Where the Buffalo Rom


The analogy between cyberspace and the Wild West may be getting a bit shopworn, but it is still remarkably accurate. At no time in recent memory has there been such a headlong rush to stake out a claim in an uncharted area, not only because everyone knows the area will yield rich dividends, but also just because it's there. Unfortunately, at this point in the prospecting rush for a chunk of that thar cyberspace, you don't have to be particularly good or have the most unique product on the shelf--you just have to be there first.

The folks at Santa Monica, Calif.-based ION, which envisions its role in this interactive soup as one of turning 'viewers into doers,' have a distinct advantage over their fellow prospectors: Not only are they 'there first,' they're also producing original and creative products that the company hopes will set the standard for everyone who follows in their footsteps.

"The majority of the stuff we've seen so far has been merely database material--just point and click on a rock video or an interview--it's a way for the labels to re-purpose what they already have and charge more money for it," ION cofounder John Eric Greenberg explains. "I think that's what the labels are going to do, but in the long run, the people who actually put out stuff that's about using the medium and embracing the medium will realize they'll have to give artists a leash to figure out what this is about...It won't be defined by marketing departments. As soon as somebody gets a hit--and hopefully it'll be us--then everyone else will follow suit."

Greenberg, with a background in high tech and music production, co-founded ION in 1993 with his wife, filmmaker Ann Greenberg, graphic designer Lou Beach, and programmer extraordinaire Ty Roberts. Together they're developing a new business model that will help ION deal with the creative and marketing demands of the emerging interactive world. Unlike their contemporaries at record labels, ION's founders remember that the creative artist's talents are central to the finished product and the ultimate worth of that product will be determined by the user's ability to jump into the mix and "dance with the data." "Digital data isn't a static thing," Beach explains. "It's like clay, a medium that encourages people to play with it, shape it to their own desires."

The marriage of interactive technology with music may seem like a shotgun wedding, but it's really not. Much of the talent in the high tech industry comes from left of center, an area also inhabited by musicians. Interactive technology just gives musicians one more way to get their music out there, one more outlet for their creativity, while the interactive format's relationship to the standard CD gives the whole alliance perfect symmetry. "People already respond to the CD format in music," Beach observes. "So interactive rock is the obvious next step. It's what every kid who ever picked up a guitar in front of a mirror dreams about, being part of the creation."

ION's interactive creations so far include "Jump: The David Bowie Interactive CD-ROM," The Residents' "Gingerbread Man" and "Headcandy" with music by Brian Eno (who has also worked with U2, Talking Heads and David Bowie, to name a few). "Headcandy" is what's known as an 'Expanded Album,' which means you can simply listen to the music on your CD player, or you can listen and watch using your PC's CD-ROM drive.

As an audio CD, "Headcandy" features five original songs written and recorded by Eno. But put the disc in your CD-ROM drive, put on the oh-so-hip 3-D glasses that come with the disc, turn off the lights, and there you are, watching a colorful kaleidoscope of images, hypnotically sequenced with Eno's trademark ambient soundscapes. The soothing visuals, combined with the looped rhythms, are kind of like Xanax for your eyes and ears. The Bowie project was more of a standard CD-ROM, allowing the user to create his or her own video using QuickTime video mixing, a process ION likens to "getting MTV in interactive mode."

In late 1993, BMG acquired part ownership in ION, a move the company welcomed since it gave them access to BMG artists (like Bowie) and labels (RCA, Arista, Windham Hill Jazz). The company is currently pushing their business plan beyond the creative end-product: ION is teaming with MacroMedia to develop a toolkit for the development of enhanced CDs and with NetScape (a graphical user interface for the Internet) to allow Internet connectivity through an enhanced CD. ION also has several band projects in the pipeline, including Primus and Todd Rundgren's new album on Enhanced CD called "The Individualist."

Greenberg's own musical preferences run the gamut from John Coltrane, James Brown, George Clinton and the Beatles to Soul Coughing and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. And, while all of ION's releases to date have remained true to Greenberg's musical tastes, he agrees not every artist is worth showcasing interactively. "I think a good CD-ROM will present an artist who embraces the medium and is trying to use it to express something that's unique to the medium and really takes advantage of the ability to manipulate things. Who is the product geared toward? That's a good question because that really hasn't been defined yet... With the Residents, you're limited by the musical content. You realize that a bad record sells a lot better than a good CD-ROM. I think when an artist really embraces the medium-- there's that buzzword again-- then that experience can really transcend who the artist is."

Greenberg predicts that for the next few years at least, the hub of this new interactivity will continue to center around Silicon Valley know-how and Hollywood-style content. When asked how technology advances that will allow a consumer to download something directly from the Internet will affect CD-ROM-based companies, Greenberg is matter-of-fact. "Record companies have spent years and years and lots of money developing systems and ways to deliver hard goods, i.e., CDs, and they're not going to acquiesce to an electronic form of delivery very easily."

Suffice to say, as eager prospectors continue to divvy up chunks of the cyberfrontier and sell it back at the trading post, ION's team will be one step ahead of them, redefining the business model for an interactive age and pushing the creative boundaries off the map.


Originally appeared in Boston Rock, 1996
Copyright 1996 Lisa M. Moore
May not be reproduced in whole or part without my written permission.