The Tangled Web

Internet-related column profiling live music downloads, war protest songs and labels, and artist Buck Howdy.

Welcome to The Tangled Web, a weekly column launching with the redesign of Billboard.com. Each Tuesday, we will get you up to date on the Web's most intriguing music-related happenings and destinations.

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LIVE AND ONLINE: The age of Napster may be over, but online distribution of music is still in the early stages of its evolution. One of the more interesting recent developments has been the sale of live concerts via Internet downloads. In December, jam band Phish launched its livephish.com downloads program, a companion to its 2-year-old Live Phish CD release series.

PhishThe site gives users the option to download entire Phish concerts in the form of MP3 or Shorten digital audio files (compressed .wav files with a higher audio quality than MP3s), for an average of $9.95 (MP3) or $12.95 (Shorten) per show. Three months into the site's existence, the band is offering all of the concerts it has played this year -- 16 in total -- in addition to three archival shows from Phish's earlier years. Plans are in the works to make more old and new concerts available on the site throughout 2003.

Other bands have also begun to dip their toes into this new method of distribution. Pearl Jam, which in 2000 released to retail full double-CD recordings of all 72 shows of its world tour that year, has announced a Web-based plan to similarly sell recordings of its current world tour, which kicked off Feb. 8 in Brisbane, Australia. Fans who pre-order shows from the group's Pearljambootlegs.com site at a price of $14.98 -- or $12.98 for fan club members -- will first receive a secure Web link to download unmastered MP3 files a day after any selected performance. A mastered double-CD copy of the concert, complete with custom-designed packaging, will then arrive approximately 7-10 business days later. No retail sale information has yet been announced for the recordings, so the only place to get them is at the band's site.

Still other sites are aiming to join the burgeoning market without being affiliated with a specific act. A new online venture, HearItAgain.net, plans to offer consumers digital downloads of live concerts in MP3 form for an average of $11.95 per show. The site -- run by Web promoter Mike Corso, publisher of coolsiteoftheday.com -- plans to launch in April with concerts by rocker Frank Black. Corso says he is talking to six other artists about featuring their performances on the site.

THIS AIN'T NO PROTEST SONG: Artists have been flooding the Web in recent weeks with anti-war songs, from Lenny Kravitz to the Beastie Boys to John Mellencamp and R.E.M., but now labels are also starting to get into the fray. Punk-leaning imprints Epitaph Records and Kill Rock Stars have both begun using their Web sites as portals to anti-war information.

Portland, Ore.-based Kill Rock Stars, home to such artists as Sleater-Kinney and the Gossip, has completely transformed its home page. "In this time of war, Kill Rock Stars has chosen to use our Web site and our newsletter as a forum to provide resources for alternative media and information," reads a post on the site.

Los Angeles-based Epitaph, home to Pennywise and Rancid, among others, has created a page dedicated to the war, which is linked via the home page. The site is primarily a collection of links. "These links are not to large corporate media giants; they are to real organizations that we believe are genuinely concerned about vast amounts of knowledge and information to share," explains a post on the site.

BOY HOWDY!: Norah Jones' runaway hit album "Come Away With Me" (Blue Note) once again leads Billboard's Top Internet Albums chart this week, and the top-10 is chock-full of other albums whose success is mirrored on The Billboard 200. But if you peek down at No. 5, you'll see an album that has yet to crack The Billboard 200 but has made itself a regular on the Internet Albums top-10: "Skidaddle!" by Buck Howdy (Prairie Dog Records).

Howdy's a self-proclaimed singin' cowboy whose debut album of children's songs, which he sells via his Web site, has spent 19 weeks on the Top Internet Albums, peaking at No. 2 in January. Without the benefit of major retail distribution, Howdy has become an Internet celebrity among young children and their parents, whose buying habits have allowed "Skidaddle!" to consistently outsell on the Web such powerhouses as 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" and R. Kelly's "Chocolate Factory."

Howdy's official Web site is an animated "fun barn" where kids can play games, finish puzzles, or print out coloring-book pictures while listening to Howdy's music (and, of course, buy his albums, which also include holiday disc "Carols by Campfire").