By Scott Rosenberg
Once upon a time, finding out about new popular music was a simple matter of turning on the radio. Nowadays, though, most stations follow such a constricted format that you know what you're going to hear in advance.
Today, people interested in keeping up with new bands and releases must assemble their own network of music tipsters: magazines, friends, crannies of MTV, the CD listening stations most music stores now provide, online services and the Internet.
A new wave of CD-ROM magazines is about to crash on the pop-culture beach, hoping to fuse these sources into a single medium -- and deliver youthful readers en masse to their hungry advertisers. Judging by two that have made it out already, Launch and Blender, they will not soon be winning widespread trust. They are an ad agency's dream and a consumer's nightmare.
Today's trendier print magazines may blur the lines between advertising and editorial content; the flashy, creepy Launch rubs them out like a three-year-old messing with fingerpaints.
When you load the CD you encounter a kind of virtual cityscape festooned with brand-name billboards. If you don't click on one of the magazine's own features fast enough, video commercials will pop up on drive-in-scaled movie screens. Even if you make it into Launch's music lounge, "The Hang," or its game-space, "The Temple of Twitch," you can't avoid the Tanqueray geezer and his brethren. In this medium, even the ads have ads.
Worse, when you finally make it to Launch's ostensible editorial content, you find more promotional material: movie trailers and game demos and music clips. A section that lets you listen to brief outtakes from 25 new musical releases is of mild value, and brief profiles of not-so-mega-famous music acts like Matthew Sweet and Bettie Serveert are a notch more adventurous than you might find in a mainstream magazine. But the closest thing to original material here is an acoustic version of a Sweet song and some cartoons that owe a deep aesthetic debt to Beavis and Butthead.
Who's paying for what here? Who knows? You can be sure Nissan, Sony and Reebok have bought their billboards; but after looking around Launch's cityscape, you're going to wonder if anything in the mag hasn't been bought. Launch's aggressive spasms of hip attitude only add to the ambient hypocrisy of the venture. If this is the digital future, can we all please hop in the Wayback Machine?
Blender is not quite so insidious -- though it, too, will pelt you with ads if you don't move fast enough. Like Launch, it features snippets of new music, features on games and trailers for movies (which appear, disturbingly, under a "movie reviews" sign). Its feature articles have a little more depth than those in Launch: The issue I looked at included articles on "Johnny Mnemonic," Lisa Germano and Frank Black, as well as an amusing piece on "The Seven Deadly Sins of the Internet." But these hardly deliver the "two-fisted digital journalism" Blender promises.
Blender positions itself as a touch more "alternative" than Launch, but, as Frank Black says in his interview, "Alternative versus corporate is a very thin, thin, thin, thin layer -- all that really matters in the end is: Did you get your money's worth?" Neither Launch (six issues for $35.99) nor Blender ($49.95 for five issues) is likely to inspire a "yes."
Both these products are examples of what happens, predictably but sadly, when old-media entrepreneurs try to colonize the new digital world: They end up rolling the worst attributes of TV and magazines into an unwieldy package that no one in their right mind would pay for.
Meanwhile, if you still need to learn about new bands and music, you can turn to the Internet. The high-quality, carefully edited music journalism in Addicted to Noise on the World Wide Web makes these CD-ROMS look amateurish. (And its ads are much better behaved.)
If you want something more interactive and personal, you can take part in a project known as HOMR. HOMR, which stands for Helpful On-Line Music Recommendations, quizzes you about your musical tastes, compares your answers to those of thousands of other participants, and supplies you with suggestions of music you might love (and stuff to avoid).
HOMR was born at MIT as an e-mail service named Ringo; today it lives on to the World Wide Web. You can think of it as a sort of automated word-of-mouth program. It's like sitting around with friends and saying, "if you liked this, you'd love that" -- only the "friends" are about 12,000 (and counting) other Internet users around the world.
HOMR works beautifully, as long as you're willing to spend a little time rating artists and ad albums for it. The more it knows about you, the more it can pinpoint its recommendations. And since it saves your profile, you can keep returning to it to add more ratings and get more tips.
The taste profiles HOMR collects are of profound interest to marketers, of course. It's possible to imagine the genius of HOMR combined with the greed of the CD-ROM magazines to form a kind of unstoppable interactive-marketing juggernaut -- one that provides genuinely useful information at the price of involuntary exposure to marketing. (Sort of like a good magazine today.)
In the meantime, there's no contest between the two approaches. I got more value and fun from HOMR in a half hour last weekend than Launch and Blender together provided over several hours. HOMR's information comes from other consumers, not record companies or publications dependent on their advertising. And if you have access to the Web, it's free.
Information about Launch: 1-800-95-Launch.
Information about Blender: 1-800-825-0061.
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