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If you were looking for Chuck D on the barricades of the revolution last week, he was out of town. He was in London, in fact, staying at the Savoy Hotel at the expense of J.P. Morgan & Co. According to the New Musical Express, the investment firm had flown the black-nationalist rapper to the international financial capital to “advise its City clients on the likelihood of success among the new dot-com companies and their impact on the music business in general.”

The City is London’s equivalent of Wall Street, an unusual place to find a prophet of rage. But music is dull right now, and equity is interesting. Despite the NASDAQ shakeout, people are still looking for dot-com bonanzas, and everyone seems to agree that the Web is going to dramatically transform the music business. That anyone will make any money off the changes, however, has yet to be established.

Currently, the big news is how the Web makes it possible to disseminate music without anyone’s paying royalties. There’s Napster, of course, and the Offspring’s attempt—shut down by Columbia, the band’s corporate overseer—to give away its latest album. Less conspicuously, the Smashing Pumpkins encouraged fan sites to post an album’s worth of material the band decided to give away because it was peeved at Virgin for not selling more copies of Machina/The Machines of God. (I’m sure the title didn’t have anything to do with discouraging potential buyers.)

Giving away music by established artists, however, is not much of a breakthrough. Bands as far back as the Beatles made special records for fan-club members; the Web is just a more up-to-date distribution conduit. It remains to be seen if downloadable music will make a difference to bands that aren’t already famous. For now, musician-authorized free music makes a stir only when the act in question has already built its reputation through the traditional major-label/record-store routine. Web music remains mostly a rear-guard action.

Potentially, distributing music via the Internet will be much cheaper than pressing it on plastic discs and shipping them to shops. The promise of cost savings may explain why Alan McGee’s new Web-oriented label, Poptones, has raised £15 million (about $22 million). Yet while McGee’s previous label, Creation, managed to stay very hip for more than a decade, most of its bands didn’t turn a profit—even while its releases were distributed by (part-owner for eight years) Sony, as major a label as there is. My Bloody Valentine nearly bankrupted Creation, and only Oasis made the company a solid venture. (McGee opted out of Creation, he recently admitted, when the Gallaghers started treating him like just another flunky.)

Chuck D has defended Napster and other free-music Web options, yet he shares the dot-com faith that free content will somehow earn profits for the right companies. In fact, his trip to London was undertaken in part to kindle investment interest in his own Internet label, Slam Jamz. Yet D’s recent albums (with and without Public Enemy) have not been big sellers, and music that doesn’t move via the Internet will be no more lucrative than music that doesn’t jump out of the racks at Wal-Mart.

Is all this talk of cash unseemly? Not to Courtney Love, who was quoted as saying, “We are motivated by passion and by money,” in an anti-major-label manifesto published in Salon in June that included the word “money” 16 times. Under American capitalism, dollars buy independence, and only saints can live productively without cash. Even such labels as Dischord and Touch and Go, where stock options will never be an issue, couldn’t exist without capital. As Patti Smith sang in “Free Money,” perhaps the most poetic greed song ever: “Oh I know/Our troubles will be gone.”

Still, if the promise of compact digital recorders, PC-based mixing, and Internet distribution is to make recording and marketing cheaper, why does Alan McGee need £15 million?

One answer is that the Web isn’t inexpensive at all. All those e-tailers (well, the ones that are left) are saving money on real estate but spending it on promotion. People don’t buy what they don’t know exists—which is why Poptones will need to work harder than a regular label to call attention to its releases. Unless it signs acts that are already well-known, of course, but why would such musicians ally with an unknown, untested Internet label? Oasis has already suggested that it will release its upcoming albums via the Web—but not via McGee’s venture. Why should it? If the most valuable thing on the Internet is visibility, then Oasis is a much more viable e-commodity than Poptones.

But perhaps McGee raised £15 million just because he could, just because it’s cool to have venture capitalists stuff your bank accounts. Internet money accumulation is so whimsical, so capricious, that it recalls not such great industrialists as Jay Gould, the Rockefellers, and Chuck D’s new friend J.P. Morgan, but Scrooge McDuck, who enjoys the sheer tactile pleasure of fondling his fortune. For Scrooge, the bills and coins themselves hold the appeal. Sort of like the record collector who values the objects over the music they contain.

If music does all migrate to the Web, there won’t be any more objects, just the music and—if Chuck D, Alan McGee, and Courtney Love are right—the cash that paid for it. Even then, romantics may believe that the music is more interesting than the money. Given what’s in the Billboard Hot 100 these days, though, it could be a hard argument to make. —Mark Jenkins

Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.