The Launching Fad

The music revolution will be launched on MP3

Photo by Jeanne RiceBy day, Mark Soden is in charge of textbook distribution at Edison High School in Huntington Beach. By night —or, more precisely, by lunchtime, between 12:09 and 12:45 p.m.—he's the adviser for the school's Digital Music Club, riding herd on a bunch of kids making music with computers.

Soden has been around the OC music scene for more than 20 years—played in the Trouble Dolls and Big Enjoyers, played an anti-nuke rally in San Clemente for a crowd of 7,000. Now, however, he's jamming with a bunch of teenagers and having a great time.

The Digital Music Club started in September under the joint auspices of Soden and school choir director Joe Kral. "About 60 kids signed up for it," Soden says, "and we've got about 10 repeat offenders—the hardcore members who show up to all the meetings. They run the gamut: we've got kids who are spinning, doing the DJ thing, and want to learn how to mix the music. And then we have guys who are hashing out show tunes and using it as a way to work on their accompaniment. It's not style-centric. We even have a country fan."

The students put this music together on a couple of hand-me-down desktop computers—"We're upgrade-challenged," Soden admits—with the help of a few pieces of music software, and Soden helps them mix it into a final product.

"What's great about the software is that they can work on it over a period of time—the kids can put in 20 minutes on it and then go to wrestling practice or whatever," Soden says. "What's more common than not is they'll get to a certain point and then set it aside for a long time. What I do is pull their stuff together and do the final mixes. It's kind of a team effort."

And in a lot of schools, that would be the end of the road, but Soden's kids have a way to get their music to an audience: they've posted their work on the Internet at www.mp3.com. The San Diego-based MP3.com (named after the file format the music is stored in) makes digital music available free to listeners and allows artists to post their music for free in hopes of finding an audience. It's a great way for indie artists to get their music out the door without having to pay thousands for a studio session or hawk CDs at gigs.

Dozens of Orange County bands, from Aliso Viejo to Trabuco Canyon, have posted their work online—among them the Digital Music Club. The club currently has three works on the site, at artists.mp3s.com/artists/ 61/digital_music_club.html—all various forms of electronica. The pieces—"Burning Retinas," "Pressure Cracks" and "Form Factor"—are collaborative efforts between the kids in the club and Soden.

"Getting the show on the road and getting people involved was our initial plan," Soden says. "MP3.com came in for its ease of distribution. If kids or their parents want a hard copy of the music, they can order it from the site or they can download it onto their hard drive and save some money."

A number of other high schools have also jumped online—from the Cypress Falls High School Band in Houston to various bands at Daphne High School in Daphne, Alabama. MP3.com is working on a project called Spirit 2000 designed to get more high school bands and choirs online and help them create CDs for fund-raising.

All this sunny wholesomeness is a far cry from the recording industry's portrayal of MP3. After the audio technology (which is actually a compression scheme, not a file format, but we don't want to get into that) really took off in 1998, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began screaming about piracy. What they were really screaming about, of course, was the new system of distribution Soden is so excited about. As the music industry stands now, record studios have something close to perfect control: they determine what music gets to the masses, how it gets to them, and what those masses pay for said music.

But with sites like MP3.com, anyone with access to a PC can create a custom CD and pay the price dictated by the artist, who does not have to sign away the rights to his or her work to some mammoth music conglomerate.

It's an unnervingly direct system of distribution—from the artist straight to the audience—and it drives the music industry absolutely bonkers. When one company came out with a player for MP3 files in 1998, the RIAA sued, claiming it was a vehicle for piracy; the courts found in favor of the company in June 1999, and the RIAA agreed to drop its lawsuit in August. Labels have yanked MP3 files off the Web sites of their artists. On Feb. 7, MP3.com filed a countersuit against the RIAA, accusing it of engaging in unfair business practices.

Soden has nothing but praise for the system. "I think MP3 will change what we think of as performing arts in schools," he says. "High school performing-arts programs are geared to very local distribution, as opposed to being able to put out MP3s where anyone in the world can hear them. It has very exciting possibilities—I'd like to get these guys to the point where they're trading MIDI files with people all over the world."

The club is currently working on a piece dedicated to the Mojave Phone Booth, which they hope to have finished by the end of the school year. An Internet legend of sorts, the Mojave Phone Booth—located on I-15 between Barstow and the state line—is supposedly the loneliest phone booth in the country, and as such has become an object of veneration among Internet users with a great deal of spare time to spend calling a phone in the middle of nowhere.

"One teacher from Edison went out there, and the phone was ringing when he got there," Soden says. "People were calling from Germany—from all over. We thought the booth as an icon deserved to be used. The guy who thought of it is still trying to con his dad into going camping out by the phone."

Con Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net.
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