Two decades before the term “World Wide Web” was coined, 28 years before Napster transformed a college dropout’s nickname into an infamous brand, and 32 years before MySpace’s Tom befriended the globe, Nobel Prize–winning economist Herbert Simon presaged a shift from the Information Age to what we’re all experiencing today: “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes,” he wrote in 1971. “What information consumes is obvious . . . the attention of its recipients.” In our emerging “attention society,” we increasingly turn to trusted friends and experts to help us sift through and find the cultural content that interests us. With this simple idea, local entrepreneur Dan Carroll is helping organizations such as the Walker play the role of media tour guide–or, to use a term more familiar around here, curator.Launching later this fall, the Walker Media Player is a downloadable computer application powered by Carroll’s IMP, a system for distributing digital content online. The player will automatically download a free “taster” of Walker-related material–anything from free MP3 tracks by musicians coming to town and PDFs of art-making activities for families to film trailers and audio files of artist interviews–all legal and all free. The chief difference between the Walker Media Player and, say, the Apple Music Store is that it features exclusive Walker content, and not only music, while at the same time offering a connection to one of the largest databases the Internet has to offer. It also gives artists the biggest cut of any online music service around.
Carroll hatched the idea for InRadio shortly after starting work in the circulation department at the Utne Reader in 1999. His idea–to expand the publication’s mission of highlighting the “best of the alternative press” to the realm of independent music–wasn’t feasible for Utne at the time, so in 2002 he left to found InRadio. But he didn’t go far: he rented space in the Utne offices, just across the highway from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and started negotiating rights with independent, up-and-coming, and unsigned bands to distribute their work on subscription-based compilation CDs.
Bringing the idea of these samplers to the online realm sprang naturally from changes in the music industry. The phenomenally popular peer-to-peer filesharing network Napster was shut down in 2001, and the following year its creator, Shawn Fanning, launched a new endeavor to tackle the conundrum of how to use the Internet to distribute copyrighted music and benefit artists: he founded SNOCAP, which is now the largest registry of licensed music online. When Carroll sought to expand the idea behind InRadio CDs to the Web, he called up Fanning.
Today, SNOCAP provides the behind-the-scenes database for the music files the Walker Media Player distributes. And thanks to programmers from Azureus, maker of the most popular BitTorrent client, downloads make use of the fastest available technology. Typically, online music services allow one user to retrieve an entire MP3 from a single server, but BitTorrent users can download small bits of information from everyone connected to the network, sometimes thousands at a time. And the more people using IMP, the faster the downloads. While he’s excited to have technology heavy-hitters like SNOCAP and Azureus on board, Carroll says, “Our hope is that nobody ever has to know who they are. In the end, all that matters is that they get music, videos, and other material and that they get it extremely quickly, from the largest catalogues of information on the Internet, and in a way that best benefits artists.”
That last part brings together many threads from Carroll’s background: as a former union organizer, a believer in Utne‘s progressive mission, a classically trained violinist, and a longtime Walker member, he wanted to develop a technology that could help artists–especially independent ones–sustain themselves doing what they love. To that end, IMP lets artists decide how much they want to sell their work for, and they’re completely transparent about where the money goes: after musicians determine their wholesale price, IMP adds five cents plus 18% to the sale price–giving artists higher take-home revenue than any online retailer.
If artists aren’t already part of the enormous SNOCAP directory–bands with little Western exposure such as past Walker guests Taraf de Haidouks and the Boban Markovic Orkestar–they can enter their work into the SNOCAP database for free. When they sign up, they designate one free promotional track (or more) that’ll be made available on tasters–but not just the Walker Media Player’s taster. Other organizations using an IMP-powered player–a diverse and growing list that ranges from nonprofits such as the Walker and Ithaca College to publications such as BUST, City Pages, and Utne–can share taster content.
Phillip Bahar, the Walker’s marketing and public relations director, says IMP is a win-win for both artists and audiences. “Our mission is to support living artists and to introduce our audiences to new ideas,” he says. “One of the hardest things for us to do is use words to convey the dynamic energy of avantrock, the visual wonder of experimental theater, or the intense physicality of contemporary dance. We hope the Walker Media Player will allow our audiences to get a glimpse of what they will experience on any visit to the Walker, while also exposing them to artists they’ll want to know and support for a long time.”
The Walker Media Player launches this fall. Stay tuned for download details.
Image: InRadio founder Dan Carroll on the rooftop of his Loring Park office. Photo: Cameron Wittig