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Networking It

Networking it what's a well-connected nightclub impresario like Andrew Rasiej doing in the internet business? He's bringing live music straight from clubs to computers. And in his spare time, he's busy wiring city schools and hooking up politicians.

A tall, tan Grace Kelly in a T-shirt and white jeans, the blonde college sophomore in seat 12D is still too young to know just how good-looking she is. But the 42-year-old man in 12E, who looks a little like George Clooney, can't keep his eyes off her. As the MD-11 taxis down the runway, he strategically picks a topic sure to connect with any undergrad: "Do you use Napster?"

She turns to him with a look that says she's busted. "Um, yeah," she giggles. "A lot. I have about three gigabytes of songs at school."

"You don't even buy CDs anymore, right?" he teases.

"Not really." She blushes.

"Let me ask you something," he says, leaning toward her. "If you could go online and see live concerts from bands like Blink-182 and Ben Folds Five, would you do it?"

"Oh, yeah -- definitely!"

Introducing himself, Andrew Rasiej explains that he runs a start-up company in New York called Digital Club Network, which Webcasts and archives hundreds of concerts a week from nightspots all over the country. He drops some more band names, working the nonchalant big-city charm.

She loves the idea. She would totally check out a site like that -- at least a couple of times a week. She wants to know what musicians he's met. She wants to know about New York.

"New media, education, politics, the nightclub economy -- there's almost no one whose combination is as good. Here is a Zelig with substance."

He smiles, ever so slightly. A successful flirtation and a very encouraging one-woman focus group: It's going to be a good flight.

Working multiple angles is Andrew Rasiej's specialty. True, the 50-employee Digital Club Network (DCN) commands the lion's share of his attention these days. The start-up's four-day, 30-city festival opens Saturday with big-name acts like Ben Folds, Wu-Tang Clan, and Aimee Mann Webcasting live sound and video from the tiny clubs that spawned them. In the process, Rasiej (pronounced Ra-shay) hopes to open another front in the war on the Napster-beleaguered traditional music business.

But DCN probably wouldn't have attracted a dollar of venture capital had Rasiej not come to his backers' attention as the founder of mouse (Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools & Education), the $1.5 million-a-year charity whose volunteers have wired more than 50 New York City schools with computers and high-speed T1 lines. DCN's seed investors took him seriously "not because I was the most brilliant digerati guy," Rasiej says, but because "I had started this nonprofit organization without any money." mouse has also helped Rasiej draw the attention of politicians such as Hillary Clinton and New Jersey senator Bob Torricelli, whom he advises on tech policy. The president of the city Board of Education has called him an "instrumental" contributor to its forthcoming plan for an income-generating education portal.

Indeed, DCN probably wouldn't have been able to pull together its nationwide network of otherwise fiercely independent clubs if Rasiej hadn't made a Palm-VII's worth of connections as the former owner of Irving Plaza and the current president of the New York Nightlife Association, a political lobbying group. Then there's his background in real-estate development (South Street Seaport, World Financial Center), which inspired DCN's underlying concept that brick-and-mortar club owners are entitled to their piece of the content business.

As his connections keep coming around, Rasiej is emerging as one of the most versatile players in manically multitasking New York. "New media, education, politics, the nightclub economy -- there's almost no one whose combination is as good," gushes eventual mayoral candidate Mark Green. "Here is a Zelig with substance."

The real crisis facing the music business isn't Napster, the software that lets Internet users download hundreds of thousands of songs for free. The crisis is the Internet itself. Napster is only the most dramatic sign that widespread broadband will put everything having to do with music and money up for grabs. As the major labels contend with copyright problems, ever-evolving technology, and the media culture germinating in Gen-Y's networked bedrooms, Rasiej means to make sure club owners (and he himself) grab their share.

As any music executive will tell you -- off the record, of course -- one of the greater pleasures of using Napster is finding unusual live material: R.E.M.'s mid-eighties cover of the Stones' "Paint It Black" or that too-nasty-for-radio number D'Angelo did in London. But actual A-list material is in short supply, and much of it sounds like it was recorded on a Walkman hidden in someone's pants.

What Rasiej and DCN co-founders Michael Dorf (better known as the brains behind the Knitting Factory) and Ted Werth figured out is that individual clubs own some of the rights to transmit any performance that occurs under their roofs. But those clubs, small and often disorganized, have seldom had a way to exploit them. DCN's business plan hinges on buying up broadcast rights from the best little clubs in the world, then installing Webcasting equipment and putting their concerts online. Of the 70 U.S. venues he wants, Rasiej says he's already signed 60, including Brownies and S.O.B.'s in New York, First Avenue in Minneapolis, and the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. He's also doing deals in Europe, Australia, and Asia.

Rasiej and his partners designed DCN to dodge Napster's legal hassles. It's offering only live performances, which shouldn't cannibalize artists' album sales. It's working with bands, managers, and major labels from the get-go. And it will negotiate with a certain amount of leverage: Anyone who wants to broadcast or record at most of the country's most prominent small clubs will have to talk to DCN.