Music radio, at its best, does three things: plays your favorite tunes, introduces you to new sounds and draws you into a wider community, imagined or real. When radio fails at any of those tasks, listeners drift away.
The new methods of delivering music, although still in their infancy, face the same challenges. The digital technologies have the favorites part of the formula down cold. Downloaded (legally or not) or streamed over the Web, Internet music sources get you to your most-loved songs faster than radio ever did.
The digital world is theoretically the ultimate reservoir of new sounds too. The old Robert Klein comedy bit about the infomercial for "every record ever recorded -- we drive a truck to your house" is no longer a joke; everything is out there somewhere, just waiting to be downloaded.
The community part of the formula seems to be the toughest. Internet music sites are thriving gatherings of avid fans who easily find soul mates in even the most obscure categories of listening. But few homegrown music blogs -- on MySpace.com or on their own -- have found large audiences. Most of them are created by and for the deeply involved, who tend to sneer at music that's too popular.
Despite numerous attempts, no one online has found a way to turn the hat trick that sustained radio through six decades of dominance of the music industry. The iTunes store is just a very alluring retailer; it has no defining personality and therefore hasn't developed into the kind of mass community that assembled around the most successful radio deejay shows. Various adventures in file-sharing have been a bonanza for music collectors but have done little to advance the cause of sounds that weren't already popular.
The proliferation of MP3 blogs has blessed music fans with the best means developed to transfer the serendipity of radio to the Web. People who feel compelled to share their latest musical discoveries are creating sites that blend digital music, descriptive text and visual art in a way that is as new and different as album covers were when they first added liner notes and cover art to recorded sound so many decades ago.
Now those blogs are getting a big boost from MP3 blog aggregators, such as the Hype Machine (hype.non-standard.net), that collect and search the sites of all those hard-core music evangelists and present a world of choices at one destination. Created by Anthony Volodkin, a 20-year-old student in New York, the Machine is a one-stop shop for all the tunes, new and old, that people are posting on their music blogs. You can search for what you want, enter other people's playlists or check out the most popular tunes.
Right now, I'm listening via the Hype Machine to a decidedly mediocre New York salsa band, but a few minutes ago I was captivated by Smash-Up Derby, a San Francisco unit that claims to be the world's only live mash-up band. Smash-Up Derby's rendition of the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" sung over Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" is the best creative abuse of music I've heard since I learned that Foreigner's 1970s pop hits gained tremendous value when played at 45 rpm rather than 33 rpm.
I came upon this music pretty much at random, from the Hype Machine's unadorned daily list of what's been added to music blogs. But you can also get into new sounds by checking the Machine's Now Playing list. Or you can stick to the tried-and-true by looking into the site's "most popular" roster, which offers a set of hits you're almost guaranteed to hear on modern-rock FM stations (although the occasional Nina Simone song and even an opera cut might sneak onto the list now and then).
Most listeners seem to use the Machine as a radio, either looking for the songs they like or letting the player guide them to new tunes. That reality seems to annoy Volodkin and many of his fellow music bloggers, who want listeners to visit their blogs and take in the entire experience -- the writing and the links and all the other Webby stuff that they've added to the songs.
Some of those blogs are well worth the visit. At soul-sides.com, San Francisco sociologist Oliver Wang leads a learned but never pedantic exploration into the far reaches of 1960s and '70s soul and funk. Palmsout.blogspot.com, based in New York, regularly posts creative lineups of old and new music -- mostly soul, jazz and hip-hop -- accompanied by written wanderings that match the spirit of the songs. At gonze.com/weblog, Lucas Gonze mixes insider computer talk with an addictively eclectic collection of music, from contemporary classical to John Philip Sousa to Gonze's own compositions of jazzy ambient sound. (A Los Angeles techie, Gonze was hired by Yahoo after it bought his website webjay.org, which lets listeners share their playlists.)
The recording industry has left music blogs pretty much alone, even though a lot of music is downloaded from them for free. The bloggers tend to be highly supportive of the artists they play, and Hype Machine and many of the other music blogs offer links to Amazon and iTunes for almost every song on their sites, urging visitors to buy music legally.
At last, here is a form of music sharing that won't get you slapped with a lawsuit from the recording industry.
"We are always supportive of new and exciting ways for fans to enrich their lives with music," a spokesman for the Recording Industry Assn. of America said via e-mail. "If artists, record companies, publishers and other rights owners choose to use music blogs to distribute their music, we applaud such a use of technology. Bloggers, like the users of any other sound recordings, must respect the value of music by obtaining the appropriate licenses from the copyright owners, or their designees."
Will aggregators such as the Hype Machine -- an audio analogue of YouTube's collection of the planet's amateur videos -- transform Web-based music into the kind of mass medium that Top 40 radio once was? Not any time soon. But just as professional sports teams must reach beyond hard-core followers to attract casual fans and even non-fans, any music delivery medium that hopes for broad popular success ultimately must be about more than just the music.
In the Top 40 radio model, the music almost didn't matter; audiences came along for the ride just to be part of the go-go excitement -- the comedy, the catchphrases, the buzz -- of the AM deejays of the '60s and '70s. The Hype Machine is an important step toward delivering musical favorites and new discoveries in one package, but the third element of the formula is still evolving: how to create a community that has meaning beyond the music.