Watching record wonks surf reminds me of why the music industry has been relatively clueless since Edison discovered a strip of tin foil could sing. When they're not shutting down some high schooler with Pearl Jam clips on his home page, they're hawking a burp-by-burp Netcast of a Ben Folds Five show.
Forgive them. Surviving in a marketplace ruled by Soundscans is hard enough. Now there's the Net, which has so far failed to telegraph how it can be turned for a fast buck -- and manages, at least in part, to cling to old communal ideals.
It is here that a different sort of musical experimentation is taking place: archives of awkward college radio interviews with Jonathan Richman; endless loops of Grateful Dead gigs; updates of the bizarre comeback trail of those forgotten hair metal mavens, Vixen.
This is also where Roger McGuinn, leader of the seminal '60s folk-rock band the Byrds, has found a second stage.
McGuinn's Folk Den is a site devoted to his new versions of songs that are hundreds of years old. This isn't David Bowie pushing a b-side, or Courtney Love posting a rambling retort to the rumor-du-jour, but an actual repository of music created, recorded and encoded by a rock 'n' roll hall of famer.
In a way, the Folk Den is a perfect project for McGuinn -- a chance to tap into the gadgethead and folkie sensibilities he first explored with the Byrds. Three decades ago, he and his jangly 12-string melded Bob Dylan covers with experiments using the first Moog synthesizers. He sang about spacemen and sea farers; then, having slipped into near obscurity, he went online in the early '80s, when cyberspace was a tiny, geek-driven community.
"The Internet is like a dream come true as far as communication goes," says McGuinn, 55. "I think it's like the telephone -- if you're not online, you're out of it."
From his home in Orlando, Fla., he administers his Web site, keeps the Byrds FAQ updated and surfs across Usenet, answering fan questions, offering guitar tunings, even suggesting a particular brand of rechargeable batteries. And every month, McGuinn adds a song to the Folk Den, 32 songs and counting.
"I just love that old material and I wasn't hearing it anymore," he says. "I started to worry about what would happen when Pete Seeger died. People requested I do an album, but I didn't think there was a good market for it. So why not just put it out there for people to download?"
The beauty of the Folk Den is its simplicity. A short video clip of McGuinn welcomes you, along with an invitation to download and collect. He doesn't want the recordings resold and has copyrighted the new versions of songs like "Finnegan's Wake," "This Train" and "Virgin Mary" (which, in their original versions, are in the public domain). An even more effective ally in the quest to remain bootlegger-free is low bandwith -- the reason a bootleg dealer from Germany recently e-mailed, asking him to improve the sound quality of the site.
But McGuinn says these stripped-down recordings capture the spirit of the material he's covering. His last flirt with the charts, 1991's "Back From Rio," included polished guest spots from Elvis Costello and Tom Petty. The Folk Den is actually closer in sound to the original style of the Byrds -- not the sonic psychedelics of "Eight Miles High," but the antihip covers of traditional songs included on most Byrds albums. "The Handsome Cabin Boy," the Den post for May, could play right alongside the sea chantey "Jack Tarr the Sailor," recorded in 1969.
McGuinn usually records alone, overdubbing just a banjo or harmony vocal. He scans and posts a painting and the lyrics. The music itself is easy to play along with. Instead of tablature, McGuinn lists the chords, and for "The Handsome Cabin Boy," the shift is only from E to D and back to E again. There's also a link to a photo of the guitar used on this new recording, in this case a Rickenbacker 730L/12 acoustic.
McGuinn launched the Den three years ago with the help of Kenton Adler, a programmer for the University of Arkansas Web site. He got a boost last year when Paul Jones, the creator of the University of North Carolina's SunSite, offered an irresistible bone: RealAudio capabilities and the server's 80 gigabytes.
It was a perfect Net relationship from the start. Too shy to approach his hero at a show in Chapel Hill, Jones didn't hesitate to e-mail an invitation to join a digital collection that also includes a triumvirate of posting poets -- Seamus Heaney, Phil Levine and Czeslaw Milosz -- and the texts of slave narratives.
The switch to SunSite has given McGuinn access to a larger potential audience; the RealAudio turns out to be a mixed blessing. Gone are the days of waiting for a .wav file to transfer -- the streamed music plays as it loads. The downside is that, depending on the connection, the playback can become a maddening series of stops and restarts -- a song broken into a series of rebufferings.
But before getting too annoyed, remember -- it could be worse: You could be paying for this.