- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

When Rolling Stone magazine celebrated its 1,000th issue last week with a three-dimensional cover designed to evoke the Beatles’ iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s” album cover, I couldn’t help thinking how dispensable the old rag has become.

If I’m not staring at an airbrushed close-up of Britney Spears’ bellybutton, then I’m slogging through a pseudo-gonzo essay on the rottenness of George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, drugs or whatever.

I don’t mean to pick only on Rolling Stone. The truth is, I don’t bother with the magazine rack at all when I want to read about music.

The Web’s eclectic network of independent, personally maintained music blogs is where I go to seek out the pulse of the industry, scout up-and-coming bands (or spectacularly awful ones, as is often the case) and find offbeat, informative commentary.

The most popular music blogs — among them Music.For-Robots.com, SaidtheGramophone.com, Fluxblog.org, Stereogum.com, BrooklynVegan.com, and LargeHeartedBoy.com — reach audiences of 12,000 or more daily. That may not sound like much in the context of magazine circulation, but the music blogosphere is young: Most of the sites were launched in the last four years and exist solely on word-of-mouth advertising.

And their impact can be viral.

“It seems that a lot of influential people in the press and the music industry keep tabs on the bigger music blogs and take some cues from them, so they’re often at the start of a chain reaction that leads to large-scale buzz,” says Fluxblog’s Matthew Perpetua, a freelance writer in New York City.

“I definitely think that one of the big problems with the mainstream music press is that it’s reactive,” Mr. Perpetua, 26, continues. “The emphasis is on writing about what editorial thinks the readers want to read about as opposed to going out on a limb and writing about things that might not be well-known.”

Music blogs are generally updated daily, putting them ahead of the print curve. One of their most immediate attractions is that they include MP3 files (mostly legal, sometimes bootlegged) of the songs they highlight, offering you audio pudding as proof. What’s more, they offer visitors the space to add their own comments, favorable or otherwise.

In this sense, music blogs aren’t merely digital replications of old media, literary-style music criticism like, say, the Webzine PitchforkMedia.com. Music blogs offer a more communal, technologically integrated music experience.

That’s not to say music bloggers don’t write well: They often do, with varying degrees of hipster elitism (Brooklyn Vegan, in particular, reads like an indie-rock version of the Manhattan gossip collective Gawker.com).

When he’s not plowing through stacks of promotional CDs and listening to unsolicited MP3 files sent to him via e-mail, Sean Michaels, 24, writes fiction in Edinburgh, Scotland. The name of his music blog, Said the Gramophone, which he founded in 2003, comes from an original short story about an anthropomorphic stereo. Mr. Michaels now co-blogs with Montreal-based Jordan Himelfarb and Dan Beirne.

Mr. Michaels says that music blogs — which he sees as distinct from and superior to mere file-sharing outlets — aren’t necessarily revolutionary. Rather, their novelty lies in the way they engage visitors as both readers and listeners. “It’s this new intermediary between music and the audience,” he says.

Think of how you typically discover a new band, he explains. You go to a party and hear something that makes you want to set down the margarita and make for the dance floor. A friend burns a CD mix and brings it on a road trip. In such cases, the discovery is relational — which is more or less the effect that music bloggers try to bring off through the Internet.

This technological kinship, according to Mr. Michaels, affects how music bloggers write. For instance, it’s not unusual for them to underscore segments of songs right down to the minute and second — the virtual version of the music-buff friend who perhaps overenthusiastically demands that you “Shhh, listen to this part right here.”

Indeed, Music for Robots started as a way for Mark Willett to keep in touch music-wise with friends Blair Carswell and J.P. Connelly after the trio graduated from Bates College (Maine) and Mr. Willett moved to Los Angeles. The site, which now features up to seven contributors at a time, has been an early champion recently of indie buzz bands such as the Hysterics, Birdmonster and Tapes ‘n Tapes.

Two years ago, when music blogs operated in a legal gray area, Music for Blogs accepted a then-unprecedented overture from a major label (Warner Bros.) to host an MP3 track by the Secret Machines.

Music blogs also are distinctive for what they don’t typically include — hatchet jobs.

“The main difference between us and the regular critic is that we don’t do negative reviews,” Mr. Willett, 28, says. “We’re not going to waste your time with stuff we don’t like. I don’t need to ruin anybody’s day.”

For all the extremism and divisiveness that the Internet seems to have inspired in politics, music bloggers appear to be the kinder, gentler offspring of first-generation rock scribes like the late Lester Bangs.

And as major-label executives come slowly to embrace them, they won’t find the file-swapping anarchists they feared would bring the industry to ruin in the wake of Napster.

They’ll find giddy music lovers.

Says Mr. Michaels, Said the Gramophone’s founder: “We tried to draw an audience not by crazy self-promotion or by leaking much-anticipated music, but rather by writing with as much spirit as we can muster about the songs that make our hearts beat fiercest.”

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