World Wide Headache 

Halou's "Albatross" EP goes all-digital in a frustratingly analogue world.

God damn the Internet. Damn it for the constant overhyping of phenomena like podcasting. Damn it for the million different, half-assed services like iTunes, eMusic, Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo Musicmatch, Sony's CONNECT Music, and Microsoft MSN Music that lack complete catalogues or the cross-functionality of a simple compact disc. And damn it for the latest Halou release from talented local producer Count.

Count worked on DJ Shadow's last album, Lyrics Born's stuff, Blackalicious' work, plus a boatload of remixes for Radiohead, No Doubt, New Order, Frank Sinatra, and Rod Stewart. Alongside his two talented bandmates Ryan and Rebecca Coseboom, his pet project Halou makes great electronic pop, but because of the Internet, you can't even get a physical copy of its new Albatross EP, which is out this week exclusively on iTunes.

Last Thursday at the very wired DNA Lounge in San Francisco, Halou played the track "Albatross" as part of the latest in online music distribution and synergy. Count, a tall, dark, and handsome 34-year-old, played drums while Rebecca sang and Ryan synthed alongside a bassist and cellist. The show was notable because it was being streamed live into video game Second Life, where more than one million players interact in a three-dimensional, virtual online world.

Second Life's Slackstreet music center has become a major destination for tech-savvy bands that want to reach fans in a novel way. So while perhaps two hundred music heads sat and enjoyed the Portishead-meets-Sneaker Pimps stylings of Halou, another fifty avatars were in a room inside Second Life listening to a streaming simulcast and looking at album art on the digital walls. Of course, we couldn't see them, and they couldn't see us, because the most-wired club in the Bay doesn't have a $9.95 per month Second Life account, nor the local processing power to render the 3D world.

Tonight's show illustrates a salient fact of our times: In the race to profit from the next big thing, the music industry is leaving behind bands like Halou and its fans. Format changes have occurred throughout the history of the music industry, but the current shift makes the others look controlled. Vinyl begat cassette tapes that begat compact discs, but now those formats have fractured into a thousand different MP3s and M4A schemes, music players, cell phones, and competing online services. We've replaced the tyranny of standardization with the anarchy of innovation — and none of it makes the music any better.

Tower Records blames the Internet for its downfall, but as digital music sales climbed this year to 12 percent of the $33 billion-a-year world market for recorded music, the industry as a whole continues to panic. By 2010, the Internet research firm iSuppli predicts, digital music will comprise 40 percent of the market, and God knows how many different devices you'll need to play any of it easily.

Problem is, just as under the old model, the bands that benefit most from services such as iTunes are the richest ones, because online music distributors ink deals first with the major labels, which own the rights to 80 percent of all music in existence. Bands that need the biggest online push often get the smallest, and Halou falls squarely into that category. This band is cursed. Literally 0 for 3 when it comes to labels.

"It's unbelievable," says Count, who is as good in the studio as his band is bad in business. Halou's first proper release in 1999 was on the indie label Cargo, which went bankrupt. In 2001, Halou signed to Canadian company Nettwerk, which dropped the band after two albums, massive personal losses, and no promotion. In 2006 the band released Wholeness and Separation — five-year-old material languishing in contract limbo — through distributor Bayside, which promptly went bankrupt because it was owned by Tower. Halou is so exasperated by dealing with the industry that it's gone full-cyborg and ditched pressing physical CDs altogether.

Tough titty if you enjoyed Halou's innovative, engrossing set. The sensuous blend of cooing female vocals, sampled beats, and synthy keys requires a laptop for purchase at its merch table, and even those versions can be crappy. Which leads us to the last point about damning the Internet all to hell — the fidelity.

Count is an admitted hi-fi snob. "I work on a very expensive system that works at 24-bit and 96 kbps, and gets downgraded to something not even close to what I'm listening to when I'm making the music," he says. "Over the past ten years, there's been an enormous amount of time and effort and technology invested in digital music, but the end result is less quality than over twenty years ago."

So how does Count justify the move to iTunes? "People are a little ignorant about it, but you can import to your iPod at CD quality, it just takes up a lot more space," he says. "That's been something I always tell people when they first get their iPod. 'You don't have to make an mp3 out of it,' and they're like, 'Show me how to do that.'"

There you have it. The future is now. Go buy Halou (pronounced "huh-loo") on iTunes and join the Mac mafia for good or ill. Or rent it from Napster. Or stream it from MySpace. Or podcast it through IODA. Or try to steal it off Limewire and catch a nasty virus. Or watch it on YouTube. Or vlog it, or, or, or. ... Damned Internet.

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