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The Art of Feeding the Beast

by Mike Grebb.

This article first appeared in The Musician's Atlas' February 2005 Atlas Plugged Newsletter and is used by permission. The Musician's Atlas is a fantastic resource for musicians, containing over 30,000 music business contacts.

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As we all know, the Internet is an uncertain world of endless possibilities and peril. For this generation of artists and music-industry execs, one paradox reigns supreme: Change has become a constant. Just when you thought you had seen it all, along comes something else to turn everything upside down again. Enter the emerging art of "podcasting."

If you don’t know what podcasting is exactly, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s such a new concept that few artists or labels are really using it to their advantage. At least not yet. In fact, many people who consider themselves exceedingly Internet savvy are clueless as well.

But that, like everything Internet related, is changing rapidly. Phrases like "the power of the Internet" have become tired in recent years, but podcasting proves that such clichés are still quite relevant. Podcasting—like email, the Web, file sharing and peer-to-peer networking before it—is quickly changing everything.

Those early adopters who are already tuned in to podcasting are using it as yet another way to promote music (among other things). It allows artists to "connect" intimately with their fans (no, we’re not talking about backstage trysts here… stay focused!). And it makes it easier than ever for fans to keep tabs on their favorite acts and even hear special tracks or live events not widely available.

For the uninitiated, here’s how podcasting came about: In the late nineties, technologists started toying around with a new way to create dynamic text content that could be automatically "syndicated" over the Internet (for lack of a better description). That technology eventually evolved into what we now know as RSS, or "rich site summary"

Initially, RSS was really just a way of syndicating text content and its technology was partly responsible for the rapid growth of "Web logs," or "blogs. Bloggers use RSS technology to transmit their content. Readers of the blog who subscribe to an RSS feed either on their own or through an aggregator site such as Yahoo! receive the blogger's updates in real time - automatically. No need to remember to check a Web site to get the latest update. Everything happens in the background with RSS. The reader is no longer required to do much more than click and read.

This first version of RSS was great for bloggers but relatively useless for those trying to spread multimedia content such as audio files. This is because there was no way to "attach" something to an RSS feed the way you can attach an audio file to an email. But that all changed in 2001 when Net-famous technologist Dave Winer created a version of RSS that allows "enclosures," or the RSS equivalent of a file attachment. Now that you could use RSS feeds to serve up audio files, someone could click a link to an audio or video file and not have to wait for it to play (because its contents could already have been downloaded earlier through an RSS "enclosure" feed).

This was a nice convenience, but it had yet to find its "killer app," as they say. A few years went by. Then in August 2004, Adam Curry (yes, the former MTV vee-jay and current Internet enthusiast) was looking for a way to syndicate a radio show over the Internet, so he created a small application called iPodder to help people easily download RSS enclosures into their MP3 players. (Podcasting works with pretty much any MP3 player).

Curry released his code into cyberspace, and other developers went nuts improving it. Eventually, he launched the iPodder site for people to download the program and even subscribe to thousands of podcasts listed there. The rest is history. Podcasting was born. (Since then, other sites offer similar software, but iPodder is the most well known).

The question is what does all of this mean for artists and bands. Plenty, it turns out. For acts that tour constantly and either record live shows or let fans record shows, the benefits are obvious: Fans can automatically download any new music you (or a third-party podcaster) throws at them. And they don’t have to remember to go anywhere to get it. It just downloads automatically into their MP3 players.

Every time a new feed comes out, it updates the next time you sync up with your computer. An artist could even create an audio "show" that included a voice greeting or announcement, followed by some live music, followed by a new just-released song or some other content. It’s a way to ratchet up fan communication, which always helps keep them coming back for more.

Right now, few bands are directly podcasting to their fans. But podcasting has created a vibrant new crop of audio bloggers who use RSS enclosures to publish webcasts and music playlists over the Internet. People who want to receive the feeds simply go to a Web site and subscribe.

Michael O’Connor, who with partner runs the Web site, themusicneverstopped, posts weekly podcasts featuring music from notable jam bands he follows (in some cases, including on-the-spot interviews with the bands). He acknowledges that beyond the jam band scene, which has always emphasized "tape trading" among its fans, artists have yet to embrace podcasts as a way to reach fans directly. "We’re not really seeing any bands do podcasting," he says. "But as you see more and more press about it, people are going to get more interested in it… Podcasting is being driven, at least early on, by the geek culture. Now, we’re starting to see it going more mainstream."

So for now, podcasting has been a phenomenon embraced by third-party aggregators such as O’Connor, many of whom fashion themselves as Internet disc jockeys or the Web-equivalent of radio show hosts. Curry, for example, hosts a podcast show about, well… podcasting… that reportedly has attracted some 50,000 subscribers. Many podcasters put out their shows for fun or as a hobby, but numbers like those are starting to turn it into a commercial enterprise as well—complete with advertising and revenue models.

Self-described technology evangelist and blogger Chris Pirillo, for example, offers up "The Chris Pirillo Show" audio blog every week to tackle technology trends for his niche audience. But the show also helps promote his reseller Web site. Pirillo agrees that podcasting (like most podcasters, he despises the term because it makes it sound like you need an iPod, which you don’t) will eventually find its way out of the geek/digerati universe and into the mainstream music world.

For artists and even small labels, Pirillo says podcasting could be yet another technology that evens the playing field with larger labels. "I’m not forced to get all my music through Warner Brothers, which I’m sure they’re not thrilled about," he says. "I can tailor it to my interests." (Of course, the majors could also embrace podcasting and use it as a promotional tool, but judging from their past sloth in adopting new technologies… more nimble independents may have a window of opportunity).

Podcasting does present an issue for artists and labels: How do you keep feeding the beast? People who subscribe to podcasts and other RSS feeds expect constant updates and new material on a periodic basis. Artists that tour often and record live shows (or allow fans to record shows) are probably in the best position to exploit podcasting to their benefit.

But with home recording becoming so prevalent (see story on CES show in this issue), many bands can offer up new demos and other materials to fans in the form of a podcast. Why not do audio interviews of the band’s drummer talking about his craft? Or let fans submit their own audio "tributes" to the band? How about a funny message from the singer’s mom to fans? Anything is possible, even for bands that don’t have a lot of live recordings. "Think of it as not only supporting the fan base but extending it," says Pirillo. "You’re opening the door for further community approval." Bands that are squeamish about providing too much material for free download could also adopt a "creative commons" license, which allows the band to retain some copyright protection while also giving fans greater rights as well.

Of course, podcasting isn’t necessarily easy to provide to fans. "The process is still kind of complicated," says Pirillo. "There’s still an early adopter feel to it." One way to add RSS feeds and podcasting to your site is to download the same software used by bloggers everywhere. One good option is Movable Type which many bloggers use to help syndicate their content (there’s an unsupported free version, as well as supported versions that cost between $70 and $100).

If you don’t really know what you’re doing (i.e., most of us), it’s best to bug your webmaster or, if you don’t have a webmaster, to find one who understands RSS and podcasting. If you find podcasting too intimidating at first, why not ask your fans to subscribe to a simple text RSS feed for starters? "It’s important that bands and managers start looking at RSS as a way to get their music out," says O’Connor. "We would start to like bands to put their set lists on RSS feeds." You never know. Die-hard fans might eat that up, especially if it’s offered in conjunction with a podcast of that incredible show you played in Philly last week.

In any event, podcasting is something that every artist, manager and label should research now. At some point in the future, there might be so many people offering RSS feeds and podcasts that it will be difficult to be heard through the noise. Get on it now, and you might be able to capture a big audience before podcasting becomes ubiquitous. In music, like life, everything is about timing.


(Mike Grebb is a writer, journalist and singer/songwriter based in Washington, D.C. He has written for numerous publications, including Wired and Billboard. He just completed his debut solo record, Resolution, which is available at www.mikegrebb.com).

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