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Ice T, others sound off on Net's benefits for artists

During a lively session at Webnoize 1999, a panel of recording artists, songwriters and producers agrees on one thing: It can't hurt to try delivering music online.

LOS ANGELES--Singer Jonatha Brooke isn't convinced that IPO-hungry Web sites are the ideal music distributors. Rapper Ice T is tired of being "pimped" by record companies and wants his latest album to go platinum via the Net.

During a lively session at Webnoize 1999 late yesterday, a panel of recording artists, songwriters and producers were everything from sketchy to pumped about delivering their creations online. But the musicians did agree on one thing: It can't hurt to try.

With music lovers using digital jukeboxes, PCs and handheld devices to play tracks, artists are faced Chuck D on Net music (Q&A)with the decision of leading the pack online or possibly watching their music get copied and distributed illegally.

Although piracy is a constant threat, musicians recognize that the Net can be used as a promotional vehicle and as a medium through which they can communicate with fans. If one follows Ice T's logic, the Net may be the only way for artists to escape the grip of the big record labels and run their own shows.

"Artists are expendable," said Ice T, a gold record seller who released his last album through online music company Atomic Pop.

"I'm trying to tell the artists, 'You can pimp yourself if you have a Web site,'" he said. "My record may not sell as much as it would if I was on the majors, but I'm in a position now to make power moves."

Other artists on the panel included Jimmy Jam, producer for Janet Jackson; Michael Franti of the group Spearhead; Reeves Gabrels, a guitarist and songwriter for singers such as David Bowie; and Patrick Leonard, who most recently wrote for Madonna.

The artists debated whether the Net could help both struggling and established musicians gain exposure and make money by allowing them to sell digital copies of their songs and CDs online.

But the panelists wondered how artists could rise above the noise on the Net. A slew of sites popped up this year to distribute independent music. Universal Music Group, the world's largest music company, also has started a site to let unsigned artists digitally submit recordings for fans and industry executives to review.

"(The Net) has been a great source of information (as well as a place) to speak and sell directly to my fans," Brooke said. "I think we still need labels, for better or for worse. If you're just starting out, who the hell cares about you? How are you going to get over on the Net any more than if you were one of the disposable artists Warner Brothers signed that year?"

Despite her skepticism, MP3: Sound and fury Brooke isn't rejecting the Net. She released her latest album, "Jonatha Brooke Live," one month early on her Web site than its street release. She sells CDs and posters online and keeps a running list of concert dates.

Still, artists should be just as cautious about Web firms as they are about record companies, Brooke warned.

"Those companies sell out for IPO deals--they're not in it to protect the artists," she said in an interview.

Other panelists said that the Net inspires musicians to innovate.

"I'm hoping to prove that we don't really need major labels; we need to be comfortable with music existing as an intangible item. The Web takes it closer to an immediate experience," said Gabrels, who released his solo album, "Ulysses (della notte)," online exclusively in MP3 format.

Not all artists expect the Net to make them stars. Some just want to connect with fans who enjoy their genre or style.

"My records have gone like double linoleum, but I write songs from my heart, and there is a small amount of people out there who care about what I write," said Franti, who has toured with Ziggy Marley, Cypress Hill and others. "I'm here to look for opportunities for an artist to sell 25,000 to 250,000 records and still be able to make a living doing it."

Ice T is more bullish.

He formed his own label, Coroner Records, and will put artists' music online. He believes that digital music challenges the five major record labels' pricing structures and distribution channels.

"Everybody ain't got a computer, but everybody is going to have one. Fool, this thing is going to come so fast through the tube," he said. "You can't worry about how many records sell (online) today; in a few years, it will be the norm."