THANKS TO THE INSTANT gratification of the World Wide Web, a new archetype has been born: the narcissistic information junkie. These junkies only relate to the outside world if they're affecting it from their keyboard or mouse. For the most part the media encourages this behavior, describing their obsessive actions in flowery prose instead of exposing their addiction for what it is. These stories make compelling copy for a millennium-obsessed audience. Techno scribes in journals from The New Yorker to Salon have been writing about eBay mania, the marginally thrilling adventures of people at work planning their last-second swoop between meetings. Even worse are the articles about real-time Amazon.com rankings and how authors log in every half-hour to see how their books are doing, as if they were playing the stock market. These stories are sad. These guys are all losers, but -- I must admit -- I understand how they feel.

Rock and roll society is rife with the cliché of hitting it big on the charts, but for indie rockers, someone once described reaching the number one spot as the equivalent of a prawn riding a Vespa. Success, fans, and Soundscan numbers are anathema to the great unknown noisemakers out there, right? For years, bands I've known (including my own) have made the claim that "it's only about the music." We pick up guitars to please ourselves first, and if others want to come along for the ride, well, that's just fine too. Making music is its own reward. At least that's what we tell ourselves. However, the advent of the music format known as MP3 took me very close to becoming one of those eBay losers. Because of MP3, I discovered that even the indie-minded have an inner major-label A&R guy just fighting to get out and entice us into the mainstream.

Sometime in June, my bandmate JD e-mailed me a log-in and password for our band's page (Sacred Monkeys of Bali) at MP3.com. While I supported the format and enjoyed downloading Cheap Trick songs on the company bandwidth, I thought the site was kind of a joke. That is, until I saw that my song "Bob Ross" was at number seven on the "Twee" chart.

"Twee" is one of a number of specific sub-genres under MP3.com's Alternative heading, which is the umbrella for a variety of musical categories from "Low-Fi/Garage" to "Shoegazer." The number of songs in each category can run from less than 100 to upwards of 400, and the songs in each sub-genre are ranked at the end of the day by tabulating the number of downloads each song receives. For example, as might be expected with a Web-savvy crowd, the Electronica category is fairly popular, while other charts receive less traffic.

I didn't even know what "Twee" was at the time I found out our rank. I still kind of don't. But JD told me that the "Power Pop" and "Indie" charts had been overcrowded. Nobody was even scrolling down to our songs, which languished in the standings below zero degrees Kelvin. He had experimented, moving them around into different categories, and voilà! Number seven.

I had never given any thought to our music charting anywhere or even getting radio play, though the occasional mail orders from Japan and Italy that read "I enjoy your punk rock music. Please mail post your single" are fun to get. I was surprised by the fact that I really liked seeing my song up there in the top 10. And since most of our audience of late had been friends and co-workers, it felt nice to get a little validation from complete strangers.

This validation, however, also had a negative effect: It aroused obscene delusions of grandeur. After the novelty of charting at number seven on MP3.com subsided, I decided that number seven simply wasn't good enough.

So, of course, I e-mailed everyone I knew and told them to download the song, thinking it would scream up to number one. Then I figured I would take a screengrab and e-mail it to my mother, as if to say, "See, I told you this rock and roll thing would work out." After all, if I was at number seven with around two downloads a day, surely it wouldn't take much to put me over the top.

Unfortunately, a few days went by and "Bob Ross" began slipping a few spots. (My requests for downloads went ignored. Some friends!) Our time in the spotlight seemed to be fading. Resigned to the fact that stiff competition must be forcing us downward, I decided to listen to a few of the songs ahead of me.

Up to this point in my life, I had never regarded a fellow musician as The Enemy. We all try to create interesting sounds. Some people's we like, others' we don't. No big deal. But when I listened to a bit of "Obi-Wan Kenobi" by Random Karma, a fairly prolific band on the "Twee" charts, I was filled with a combination of jealousy and spite that crawled up from depths I didn't realize existed. I sat dumbfounded at my desk as what sounded like a Tandy tape recording of a couple of guys in their basement banging on a keg chanting "Obi-Wan Kenobi" played in my headphones. I thought, "This is beating me?!" I wondered if this was the same feeling that big-suited Elliott Smith had at the '98 Oscars as he was dwarfed by divas Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood.

Shocked, dismayed, and a little hurt, I wondered what I should do. My semi-professional recording was being beaten by a band that sneers at the high production values of early Guided By Voices records.

I began plotting almost immediately. Who could I force to download "Bob Ross" every hour? How could I manage to keep downloading it myself and still get my work done? Could my computer geek friends create a script that would log on, download songs, log off, and repeat?

After cooling off a bit, I started thinking about why "Obi-Wan Kenobi" was kicking our ass. Well, the title was a gimme. Not everyone knows of the kitschy television painter who baby-sat me after school in my formative years, but after this summer, there probably isn't a soul alive who doesn't know of Star Wars' venerable Jedi knight. I had to face it: In the marketing game, Random Karma had us beat. But the nagging question of why people preferred to listen to the primal screams of the bastard child of Beat Happening and George Lucas over my precious Sacred Monkeys of Bali was etched in my mind. MP3.com has a RealAudio preview. I thought, surely people listen to a song before they commit valuable hard-drive space. How could they deny our subtle pop sounds?

In the meantime, "Bob Ross" continued to plummet. I was getting depressed. Worse yet, I was getting desperate. Every morning I'd go straight to MP3.com to check the number of downloads from the day before. When we dropped to number 40, I snapped. I started downloading it two or three times a day when I could. I convinced myself that getting the song back up to a respectable top 20 would give it the push it needed to make it back to the top. It was my own personal Internet payola. Instead of paying off a DJ to play my song, I could rig the charts in 60 short minutes a day.

After a couple of days, sure enough, "Bob Ross" was back in the 30s, but the guilt was welling up inside me. I had to stop. MP3.com is the kind of free distribution tool that independent musicians had been crying out for, and by corrupting it, I was only hurting myself in the long run. If others like me started rigging charts (and I'm sure I couldn't be the only one doing it), eventually the site would probably switch to some kind of pay format. Worse yet, it might simply become another bullshit music propaganda machine, only promoting the music of bands with the time on their hands to download their way to number one. I decided I had to take the high ground. "Bob Ross" would sink or swim on its own.

At that point a funny thing started happening. "Bob Ross" started rising again. Slowly but surely it inched its way back into the "Twee" top 20. Was this a cosmic validation of my strong ethical principles? Actually, no. I found out one of my bandmates was juicing it a little. But after he confessed and stopped, the song continued to gain ground -- a point here, a point there -- until it was resting comfortably in the teens. I was feeling a lot better about myself, but I also returned to longing thoughts of that coveted number one slot. The temptation to start downloading it again began creeping up from the depths.

I had to fight it off. I remembered the eBay addicts and Amazon authors. I began to recognize their online obsessions in myself, and it scared me straight. Because the Web is exactly what you want when you want it; it's easy to get lost inside your head and not see the outside world. Trying to make 100 strangers think you have the coolest song among them is not a productive way to spend your time; it's a downward spiral. If I'd made as much of an effort to write new songs as I'd spent plotting my rise to the top of the charts, I might have a new EP's worth of material by now. I knew I had to let go before I became one of those people who starts bragging about the fact that they have no life.

And so I did let go. While this MP3.com experience unwittingly revealed my rock-star-wannabe side, now I can feel a lot better about having some ambition as a musician. In general, believing in the myth that fans and record sales don't matter had taught me not to be proud of my songs. As Sacred Monkeys of Bali work to finish our first record, our mettle will be tested. Will we get a Puff Daddy remix, or will we be the latest incarnation of Menudo? If the MP3.com numbers hold up, I guess we'll be somewhere in the middle, which is just fine with me.

At this point, I guess I owe Random Karma an apology. I've never met them or talked to them, and here I've been slagging their music. In retrospect, I think "Obi-Wan Kenobi" was somewhat amusing in a low-fi, Ween sort of way. I'm still a little puzzled, but no longer bitter over its success. In fact, I'm happy to see that their new song, "Spank My Monkey," is also doing quite well on the charts.

"Bob Ross," on the other hand, never made it to number one. I still check to see how he's doing every day or two. As of this writing, he's back down in the mid-30s, averaging a respectable 12 downloads a week, and all I can say to myself is, "You got all worked up like this over the 'Twee' chart?" Now, maybe if it had been "Power Pop" it would have been worth it.

You can download Sacred Monkeys of Bali MP3s as many times as you like at www.smob.com.

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