Move Over, iTunes

Two Seattle companies—behemoth Microsoft and startup Chondo—provide an alternative for online music lovers.

"We're in the middle of another dot-com boom," a tech journalist friend told me a couple months ago. It's not hard to understand why: Finally, the age-old (it's been at least a decade now) dream of making money on the Internet, non-eBay category, has borne significant fruit. True, it wasn't a scrappy startup that did it—it was Apple, whose iTunes (specifically designed for the iPod) offered downloadable songs for 99 cents a pop. iTunes wasn't the first company to offer music downloads for dollars, but its enormous catalog and decent-enough prices lit the bulb over a whole lot of other folks' heads. And now that we're officially in the post-iPod age, we're about to be awash in the thing that always follows innovation: competition.

Since Seattle is a tech town as well as a music town, it makes sense that the two most intriguing new online-music sources—one inevitable, the other less so—come from here. Chondo.net isn't a download site, not yet anyway, though founder Michael Eastman is hoping to get downloads going by early 2005. What Chondo does offer is something more basic: Sign up (for $6.95 a month—$5.95 until Oct. 30—$35.70 for six months, or $66 for a year), log on, and choose a pop-up channel from the 17 separate stations—grouped by tempo and theme—on offer, which stream in RealAudio (Eastman worked at Real for five years).

In itself, this is hardly unprecedented—there are plenty of streaming sites, including many radio stations, you don't have to pay for. What sets Chondo apart is its content, which concentrates exclusively on African and Afro-diasporic music: Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, even Afro-American and Afro-Anglo—within my first half-hour on the Global Jammin channel, I heard U.K. grime artist Dizzee Rascal's great "Fix Up, Look Sharp," from his 2003 debut, Boy in Da Corner. Along with North and South American focused stations, Global Jammin is one of three "Jammin" stations, which focus on up-tempo music; the Groovin stations are midtempo, and Chillin is down-tempo. The other stations—all Global—focus on reggae, jazz, hip-hop, soul, and "divas." Each channel has around four hours' worth of music on continuous loop; at Chondo's launch party on Aug. 26 at Belltown's Afrikando restaurant, Eastman said that his goal was to increase each channel's content to seven hours by the end of the year.

So how's the music itself? Pretty solid throughout, a relief for anyone who might fear Putumayo-style bland-out; though there's a lot here obviously intended for a global audience, the Global Hip Hop station in particular features plenty of relatively uncut stuff. Since I haven't listened to every piece of music on every station, it's hard to know whether great African compilations from the Earthworks and Music Club labels like The Indestructible Beat of Soweto series, Guitar Paradise of East Africa, and Lightning Over the River are in the mix, but I haven't encountered them yet; I certainly hope to. (World Music Networks' estimable Rough Guide series is amply represented, a major plus.)

Nitpicks aside, this is a major development for global pop fans. Anyone can go on Kazaa or Soulseek (or whatever's replaced them this week) and find the hot album of the moment, but good luck looking for the new Youssou N'Dour or Ismael Lo—and forget about back catalog. Even as a streaming-only site, Chondo fills a seriously neglected niche among tech-savvy music lovers.

As for paid sites, well, neither iTunes nor the new MSN Music store (beta.music.msn.com/) are all that hot on new global pop, but chances are they aren't losing sleep over it. (One paid-download site with a decent world section is the soon-to-be-revamped eMusic.com. Full disclosure: I write reviews for them and will be participating in their launch party next week in New York.) Still, there are other amenities for MSN, not the least of which is that they have the most extensive catalog this side of the iTunes store itself. There's plenty of overlap, of course—if the major record labels keep covering their legal-download site bases as thoroughly as they have so far, the industry may not collapse as quickly as it's been rumored to—and MSN gets loads of points for having its downloads encoded at 160 kbps, as opposed to iTunes' standard 128, for (slightly) superior audio quality.

Still, it's too bad MSN missed the memo on the first tenet of downloadable music: It enables you to skip the songs you don't like in favor of the ones you do. Somehow, I doubt anyone is hankering to download "Interlude," the one-and-a-half-minute intro track of Jay-Z's The Black Album, on its own merits. I'd put down equal money that the four Black Album songs MSN Music is making available only as part of the entire album—"December 4th," "Encore," "Public Service Announcement," and especially "99 Problems"—are cuts customers might want first crack at. Not only is "99 Problems" one of the biggest (and best) songs of Jay-Z's career, it's easily his biggest crossover hit, reaching rock fans who'd previously (wrongly) dismissed him as shallow. It's as foolish as limiting Usher's huge "Yeah!" to part of his Confessions album. Oh, wait—MSN does that, too.

mmatos@seattleweekly.com

 
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