Online music has an image problem that would give a marketing director headaches. If one were to watch MTV or leaf through any mainstream publication, an image would emerge of a goofball college student, probably male, probably white, probably downloading music using a big fat T1 (1.5-megabit-per-second) dormitory pipe between paused sessions of Tomb Raider.
But a closer analysis of the market for online music shows a much broader audience, one that stretches into the nether regions of the U.S. and abroad where college campuses arent even in sight.
"The general impression of online music is its just college kids downloading and thats not the case," says Lee Rainie, director at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which has conducted research on the topic. "More than half the people downloading are over the age of 30. Even for folks over 50, one in seven of those that have Internet access have done it."
Peeling through the layers of Pews latest results, a different type of person is revealed. Of those people surveyed who were over the age of 18 and had Internet access, the profile that emerges is of someone who is probably in his 20s, probably Hispanic, probably makes less than $30,000 and probably is male.
If those numbers are true, then the picture bodes very well for LaMusica.com, ranked as one of the top three Internet destinations for Hispanics, according to a July study by the Roslow Research Group. The site was created in 1995 by a fan of Latin music who, as LaMusica Chief Executive Juan Esteban likes to point out, wasnt Hispanic at all, but Jewish.
Judy Faber, or Little Judy, as she likes to be called professionally, started and ran LaMusica as a hobby until she met Esteban in 1997 and began revving the site into a money machine, signing deals with major Latin record labels.
Then Esteban arranged for 80 percent of the company to be acquired by Spanish Broadcasting System, the largest broadcaster of Spanish radio stations in the country. Now LaMusica broadcasts music via streaming media from radio stations in eight of the top 10 U.S. Latin markets. The site also offers songs for download by artists that allow it. In August, LaMusica signed a deal worth nearly $20 million with America Online for the Latin music portal.
Esteban says the attention LaMusica is receiving is evidence of the multicultural revolution that is supporting online music. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics will surpass Blacks as the leading minority group by 2003.
"Hispanics have expendable income," Esteban adds. Thats why companies such as AOL are coming to LaMusicas table. "Theyre waking up to the $450 billion of buying power the Latin community has."
For songs that didnt hit the top 40 in the U.S. or in Latin America, some online music sites become an educational system and library, preserving what may otherwise be lost and providing split-second access to recordings that might otherwise take months, if not years, to locate.
"This is a rich treasure trove of opportunity to get old songs or old versions of songs that people have difficulty finding in other forms," Rainie says.
Nowhere does that ideal become more obvious than at The Mudcat Café, a nonprofit site for folk music enthusiasts.
Max Spiegel, who now runs the Mudcat folk music site and has added community tools, says the sites appeal is its lack of authority. "Our general success is, no one stands out to take leadership," he says. "As far as the leadership of the community goes, it works best without one."
Mudcat participants range from the poor to blue-collar to middle-class.
Spiegel adds that online capabilities apply heavily to a site such as Mudcat because of its unique function. Unlike a Britney Spears or Metallica song, folk songs are sometimes incredibly difficult to obtain, and they come in several variations of lyrics, arrangements and performances by different people.
The site has also become a ready-made archive for aging musicians who need to know their music will live on. While much of it is archived by the Library of Congress, some of the less-famous works could disappear forever without something like Mudcat.
Ted Boucher, a retired advertising consultant and folk music enthusiast living in Washington, D.C., says that to find information about a particular folk song used to require months of tiresome research, which meant going to libraries and attending festivals to ask professionals who might know. To find out about the same song today would probably take five minutes from the time Boucher posts the question on the Mudcat bulletin boards. He can download arrangements of the song in the form of a MIDI, a small file that contains the bare bones of the music, like a keyboard rendition of an orchestral piece. Many times members will direct others to places where they can download MP3 versions of the music.
The irony is that many Mudcat users are also composers, and its not uncommon for them to find their own music floating around the Napster network.
"Some musicians have said they were offended; some were flattered," Spiegel says. "These are people that dont make a gazillion dollars and are just songwriters that make a living [some other way], but suddenly we become part of the publishing industry when the songs are available on Napster."