UK rockers free the music and much more

"Come record our music, film us, download our music and our artwork" perhaps isn't the message to fans you might expect to hear from two of U.K. rock's elder statesmen. But then Mick Jones and Tony James, the leaders of rock'n'roll band Carbon/Silicon are no strangers to technology or reinvention.

Best known as lead guitarist with one of punk's best loved groups, The Clash, Jones then went on to enjoy another pretty successful run as leader of Big Audio Dynamite (BAD), famed for its flirtations with sampling. More recently, he's back in the spotlight as producer of very popular, but troubled, Brit band The Libertines.

James first came to prominence as bass player with punk band Generation X. When singer Billy Idol headed Stateside to a solo career, James came up with the idea of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, a glam cyberpunk band, named after a Russian street gang. The band sported wild hair and costumes, and, like BAD, were fond of sampling. They had some success, split up after a critical savaging, and have re-formed on a couple of occasions.

Jones and James have long been close friends and decided to put a band together with the Internet as the means for getting their message out. Both men were excited by the Web and understood why fans were sharing music over P2P (peer-to-peer) networks. "I believe it's like when you made a compilation cassette for a friend to turn them on to new music," James wrote in an Aug. 1 diary entry on the Carbon/Silicon Web site (www.carbonsiliconinc.com.) "Now you could have a thousand friends."

Entitled "M.P.Free," one of the band's first songs contains the lyrics, "I believe in MP3, I believe in P2P, I just burnt my own CD, the day the music was free," sung against a sampling of the "People try to put us d-down" line from The Who's "My Generation." Just in case you don't get the point, toward the end of the song, there's a refrain of "AaaaaaaH, save KaZaa," referring to the file-sharing software owned by Sharman Networks Ltd. A more recent song, "Gangs of England" has the line "If you want the record, just press record."

James is keen to stress that Carbon/Silicon isn't a lone crusader for free music downloads and file sharing, but representative of the attitude of thousands of other new groups around the world. "We're embracing the Digital Revolution, not inventing it," he wrote in the diary entry. "The Digital Genie is SO out of the bottle now and I believe it came to save Rock and Roll, not destroy it."

The Internet is also facilitating more fan input into artists' output. "You get instant feedback from messageboards, blogs, etc. that you never got before and you can react to popular feeling and often to things you didn't even see yourself," James told me in an e-mail interview. "It all makes better music."

James still marvels at the power of the Internet. "It changed my life the day I logged on to the Net," he told me. He'd started out life as a programmer, graduating from university with a first class degree in mathematics and computers. Living la vida rock'n'roll put all thoughts of programming out of his head and James abandoned technology until 1995.

Going online for the first time was amazing, he recalls on the official Sigue Sigue Sputnik site (www.sputnikworld.com), with his first task searching for mentions of his much-maligned band. "Can you imagine what it was like?" he wrote. "All these years my baby had been dead, ridiculed, buried without trace, but there it was alive in the computers and hearts of fans all over the world."

Like so many new bands out there, Carbon/Silicon has no record deal and is attracting attention through its live shows and its Web presence. James insists there's no difference between he and Jones in their 50s and a teenage band just starting out. "Great music always gets out and like everything else in life it's a combination of talent, luck and tenacity," James told me.

Carbon/Silicon welcomes fan involvement early on in the music creation process, encouraging fans to film the group recording in the studio and then use those films as the basis for promotional videos. The band also offers alternate or lengthier versions of their songs online. The band has no official record CD as yet, but gladly signs CDs fans have burnt themselves from MP3s on the Web, decorated with their own artwork or based on the artwork and photos freely available on the band's site.

Why has the music industry been so slow to embrace technology? "Because frankly there are too many Luddites/fat cats in this industry that have been resting on their laurels for too long," James told me. "Many of them are just downright lazy and it's not about the love of music, it's about a love of their own power. They've tried to close it down rather than embrace it."

What's needed is for everyone, the industry included, to work together to come up with new ways in which artists can be rewarded for their work, according to James. If offered, wouldn't some fans want to pay to be part of the creative process, to be right there with musicians when they have an idea for a song or first come up with the lyrics and music? Perhaps a record will end up being a compilation or the highlights of the creative process, James mused.

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China Martens

IDG News Service/Boston Bureau

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