Online, It's a Cyborg Woodstock

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Video games, streaming and Internet technologies are only the latest pressures to warp the musical experience, from a musical and economic perspective.

Not so long ago, all music was unamplified and live. The group experience was not the exception but the norm: We traveled to a special venue to be together, everyone listening to the same band.

The distribution of recorded music began only with the start of the 20th century but it has now become the most common way we hear music.

Recently, services like CD Baby, Spotify, Pandora ( P), SoundCloud and Apple's ( AAPL) iTunes are helping make popular the idea that musical style is an almost purely personal experience, no longer defining mass markets but much smaller social groups that often form online, physically disconnected.

New avenues are popping up all the time.

Last week, I mentioned that Dr. Dre's Beats Electronics is launching its own streaming music service, with former Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor as artistic director. That kind of startup competition could ultimately break iTunes' lock on online music sales, ultimately reshaping the market -- again.

Recently, I spoke with Bob Ostertag, an internationally known composer and author of commentary on art and politics, about the role of changing technology in his music, particularly with regard to one recording from 2007 called "w00t" available (through relatively new technology) as a free download on his Web site.

The title "w00t" was once a popular Internet discussion group interjection, particularly in online multiplayer video games -- a geekier version of a big smiley face. Some say it was shorthand for "woo-hoo! Loot!" when players found treasure in those games.

The image is entirely appropriate here since the music of "w00t" is built entirely from samples of audio from video games, including Super Mario Smash Brothers, Warcraft, Halo and more than a dozen others.

"As a performer, I had become interested in video game pads," Ostertag told me. "There's a lot of R&D that went into game pads. They emerged out of a lot of trial and error and the result is a device that's very intuitive to manipulate."

Ostertag found he could use $29 game pads as an instrument to trigger any kinds of samples he chose -- musical tones or any other recorded sounds.

"So then, I thought, I have my game pad, what kind of piece am I going to write for it? So that's how 'w00t' came about."

Here's a snippet. The style may be strange to most readers -- but that's the point. This isn't pop or "commercial" music that could sell millions of copies. It's a more personal art form. Ostertag uses technology both to create the music and to reach his audience of listeners scattered around the world.

(If the sound player doesn't appear below, go to this SoundCloud page to listen.)

Shards of sounds are recombined here to create original musical phrases -- more like a mosaic than a collage. The features of the sampled sounds are recognizable, even as the sounds are turned from their intended purpose -- elevated, the way words are elevated into poetry.

Like the title, the choice of video game sounds conjures the internal world of the computer, a tiny concert down among the microcircuits. At the same time, toying with such kitschy, cartoonish sounds emphasizes the way technology can trivialize just about anything. The cheap game pads -- a junk technology -- underscore that notion.

"They break all the time, so they have this association" with things disposable, he said.

These temporary elements play into Ostertag's tendency toward improvisation. Like good jazz, in performance, "w00t" is never the same twice.

Here's another clip:

(If the sound player doesn't appear below, go to this SoundCloud page to listen.)

Free Music

Ostertag, who has been recording and performing experimental music since the 1970s, has written about the dangers of business interests using technology to control and limit access to culture, notably in his essay, "The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician," available on his Web site. But the reasons for making his music available for free are rooted in practical considerations.

"People should listen to it," he said. "I'm not opposed to musicians making money, believe me... But I think the normal person would be shocked to find out how big you have to be to make money from selling music."

With traditional labels, smaller recording projects often wind up "undercapitalized and undermanaged," he said. Artists can lose the right to release their own work. Music that's precious to a small following can be completely silenced in the tangled maze of business interests.

"The system was structured in the interests of the biggest fish," he said. "So this idea that the world of digital file-sharing has disrupted something that was working very well is not part of my universe. That system wasn't working for me at all."

On the other hand, since his music has been free the number of listeners has skyrocketed.

"That's a very good thing," he said, "and that comes back to me in terms of more concert offers and so on."

Lately, further changes in technology have Ostertag rethinking that approach. Sites like CD Baby can distribute music through popular venues like iTunes, Amazon ( AMZN), Spotify and other outlets.

The exposure such venues bring comes with a literal price tag, though, a charge per track and royalties paid for radio play. Standard music business practices apply, including identifying a publisher, applying for standard copyrights and registering with a rights-tracking organization.

The notion of retreating, even a little, from his hard-won DIY stance rankles, Ostertag said. But likewise, it's hard to ignore the potential these outlets have to reach many more listeners.

Interestingly, any move back into selling recordings won't affect "w00t" one whit. Since the composition uses sound samples from so many popular video games, trying to make money from it opens up an impossible can of copyright worms.

"w00t" has to be free.

Yet, even there, technology may be answering the challenge: The online service SoundCloud is the YouTube of the audio world, specializing in legal file sharing of free material across social media. Soundcloud is the service I used to embed the clips from "w00t" into this article.

Whenever a new technology emerges, artists, audiences and old-fashioned recording industry middle-men exert pressure, pushing the musical experience into a new shape.

In that three-way battle, the only certain outcome is change. But at the moment, at least from Ostertag's perspective, the industry voices are winning, slowly reestablishing a paying model they can control.

The result?

"You can't give it away!" he said.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J.

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