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The Beastie Boys tone down their early MP3 enthusiasm

The group appears in danger of losing its cachet as one of a handful of bands pushing the digital distribution envelope--an area now defined by file-sharing technologies such as Napster.

In 1998, The Beastie Boys posted digital recordings on their Web site and gained instant credibility as leaders in the online music revolution.

The band was one of the first to publicly embrace the controversial MP3 audio format, an act that briefly won the enmity of its label, Capitol Records, and the backing of thousands of music fans who had discovered free songs on the Internet.

These days, however, The Beastie Boys appear in danger of losing their cachet as one of a handful of bands pushing the digital distribution envelope--an area now defined by file-sharing technologies such as Napster.

The band remains involved in Internet plans, recently overhauling their Web site. But as artists, major record labels and Web start-ups engage in high-profile battles over the future of the industry, The Beastie Boys are staying on the sidelines, both unconvinced that digital distribution has come of age and unwilling to write it off.

"Napster's an underdeveloped technology and flawed in many ways," said Michael Diamond, more commonly known as Mike D with the cutting-edge band, which was among the first white acts to strike a hip-hop attitude. "To me, the positive opportunity to exist here is this is the wake-up call for the music industry, and we need to figure out how to make that work for users and creators alike. Maybe I'm just a dreamer on that."

A few outspoken artists have begun snubbing record labels by releasing albums for distribution on Napster in the MP3 format. In September, The Smashing Pumpkins released their final album, "Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music," in the MP3 format and on a limited number of vinyl recordings.

Other artists, such as Courtney Love and Public Enemy, have made similar moves.

By contrast, The Beastie Boys are still putting the lion's share of their faith in CDs, according to Diamond.

When asked if the band would consider releasing a new album on the Web, Diamond replied: "If our album is to come out tomorrow, hell no. The medium that we're going to communicate to people with right now has to live on CDs and in stores."

Three MCs and one Webmaster
This is a critical period in the brief, but highly volatile, life span of online music distribution. The recording industry is waging a high-profile legal battle against Napster for alleged copyright infringement. The debate took a surprising turn last week when Bertelsmann provided a $50 million loan to Napster for a possible controlling stake in the company.

Instead of engaging in the mud fight between artists, online start-ups and record giants, The Beastie Boys are trying to chart their own path through the Web. To them, Napster is but one element, albeit an important one, in the ways a band can take advantage of online distribution.

"They did smart downloading in the right time, and they were one of the first bands to take media attention around it," said Marc Geiger, chief executive of Artistdirect, which manages The Beastie Boys' e-commerce Web site. "Downloading MP3s (today) is not a radical occurrence."

The band has remained committed to distributing songs over the Web, making available tracks from acts that have signed onto their record label and publishing business, Grand Royal.

On Oct. 17, Grand Royal, founded in 1992 by The Beastie Boys, relaunched to spearhead its new direction. The site aims to promote its acts and upcoming Beastie Boys events to its widespread fan base. It will offer original articles written by band members and their friends, MP3-encoded songs for download, and its own Web radio service.

Grand Royal appointed former Nullsoft employee Ian Rogers to spearhead the site in July as its president. Nullsoft, which was acquired by America Online, developed the Winamp MP3 player.

Rogers had worked with The Beastie Boys since 1994. The band hired him as he was beginning his graduate degree at the University of Indiana. Rogers helped the band post MP3 files during its 1998 tour.

The Beastie Boys also brought in record industry veterans John Silva--who manages the band as well as Beck, The Foo Fighters and Sonic Youth--and Garry Gersh, former president and CEO of Capitol Records, as equity partners.

"We're trying to be a strong company with good properties," Rogers said.

Kitsch, and lots of it
The Beastie Boys' Diamond said the relaunch of is the band's most ambitious attempt to use the Web as a place to creatively promote acts and boost fan culture.

With the relaunch, the band is also taking a stab at reviving online Grand Court: Shut down Napster Royal Magazine, a fan 'zine that Diamond and his associates launched in 1993 only to shutter it in 1998. The magazine attracted a cult-like audience largely from its fan base and was lauded for articles featuring musicians and campy tidbits of popular culture that influenced the band and their friends.

Diamond said he would never have done a print version of the magazine if he were starting it today, partly because of the hefty resources involved in distribution, printing costs and nagging deadlines surrounding a print publication. He's more attracted by the Web's ability to offer interactivity with editorial content.

"Now we can be free of that completely and be as creative as we want on our own time schedule and really have things be as visually, verbally and musically diverse and off-the-wall as we want to be on our own terms," Diamond said.

The team hopes that its new site will capitalize on the band's cultural influence. The site will feature editorial revolving around the band's tastes in the underappreciated, the quirky and the campy. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary attributed Grand Royal Magazine for the first use of the term "mullet" to describe a hair style--long in back, short on top--sported by hockey players and '80s-era heavy metal bands, according to Rogers.

Historically, Grand Royal has helped many lesser-known artists step into the spotlight. In 1995 the magazine published a feature on legendary reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry that eventually led to a CD compilation of his works. The magazine also sparked interest in now popular rock/hip-hop artist Kid Rock after it included a feature about him in 1997, Rogers said.

Rogers wants to take the magazine's influence a step further. He wants the company to find a way to capitalize on the artists and fads by using its assets as a record label and a multimedia Web site. But so far those plans do not appear to involve a Napster-like distribution mechanism.

"If we're trying to be taste makers, it's a question of, How do we get some benefit?" he said. "If we were to do the Lee Perry record again, it would be great to put together a Grand Royal compilation of the best of Lee Perry and then sell Lee Perry records in stores."