Oldies in the digital age
By Julian Walker
Times Staff Writer
Jeff O' Corbett has a hunch that the 1950s are making a comeback.
It's not the hairstyles or the clothes that he thinks will be back in vogue, though Corbett looks the part of a reformed greaser, dressed in a black sports coat, dress shirt, jeans and boots, with his hair swept into a mini-pompadour. To hear Corbett - it's his stage name - tell it, the retro trend that consumers will soon see is
a change in the way music is marketed.
The Northeast singer-songwriter, and now music entrepreneur, envisions a day in the near future when music is sold electronically in bit-size packages - single songs ready to be downloaded and enjoyed by the waiting ears of a buyer. This system of music delivery, said Corbett, in many ways is reminiscent of that era in the
1950s and '60s when music fans bought the hits of the day on 45-rpm records.
"Since the 45 was changed to the LP, people have been singing the same song: 'Why do I have to buy the whole record for one song?'" Corbett said.
"When CDs came out, the record industry was making money hand-over-fist as people gradually replaced their entire music collection with the new format, so the record company could sell the album again. Now record companies know the CD format is dying and we are going back to the future, which is music singles.
" It's already happening, Corbett says. Want proof? Just look at the success of legal digital music download sites, like Apple Computer's popular iTunes, that have sprung up in the last year. Such Web sites illustrate the music industry's reluctant acknowledgment that music downloads are here to stay.
"Within the next couple of years, all of the big boys are going to get in this market," Corbett predicts. The musician and businessman hopes he can catch that wave of success and ride it to a financial windfall.
Corbett, a Northeast High School grad who lives in Rhawnhurst, says he saw this day coming from the time he launched a Web site (www.jeffosretromusic.com) in 1995 to promote his own musical offerings. The site enables him to advertise his services as a live performer and offer for sale selections from his catalog of 100 original songs (many of them vintage-flavored tunes) for 75 cents
each. Like many other Internet sites, Corbett uses a secure payment service (PayPal) to facilitate his transactions.
Since the mid-'90s, Internet sites like Napster, Audio Galaxy and Kazaa have catered to the music tastes of consumers, cataloging thousands upon thousands of commercial songs for folks to illicitly download with their personal computers. Realizing they couldn't beat these purveyors of pilfered music - the Recording Industry
Association of America got court orders to shut down many file-sharing sites and even sued some individual downloaders.
The association joined the crowd, licensing songs for sale on
Web sites that cooperate with the industry by sharing proceeds from music sales.
Corbett, who bears an uncanny resemblance to movie actor Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame, hopes to cash in on that corporate change in tune, figuring there are plenty of digital dollars for everyone.
"There are thousands of people out there who have been on the Internet downloading, and they've been getting everything for nothing. Well, that's changed, so they have to embrace
buying their music on the Internet," Corbett said of music fans.
"That means there has to be a mainstream way of purchasing music. When that happens, I've got a shot at selling a lot of songs."
Corbett's Web site is about as mainstream as they come. Sure, the music is dated, but everything past has become present in this retro-crazed society. Every era has gotten a shot in the arm with the wave of nostalgia that often influences pop culture. There is an audience for music from the 1950s and '60s, he insists. And who better to peddle those songs than someone who remembers the sound and mood of the time?
Corbett, 48, a lifelong musician who learned from his family of musicians and plays the guitar and saxophone, earns a modest living from occasional performances at clubs and other
venues. When clubs were more prevalent in the 1970s, Corbett went on the road as a touring musician. But the direction his life would take was established long before that.
It all happened after Corbett attended a rock concert at 16. He has been a doo-wop devotee ever since. "I just dug it," he said of the music, recalling the performances of Chubby Checker, the
Shirelles, the Platters and the Del Vikings that he witnessed that night.
"After that, the hair got cut off. I had a DA when everyone else had shags and afros." Ultimately, that love of doo-wop led him to gigs with groups like Danny & the Juniors, with whom he toured as a singer for two years following high school.
But when a changing club circuit started to offer fewer opportunities in the early 1980s, Corbett became a solo act, using the early "programmable rhythmic accompaniment machine
with a tape interface" to negate the need for a five-piece band to do shows.
Technology would again influence Corbett when he learned how to construct Web sites as a forum to advertise his services. Though he admits that the site hasn't generated many personal bookings, Corbett has no doubt it will be a financial boon for him as consumers more frequently turn to the Internet to purchase music.
"The market isn't there yet," he said, "but it is on the verge of happening."
Reporter Julian Walker can be reached at 215-354-3038 or email@example.com