|music for cubicles|
As I write this, the ILOVEYOU e-mail virus is being de-bugged from the worldís computers, another annoying reminder of the fragility of the new technologies increasingly becoming integral parts of our lives.
Itís not all bad news, however, and since the Catfish settled in the dot.com pond (and more important, gained access to a current-model laptop computer), heís come up with a few bookmarks to help deflate those middle-of-the-afternoon, canít-keep-your-eyes-open-in-your-cubicle blues.
It wasnít that long ago that blues on the World Wide Web was located mostly on homemade sites of the "My Name is Leland and I Love Blues and They Gave Me This Free Space to Put Up My Own Web Site" variety; there simply wasnít the technology to do much more. When Steve Knopper toured the "Information Super Highway" (remember that archaic term?) for BA #25 just four years ago, he found mostly pictures, fan pages, bios, chat rooms and the ability to purchase CDs online.
Many of us have already succumbed to buying CDs over the web by now, and that do-it-yourself landscape has been replaced by technologies that allow most computer users to experience blues in a set of headphones plugged into your machine. Need a shot of rhythm and blues? Today, many computers play CDs, and thanks to the ubiquity of the two dominant audio/visual streaming software products, RealPlayer and Windows Media Player, there are more places to find the music you love on the Web.
If youíve got at least a 56K modem and the latest versions of RealPlayer and Media Player, you can access the new streaming blues universe. (On older machines with 28.8K modems or in places where phone connections are slower, you canít have quite as much fun.)
At times I feel like I did back when I first got the music obsession. Back in those days my music connection came via a two-transistor radio. Every night I placed it on the windowsill next to my bed, inserted the tiny plug into my right ear and carefully moved the tiny dial.
From my second-floor Kansas City bedroom, I could pick up the two local Top 40 stations, but more importantly, I could also bounce off Memphis, Little Rock, New Orleans, Chicago and other pop, R&B and blues stations that sounded like they were programmed from a different galaxy.
Today, my $12 headphone set and access to MP3 files and web radio sounds much better, but Internet music on my laptopís tiny, tinny exterior speakers sounds surprisingly like what came out of that little transistor radio 40 years ago. Thatís kind of cool from a nostalgic perspective, but you can actually do quite a bit better with very little extra expenditure.
There are any number of speaker/subwoofer combinations designed to beef up your computerís aural abilities, but the Boston Acoustics MicroMedia™ three-piece system is a particular favorite, delivering superb fidelity and a bass sound that has plenty of punch. At just $99.95 (from www.bostonacoustics.com) it is an outstanding value. But no matter what speakers you choose, your cyberlistening experience will be greatly enhanced by an amazing (and amazingly priced at $29.95) little product called WowThingÔ. This tiny blue box claims to "create a panoramic 3D sound image that extends beyond your speakers themselves" while extending deep bass and recovering sound lost when music is compressed in electronic formats like MP3. Does it work? Does it ever! This is one product that deserves some kind of Truth in Naming award. It works on either PC or Mac and thereís a software version for Windows users only. The details are at www.wowthing.com.
Internet music isnít as fulfilling as a CD or album on the home stereo system, but itís not a bad substitute when the next-best alternative is listening to the local Phish-head chatter over in the next cube while youíre trying to get some work done.
From a consumer perspective, itís a huge improvement. When I could only access music from the radio, I heard a song I liked and hoped I would hear it again. Later I would rely as well on the word of critics to help steer my music purchases.
Today I type the name I want into a search engine and within a few minutes, I can read bio information, reviews, fan pages, essays, audio files and more. With all that music out there vying for your credit-card number, this allows you to make better decisions: The record-store listening station has moved onto the laptop.
One site Iíve been visiting recently is www.hob.com. It brings up the House of Blues home page, a cluttered, somewhat bewildering array of links. Choose HoB Cybercasts, near the top of the page (itís one of the three Quick-Access Schedules), and youíll get a page with a list of upcoming pay-per-view video and audio cybercasts. Check the menu bar on the left below the HoB logo and click on Concert Archives.
As you begin scrolling down, youíll find a long alphabetical list of names. Click on the name you want and you get a page with the place and date of the show and a prompt to choose your modem speed and choice of player. Click appropriately, and in just a few seconds youíll be hearing a live performance, many recorded at Houses of Blues around the country.
There are literally hundreds of choices from all musical genres, but I click on a Bobby Rush set recorded on September 19, 1999, at the San Francisco Blues Festival. After a sweaty, funky 42 minutes in BobbyRushLand while preparing a report, Iím almost ready to shake my bootie into that strategic meeting with the corporate vice president.
Another recent find is rbpage.com. Itís a site dedicated to rhythm & blues, and if you click from the home page to a link called Artists on the left-side navigation bar, youíll find a list of more than 50 interviews with bands and musicians, from Average White Band to War.
Click on any one to listen to a short audio biography. I really enjoyed hearing how Gene Chandler came up with "Duke of Earl" while the song plays in the background. The interviews run about six to eight minutes each, and if you donít mind the cheery, American-Top-40 format, theyíre worth a quick listen while youíre finishing some mindless task while waiting for the clock to strike five p.m.
Internet radio, also still in its infancy, offers literally thousands of specialized formats geared to nearly every kind of listener. Dial in www.gogaga.com (which bills its service as "Music for Cubicles"), for instance, and click from the home page to the Blues link. There you can choose your playback format and immediately tune into more than 2000 of the finest tunes in the Red Roosterís private stash. You wonít hear a repeated song here if you listen for two weeks straight. While writing this, I just tuned in to Otis Rushís "You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now," which was trumped by James Cottonís "Strange Things Happen." And if you miss the title of a song you liked, you can always click on Playlist to see the last 10 songs that have been played. (In the interest of full disclosure, the Rooster signs the check for this column.)
Internet music is hardly perfect. Itís still disconcerting for "Hellhound on My Trail" to cut out a minute and a half into the song, and you glance up at the digital readout informing you of "net congestion" (what, does it need an antihistamine?). Improperly compressed MIDI and MP3 files often sound thin or like a compact disc skipping. But the faster the connection youíre using, the better the sound, particularly if you have DSL, cable, ISDN or T1.
Itíll be a while before we all have the kind of broad, speedy access that Internet technology now only promises, and the Napster and MP3 legal issues are now in the hands of lawyers, so letís not hold our breath for quick answers on those fronts. But get out there while you can and take advantage of whatís available. Meanwhile, gotta go. I see the boss heading over to my cube.
ó Leland Rucker
Former BLUES ACCESS managing editor Leland Rucker now edits web sites for a living when heís not working on his golf game.