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Efface the Music

Mobile phones and music-making converge: Can you dance to it?

Not long ago, during a conversation about modern music, I heard an artist described as being "post-emo indie rock."

Not having the faintest notion what that meant, I realized with a sinking heart that I was no longer the trendoid I once was. After further introspection, I realized I never was the trendoid I once was. I'm still not sure what "folk rock" means, for example, and that came and went 30 years ago.

Muzak by Any Other Name

I know that "house" means disco music without John Travolta. But today, variations include techno house, funky house, acid house, tribal house, and more. But they're all just loud Muzak, with subtleties only nightclubbers can understand, at least until their eardrums implode.

I know that club music is largely computer generated, eliminating the need for actual musicians. This is good. I doubt you could find a drummer willing or able to whomp out a four/four beat on a tom-tom for those all-night dance marathons.

Now, when vinyl records were made a rarity by compact discs, they became musical instruments in their own right, as turntable artists claimed the dance floor, to scratch rhythms from the grooves. And hip-hop samples old riffs, snatches of vocals, and percussion to create an entirely new polyrhythmic melange.

Leader of the Band?

This year Apple unveiled iLife '04, which has a program called GarageBand, with more than 1,000 prerecorded musical loops you can string together, transpose, slow down, and speed up. You can also plug in a keyboard and play along. Yes, all you need is a tattoo and an ugly shirt, and you can be a post-emo indie rocker without ever leaving the house.

So, there's a lot of music out there, but most of it is either created in cyberspace or hobbled together from bits that have already been recorded.

And sales of CDs by actual musicians continue to drop, as more consumers get the tunes they want from the Internet and burn their own CDs, making demos, dance mixes, and anthologies of personal favorites.

Call Me

But with everybody file sharing, downloading, and sampling, who's making money? Strangely, it looks like phone companies are.

From many Web sites, in addition to screen graphics and games, you can buy ring tones for your cell phone. Yes, for a small fee, and if you have the time for this sort of thing, you can download song snippets by the artists whose CDs you no longer buy. Or you can get "real tones," like "Shooting in a Panicked Crowd," "Evil Chant," "Puke," "Ghost," and (appropriately) "Cash Register."

Paying good money so some punk rock poser can scream at me every time a call comes in — well, frankly I don't see the appeal.

But put all these trends together and sooner or later, like-minded young music-loving cell phone users will get together. One will program his cell phone with a bass line; another will plug a drumbeat into hers. It will evolve until hundreds have joined in. Then, at a decided time, they will text-message each other, gather in a warehouse, call each other, not answer, and then dance to the rings they produced together, until either their batteries run down or the scene is declared unhip by the latest post-post-emo indie techno-house rocker with street cred.

Whether this is a utopian vision, or a horrifying glimpse into a post-apocalyptic wasteland of the future, I'll leave for others to judge. I'll be sitting that dance out, however, whichever way it turns out. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe you should avoid phone calls, not dance to them.


Ian Shoales lives in San Francisco, where he spends his days not listening to tunes on an iPod.

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