Listen. And learn

Boston Globe, July 31, 2005

At the close of a night of underground DJ performances at the Middle East in Cambridge, Paul Irish sidled up to the turntablist Diplo with something more important to tell him than a fan’s usual post-gig thanks.

“I downloaded your music online,” Irish said. “So here’s 20 bucks.”

In the months since that encounter, Diplo has gone from obscurity to sensation – both solo and with his girlfriend, M.I.A., the ultra- hot Sri Lankan-British pop revelation.

And Irish, 22, who lives in Allston and runs a website called Aurgasm, is one of a small coterie of fans who, in the course of sharing and chatting about music on their sites, built the online buzz that helped these artists break into the mainstream.

Irish is an audioblogger–one of a new breed of tastemakers who devote their spare time to disseminating, free of charge, music that’s obscure, unusual, cutting-edge, or on the verge of being forgotten. Irish calls it “the best music you’ve never heard.”

The principle behind an audioblog also called MP3 blog is simple. You find a track you want to share with the masses. You place it online as an MP3 file, which anyone with a fast connection can play or save. And you write a little commentary, which might be pithy or detailed, straightforward or oblique. Think of each post as a whimsical capsule review, with sound attached.

Audioblogging represents the latest stage in the natural history of the music geek. The bloggers are often veterans of other obsessive, unpaid activities. Christopher Porter, 35, who hosts a blog called The Suburbs Are Killing Us, got his start in the late ’80s Detroit indie rock scene, editing fanzines.

“I loved that sense of immediacy,” he recalls. “MP3 blogging is the modern equivalent.”

Now the editor of Jazz Times, Porter uses the blog to share music beyond what his day gig allows, including vintage hip-hop, the 1970s Congolese group Konono No. 1, and a large amount of unclassifiable Norwegian pop.

Bay Area music journalist and scholar Oliver Wang, 32, whose site Soul Sides many bloggers look to as a model for its clear presentation and Wang’s thoughtful essays, spent 10 years as a college radio DJ. He began posting sound files in February 2004, making him a granddaddy of the genre.

“After I stopped doing radio, on a subconscious level, there was a vacuum in my life, and audioblogging filled that,” Wang says.

And Lee Caulfield, 42, a London-raised, Boston-based blogger who specializes in near-forgotten soul tracks at his site The Number One Songs in Heaven, likens blogging to the mix tapes he used to carry to parties.

Like those hobbies of bygone days, audioblogging is a labor of love one with idealistic goals and intangible rewards.

“Selfishly, I get validation that people like my music taste,” Irish says. “But I want people to find new music that they love. On the radio, you just listen to a song because it’s there. Too many people just receive their music passively. I want people to go after great music collections. I want my readers to make me obsolete.”

To the music industry, audiobloggers are anything but obsolete. Rather, they are a new tastemaking elite, conveners of hipness and buzz. Musicians and critics frequently check in. When an Aurgasm commenter asked about the source of a sample used by the hip-hop group Emanon, the group’s DJ chimed in with the answer.

“For hipster cats looking for the newest things, blogs beat nearly every other media,” says Irish, and the industry has caught on. Promoters send popular bloggers free product in the hope of scoring a posting. Some bloggers have been asked to scout new talent for labels.

It’s all quite remarkable for a fledgling medium that barely existed a year ago, is open to just about anyone, and at root may be, not to put too fine a point on it, illegal. Only a few sites, like the group blog Music (For Robots), bother to get permission to post songs. So, technically, most audiobloggers, and those who download from them, are recidivist breakers of copyright law.

But so long as MP3 blogs remain small-scale and noncommercial, both they and their users may be in the legal clear, according to Urs Gasser, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

“It seems likely that [users] can often make a reasonable argument that they used the MP3 songs for sampling or other noncommercial personal use only,” he says.

Gasser warns, however, that only the courts can decide whether a particular case of posting or downloading music meets the legal standard of “fair use.” And considering the cost of litigation and the bigger danger posed by organized piracy, audioblogs look like small fry.

“While the economic effects of MP3 blogs are unclear, litigation for sure is expensive,” Gasser says. And with more and more “noninfringing” materials turning up on blogs supplied by the labels themselves, there seems even less point in starting lawsuits.

Still, there have been some confrontations. Many bloggers have received “cease and desist” letters from record labels asking them to take down specific tracks. And when the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) complained to the Internet host of one popular blog, Moistworks, a group of audiobloggers discussed drawing up a code of conduct.

That charter never materialized, says Wang of Soul Sides. “But there has been an attempt to develop standards,” he says. “These codes are being spread virally. For example, the average is two songs [featured] per post. Who decided that?”

Ethical audiobloggers also remove sound files after a short time (typically one or two weeks), post no more than two tracks from a record, link to sites where readers can buy the album, and are “careful,” as Irish puts it, with prereleases the advance copies of albums that industry insiders circulate.

How long can it last? “I think you’re going to see the labels start to react,” says Mike McGuire, a digital media expert at the Gartner Group, a technology research firm. “I would hope they would look at [MP3 blogs] as more an opportunity than a threat.”

Wang, for one, is surprised that major record labels haven’t set up their own audioblogs, given the vast inventory of albums they’ve accumulated over the years.

“That’s a way to develop interest in what they have,” Wang says. “Most labels make their money off their back catalog. So I find it astounding that we have yet to see this.”

Like other new media before them, audioblogs could be headed for the twin catastrophe of litigation and the corporate steamroller.

In the meantime, though, the Web is blossoming with sounds. It’s heaven not just for music maniacs but for armchair explorers who suddenly have access to troves of new or obscure sounds, plus the expert commentary of volunteer curators who, for now, are just in it for love.

“I think it’s beautiful,” says Porter. “It’s democracy in action. I’m overwhelmed by it all.”