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If you miss that club act, maybe it'll be on the Web

Tuesday, February 20, 2001

By Adrian McCoy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Imagine going to see a band or performer who usually packs arenas in a small, intimate club setting with top-notch sound and sight lines. This economically unfeasible booking is possible because the show is being Webcast live to the rest of the planet.

Or maybe you want to see a band, but can't find a baby sitter, or it's a week night, or you just don't feel like going out. So you watch it on the cozy confines of your computer monitor. Or you can catch an archived version later.

Say hello to the future of live entertainment.

And it's in the not-so-distant future, if you gaze into the Merging Media crystal ball. The local multimedia company/independent music label has wired the Club Cafe to be a kind of virtual nightclub.

Merging Media CEO Marco Cardamone and executive vice president Bernard Lee, who also are co-owners in the Club Cafe venture, envision "Club Cafe Live" on the Web as a showcase that extends far beyond its four-wall boundaries. And they plan to use Merging Media's audio and video production facilities to record and promote new talent, giving the company a presence in a reinvented music industry.

Club Cafe books a diverse array of national and local acts, from jazz to singer/songwriters, and rock to blues. It holds a little more than 100 people. But Cardamone and Lee are banking on the live Webcasts to expand that capacity many times over. It makes the idea of booking someone like a Bruce Springsteen for a solo performance in front of a small crowd sound a little less wacky.

Club Cafe's charming deco facade and classic nightclub interior belie the high-tech brains behind the Webcasts. A fiber-optic curtain behind the stage adds an illusion of depth for the video images. The cameras were designed to work under poor lighting conditions, so the club doesn't have to lose its ambiance during recording.

Club audiences are as fascinated by the cutting-edge audio and video recording technologies on the second floor as they are by the live shows downstairs. The club will be putting in windows so onlookers can peek in while the recording is going on. The second floor houses a full-blown recording facility. Four remote-controlled cameras are trained on the club, and two more hand-held cameras give them a total of six sets of images to mix and play with. All told, equipment expenses ran in excess of $250,000.

The resulting picture is not the static, low-quality Webcam video image most of us are used to seeing -- after waiting a lifetime or two for it to download. The final product will be more like watching a live TV broadcast from the club. The result can be produced into a slick "Austin City Limits" kind of Web video package, which can be streamed live over the Web or archived for viewing on demand, Lee says.

Technologically, everything's in place. They could start doing it tonight, except that most people are still hooking up to the Web by modem. It takes the broadband capabilities and speed of DSL or cable to quickly download high-quality video images of the performances.

They estimate it will be 18 months to two years before there's a wide enough audience for this kind of Web programming. Letting the audience catch up on this technological curve is well worth the wait, Cardamone says. "The experience has to be good [for the viewer]. You're only going to get one shot."

Meanwhile, they're recording and stockpiling audio and video of some of the national and local acts that perform there. Already in the can are performances by several local performers, including Bill Deasy, Karl Mullen, Too Tall Jones, Margolit and the Liquitones and New Invisible Joy.

The next national act to be recorded will be today's concert by Absolute Ensemble, a group that fuses classical and contemporary music and instrumentation

Future possibilities for Club Cafe Live include enabling Web users to manipulate the cameras themselves and create their own views of the show, or to send e-mail messages to people in the audience.

As Lee puts it, "The Web is a very interesting playground for us."

The club also is planning to do live remote broadcasts with radio stations. Last weekend marked the first foray, with a live simulcast of John Mayer's performance on WXDX-FM. Lee says he was happy with the results. "It went great. It sounded amazing."

There are two distinct audiences for "Club Cafe Live." One is the young, club-going audience interested in new, original music. The second is the older, Baby Boom audience, who may be tied up on weeknights or unable to get out as much. Most of the college-age audience is already connected to broadband, and increasing numbers of home users are making the switch.

In addition to producing Web-based entertainment, Merging Media also is poising itself to be part of the rapidly changing recording industry. They recorded and released the latest Karl Mullen CD -- "Mercy Me With Curses." As an alternative to record companies or self-production, they believe they can offer recording artists everything a label can -- from recording and promotion, including video and/or live DVDs recorded at performances.

The company also owns Insider Radio, which produces the syndicated "Internet Insider" radio show, which airs here on KDKA-AM. That talk show, or others, could someday be heard and seen on the Web.

The principals in this venture bring a unique combination of prior experience to it. Cardamone was the owner of Electronic Images, a digital communications company, which he sold to USWeb. Lee was the owner of Aircraft Recording Studios, which has recorded many local bands.

In many ways, the time for a "next-generation entertainment company," as Merging Media describes itself, is right. With the Napster controversy and other changes, the recording industry "is going through a sea change," Cardamone says, "Where there's chaos, there's opportunity. We saw the opportunity with the Internet to deliver art directly to an audience."

Just as the compact disc revolutionized the recording industry in the '80s, the same thing will happen soon with Web DVD and digital distribution, he says.

The company is proceeding cautiously after the demise of many Web enterprises and the "dot bomb" fallout of the past year. But, as Lee puts it, "The Internet is not going to go away."

Cardamone acknowledges that his company is taking an "extraordinary" risk. "It makes us very careful with our resources."

But when the future finally gets here, they'll be ready for it.

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