, the series has featured concerts by 15 artists - including Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Death Cab for Cutie, the White Stripes, Bloc Party and Bright Eyes. Almost all the shows are archived on the NPR site, npr.org, and tonight, the last show of the year will feature the "Godfather of Soul," James Brown. He performs in a sold-out show at 9 p.m.

While many bands have embraced the series, others balk at the idea of making their music available free online. Older bands that don't tour frequently or put out much new music rely on royalties from older recordings and worry that too much free music online might depress sales.

Kraftwerk, the German electronica band that formed in the '70s, turned down an invitation from NPR. The Grateful Dead, concerned about losing a revenue stream, recently halted free Internet downloads of its concerts, but reversed that stance after fans protested.

But other artists - often younger and lesser known - believe that the more people hear of them, the more they'll be inclined to support them, by buying their albums or going to their shows.

"Downloading the show is a good way for people to get to spend more time with the music," Burns, the lead singer for Tuscon, Ariz.-based Calexico, said in an e-mail interview. "There is a community of tapers or music traders of live shows who like to spread the word about bands they like."

For newer bands, royalties are not as much of an issue, said Marc Schiller, CEO of Electric Artists, which helps musicians market themselves online.

"When you're 22 and you're in a band," he said, "you don't look at copyright the same way you do if you're 50 or 60."

The NPR concert series offers another benefit to bands: a virtual guarantee of a high-quality recording. To record the concerts, NPR plugs into the soundboard at the club and also has several ambient mikes set up to record crowd noise. An NPR staffer mixes the sound on the spot as it's sent out live over the Web; the concert becomes available for download shortly thereafter.

For many artists - young or old - that high quality presentation makes them more comfortable authorizing live recordings.

"Jack White [of the White Stripes] seems to be someone who is in control of every aspect of his art," said Amy Phillips, news editor of Pitchfork Media, an independent-music Web site. "He probably doesn't want fans trading tapes of his shows, not because he wouldn't be making money but because it doesn't sound as good as he would want."

Among fans, the live-concert series has proven even more popular than NPR anticipated. The concerts have been accessed or downloaded 800,000 times since they debuted in January, and the NPR Web page devoted to the series has received 1.75 million hits.

It's unknown how many of those hits come from regular NPR listeners, but executives believe the concert series is a way to bring new, and younger, listeners to public radio.

"We have become known for news as our franchise, but really the underlying values of NPR programming have a lot to do with qualities of the mind and of the heart, and of curiosity," said Maria Thomas, vice president of NPR Online. "I think it's a very natural fit that our site showcase music."

NPR sees two different audiences for its concert series: baby boomers who don't go to concerts anymore and younger, tech-savvy music fans who are used to getting their music from the Internet.

"These are people who grew up when music was vital to them, and for the most part radio has let them down," Bob Boilen, host of All Songs Considered on NPR and director of the concert series, said of the baby boomer audience. As for the younger fans, he said, "You can be a teen in Juneau, Alaska, and Bright Eyes isn't coming there. I thought there's gotta be a way to get these shows to people."

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