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Singled out
Mercury Revís big Internet gamble

I still havenít forgotten that chilly October afternoon in 1984 when I strolled into Harvard Square with a firm goal in mind: to pick up U2ís The Unforgettable Fire on the day of its release. I walked into Discount Records on JFK Street, now long gone, and caught my first glimpse of that hazy black-and-white cover photo of an Irish castle covered in ivy and set off by luxurious maroon-and-gold borders. I took one copy of the record ó yes, it was a record, of the 12-inch, 33-1/3 vinyl variety ó off the rack, held it in my hands, and examined it for a few moments, paying special attention to the lyrics for "A Sort of Homecoming," which were printed on the back cover. Then I plunked down my money (eight bucks, I think) and raced home.

My anticipation for The Unforgettable Fire had been growing for weeks as I listened to the first single, "Pride (In the Name of Love)," in heavy rotation on the radio. But I had no clue as to what the rest of the album sounded like. Thinking back now, recalling how I watched the label in the center of the record spinning around on my turntable that afternoon and how the emotional intensity of "Bad" blew my 12-year-old mind, Iíd have to say that the mystery, the not knowing what I was getting myself into, was a big part of the thrill.

It would be wrong to suggest that kind of mystery has disappeared from todayís pop culture. But thereís no question that in 2005, many peopleís first-time experiences of music are far different from my Unforgettable Fire story. Over the last five years, new Web-related technologies ó audio streaming, digital downloads, and file-sharing, to name three ó have revolutionized the way songs are heard and purchased (or "stolen," as the case may be). Old fogies can gripe about the absence of a physical product, but as the proliferation of music subscription services and the stunning success of Appleís iPod demonstrate, the world has changed for good, and the moneymen are catching on. The question is, whatís the world changing into? In other words, when fans of the future hear their favorite bandís new album for the first time, how will they be hearing it?

One possible answer to that question is in its testing phase, thanks to Mercury Rev and their record label, V2, which is releasing the bandís new The Secret Migration. The album is pretty much what youíd expect from a group whoíve been upstate New Yorkís leading purveyor of sprawling, symphonic rock for the past 15 years. Electric and acoustic guitars form ornate sonic tapestries, drums resound with Spectorian authority, distant theremins wail, and Jonathan Donahueís high, homely voice adds a touch of human frailty. What has changed over time, especially since their 1998 breakthrough, Deserterís Songs, is the prevailing mood. The dark density of their earlier albums has been replaced by a more open, hopeful sound. And this seems to be reflected in the new lyrics, which dwell on the passing of the seasons. The brief, mantra-like "Moving On" expresses it with a massed choir of decidedly unironic voices: "It will be better in the sun/Just move ahead, it wonít be long."

The CD wonít reach stores till May 17. But on January 25, an EP with selections from the disc went on sale on the Web through iTunes. Six weeks later, another EP with a different set of Secret Migration songs went on sale as the first EP was pulled from iTunes. The process repeated again six weeks later, with a third EP replacing the second. Once the album goes on sale in stores, all of the songs will again be for sale on-line, but the EP configurations will be a thing of the past. (Unless, of course, you want to program them into your iPod that way.) More to the point, every song on the CD will have been made available to the public well in advance of the "release date."

This isnít the first time a label has put an artistís music on-line before the "official" release. Warner Bros. did that last year with the entirety of the Secret Machinesí Now Here Is Nowhere. And quirky Russian piano gal Regina Spektorís debut, Soviet Kitsch, could be legally downloaded months before Sire put it out. But the way Mercury Rev and V2 have gone about releasing The Secret Migration, doling out the songs in several small doses, creating an aura of limited-edition collectibility, is unprecedented. Itís clear that both label and band want to explore whatís possible in the digital domain and how it can work to their benefit. The goal ó moving units ó hasnít changed. Their strategy ó building fan anticipation ó is delightfully old-fashioned. But the methods and the technology are new.

Jeff Mercel, who used to be Mercury Revís drummer but has now switched to keyboards, explains that the impetus for this pre-release campaign came from the simple truth that the band are more popular in Britain than in the US. "Itís a different ballgame in America in terms of how new music is accepted. Itís not easy. Whatís made it even more difficult is that our past couple of records were released everywhere within the same two-week period. That means everybody wants you to be available to play a show in their country at the same time, and you canít be in three places at once. So we decided to split up the release dates for various territories, to buy ourselves a little extra set-up time here."

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Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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