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E-jukebox

Its Web site is just one of several tools that 420radio.com will use to promote local music.

On a random guitar case behind the Buzz stage at the Westheimer Street Festival "In Exile." On a wall in Fitzgerald's. Even in the men's room of the Office Depot on Kirby. 420radio.com, in the form of thousands of white-lettering-on-black-background bumper stickers, is attempting to create street-level awareness in local music.

And in 420radio.com.

The company, the brainchild of 29-year-old Houstonian James Lewey, is a Web site that features MP3s of local acts. Surfers would be hard-pressed to find another city-specific Web page with a similar focus. This one provides no editorial content (though there are photo and video galleries). It's simply a jukebox for homegrown music and another avenue by which local (read: hungry) outfits can expose their sounds to the surfing and potentially spendthrift public. The two or three MP3s per band are merely lures to entice surfers to drop in on a live gig or shell out for the CDs available for sale at the site.

While file-ripping is a concern, it's not an obstacle. As far as the groups -- and Lewey -- are concerned, the more ears, the better. "Look at the Mighty Mighty Bosstones," he says, "or Soundgarden before they got big, and Dave Matthews. If you have enough interest, you don't have to be on a major label. That's what we want to do. A lot of bands don't know the full concept behind promoting themselves. We saw that as a service we could provide and something they could learn from."

A small percentage of CD sales and a trickle of advertising revenue were the only things keeping 420radio.com afloat its first two months -- until December, when venture capital in the form of Lewey's grandfather's greenbacks allowed the Web station to begin looking and feeling like a full-time company. Or at least, to use dot-comspeak, an "incubating" company. Lewey and his staff of seven eight-hour-a-day part-timers have outgrown the garage-cum-world-headquarters in Kingwood and are looking for bona fide commercial space to rent, somewhere Inner Loop, somewhere closer to the action.

Or lack thereof.

"I was talking with some friends," says Lewey, "and we were talking about the difficulties... Okay." Lewey pauses as if gathering strength physically to cut through a mound of crap. "We were talking about how shitty the local scene is. It used to be you played house parties, getting a fan base. And that's all changed since the Internet. I found some big MP3 [sites], and saw what they were doing, and I knew enough people locally. We could do better."

Lewey, with design help from local electronica artist Dennis Harvey, put the site up in mid-October and had his first real client (or, his first client that wasn't a friend or a friend of a friend) two weeks later. Music from 82 bands, the overwhelming majority of which are Houston-based, can currently be found at www.420radio.com.

The cost for bands to participate is nothing, save for the few minutes it takes to read over the brief contract, which does not prohibit groups from working other avenues of promotion and releases Lewey from ever having to pay royalties. All he asks is that when bands approach him, they do so with CDs in hand. Any other type of product won't transfer as well.

Which brings up the question of quality. Not just sound or production quality, but musical quality. If there's any criticism against MP3 sites, it's that the good is rarely separated from the bad or the ugly. "It's a waste of time to suck. I mean, people are waiting one or two minutes to download a song. It better not suck," says Lewey.

While he is sympathetic about not wasting surfers' valuable time, Lewey still believes in the democratic approach to on-line music. "This band put out a CD," he says. "There have to be people out there who like it."

To give some order to the list of seemingly random band names, so common at other MP3 sites, 420radio.com at least attempts to categorize types of music so surfers aren't stuck choosing acts by the coolest names, like at the record store. Whatever accompanying band description is available is courtesy of the groups.

Lewey, a computer prodigy who was developing COBOL programs at Manufacturing Management Systems in Kingwood while still in high school, delved into the local scene in the early 1990s as a drummer with grungers Blundersplooge. After graduating from the University of Houston in December with a degree in anthropology, Lewey created the Web site, kind of as an afterthought.

420radio.com falls under the umbrella of Quests Unlimited, which Lewey created in April 1999 with help from friend Seamus Rudolph and mother Donna Lewey for the purpose of providing, well, quests. "It was," Lewey says through a laugh, "it was Indiana Jones. I thought I was just gonna drive people through Costa Rica and point out the ruins."

After getting distracted by the idea of a Houston-only music Web site, Lewey has now dedicated his attention solely to 420radio.com, which is in itself a kind of cultural anthropological tool. "Music fits. We want to be anthropologically involved, and music's an aspect."

Unlike excavating fossils that otherwise just sit back and chill in cliff sides, the process by which bands appear on the site is a two-way street: Either they go to Lewey, or he goes to them. The folk at Artist Management Group, a local company that handles Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, Simpleton and Neural Nectar, among others, were approached by Lewey a couple of weeks ago and were immediately sold on 420radio.com. "James is a real hard worker," says Richard Cagle, president of AMG. "And [ 420radio.com] is allowing people to hear Houston music. You know we're not getting any airplay. We want the Buzz to play our stuff, but what are the odds? This is a promotional issue for us."

Now with both financial feet relatively stable, Lewey plans to expand 420radio.com into a brick-and-mortar resource for aspiring Houston talent. Lewey has already purchased a printing press and plans to eventually get hold of other amenities (except one of those $30,000 disc pressers), including a sound system and rehearsal space. Lewey also intends to Webcast showcases by the end of this month. What the site can't provide, such as studio time or large CD pressings, it will outsource. The Web site and other services, says Lewey, are "fulfilling the role of independent label." The only thing separating 420radio.com from becoming a record label is the fact that Lewey does not plan to find and develop talent.

Only the most shortsighted local indie could perceive 420radio.com as a threat. Says Ko Jenkins of Holjen Management, which handles marketing and promotions for Sixtone Records, one of 420radio.com's few advertisers: "At our volume, he can't compete with meŠ.James [has] got some big ideas, and we wish him all the best of luckŠ.I'm sure we're gonna cross lines once in a while, but he's not a threat."

Until Lewey can do the impossible and actually turn a Web business into something profitable -- in this case, by selling CDs and printing flyers and pushing T-shirts -- 420radio.com will naturally be a money-losing endeavor. One of his costs is promoting his Emo's gigs. (The next showcase is Friday, May 26, featuring demonseeds, Hollister Fracus and Anguish in Exile.) This fall his costs may escalate further when he ventures into other parts of Texas, bumper stickers in hand, spreading the gospel of 420radio.com. "It's great," says Lewey, "to be like an MP3.com for Houston."

While 420radio.com has used mainly bumper stickers to paint the town black and white, the company plans to stamp its logo on anything that moves, or doesn't, including more T-shirts and banners, as well as a brand-spankin'-new Ford Econoline and the collective psyches of local musicians.

E-mail news on your band to Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@houstonpress.com.


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