Call it the ultimate fan's ultimate dream, or a bootlegger's nightmare, but Pearl Jam has just released 25 -- yes, 25! -- live albums.
It's the latest example of how the Internet is reshaping pop music -- a move that probably would have been inconceivable without the distribution capabilities provided online.
The new albums are all two-disc affairs, each one a complete concert from Pearl Jam's summer tour of Europe. The CDs, released by the band and distributed by Epic Records, are available for as little as $10.98 (plus shipping and handling) for Pearl Jam fan club members via the band's Web site.
Besides the albums' availability on the Web site, the band and Epic are making them available to Internet retailers and traditional record stores. They each carry a suggested retail price of $16.98 -- as opposed to the $17.98 to $18.98 list price of most single-disc new releases. But they are expected to be discounted by various retailers during their initial weeks on the shelves. Not all retail chains, however, are expected to stock all or even a portion of the albums because of the volume of the series.
The novel mass release -- Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis affectionately describes the albums as "our own bootlegs" -- gives fans unprecedented "authorized" access to the band's musical output.
"There have been bootlegs of just about every show Pearl Jam has ever done," he said. "But most of them weren't very good and some were selling for $40 or $50 each, so we decided to put out our own bootlegs. We see it as a way for collectors to get the music with better quality and at a more reasonable price."
Pearl Jam's series comes at a particularly sensitive time in the record industry -- a period when labels, retailers and artists are trying to figure out the impact of the Internet on their future. The most immediate question involves a high-profile court battle with Napster over the free flow of music on the Internet.
On Monday, Sony Records, which owns Epic, announced that the rock band Offspring had scrapped plans to post an album on the Internet more than a month before the CD goes on sale. Sony, which is involved in the legal battle with Napster, had reportedly told the band to cancel the giveaway, calling it a violation of contractual obligations.
Though the Pearl Jam releases carry the blessing of Epic, retailers and rival bands will be watching the results of the 25-album barrage to see how many copies are sold, and how many of them are sold via the Internet or fan club rather than traditional stores.
The live albums went on sale on the band's Web site Sept. 5, and orders already have been received for more than 60,000 copies, according to a source at Epic Records.
Polly Anthony, president of the Epic Records Group, said the project was a "bit of a brain twister" in terms of figuring out how to distribute the albums, but feels the series is in keeping with Pearl Jam's attempt to maintain a special bond with its audience.
The sound quality generally isn't as good on these discs as on "Live on Two Legs," but it's preferable to the average live bootleg.
And price isn't the only attraction for fans with the new albums. Because Pearl Jam often reworks its set list from night to night, fans will have a liberating range of choices.
Pearl Jam is one of the most compelling live bands in rock, and one of the disappointments of its previous live album, 1998's "Live on Two Legs," was the song selection. There was an entire layer of essential songs missing from the 16-song single disc -- from the anthem-like "Not for You" to the warmly idealistic "Wishlist."
Thanks to this new batch of albums, however, you can find "Wishlist" on 18 CDs, including four that also include "Not for You."
Unlike most live albums, the Pearl Jam CDs are being released pretty much as is -- meaning you'll come across a few wrong notes in places.
"We didn't want to get into having to pick and choose between the shows, or having the band think about it too much," Curtis said. "Everyone has a (mistake) somewhere in the show, and you can end up spending all this money to fix them. They decided to go for it, blemishes and all."
Even Curtis hasn't listened to all 25 albums, but he was at all 25 shows and cites the second date, in Katowice, Poland, on June 16, as a favorite, as well as shows in Paris on June 8 and in Verona, Italy, on June 20.
(There is no album from the June 30 rock festival in Denmark where nine fans were trampled to death.)
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