The future isn't what it used to be. By breaking down music-business barriers between artist and audience, the Internet promised to allow the sounds of tomorrow to reach the mainstream today. Instead, the front line of the approaching Web revolution consists of . . . Billy Squier, Ice-T, and the Guess Who.
Lacking the clout to break new bands, most dot-com record labels lean heavily on a handful of classic-rock holdovers operating beneath Behind the Music's radar. (Meanwhile, a disproportionate number of Amazon.com's best-selling acts are, shall we say, of a certain age -- Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Linda Ronstadt all have albums in the site's top ten.)
"Innovation now comes from the margins, not the center," gushes the Website atomicpop.com, home of the online label founded by former MCA honcho Al Teller. Sounds good -- only the "margins" being explored by the self-styled "21st Century Music Company" consist of later-period work from Public Enemy and Ice T -- key players in eighties hip-hop who now lack the credibility and commercial appeal to play the major-label game.
Vying even more vigorously for a slice of the not-so-golden- oldies market is Connecticut's J-Bird Records (JbirdRecords.com), a three-year-old business touting itself as "The World's First Online Recording Company." Besides providing a retirement home for Squier and former Who bassist John Entwistle, J-Bird offers opportunities to unknowns. "We will take any band," says J-Bird president Jay Barbieri, "as long as the recordings they submit meet minimal technical criteria."
But there's a catch: J-Bird, which does much of its business through Web-based mail-order, requires musicians to buy back at least 250 of their own CDs for $4 apiece. With 300 groups on its roster and annual sales of 200,000 to 250,000 units, J-Bird moves an average of just 700 to 800 copies per album -- and that's without factoring in higher sales for its name-brand artists. In other words, just about the only customers with whom J-Bird is connecting some of its acts are the acts themselves.