A fake record label shows the way for online fiction.

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July 30 2004 11:26 AM

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A fake record label shows the way for online fiction.

Why hasn't anyone figured out how to use the Web to tell a story? Hypertext, with its built-in cross-references and interactivity, was supposed to change how we read and write fiction. After that hype faded years ago, online narrative pretty much stagnated. It's not that Web-based fiction doesn't present opportunities for astounding creativity. For one, the kind of density you can pack into a Web site—layers upon layers of HTML pages, photos, sound and video clips, and downloadable files—can't be matched on the printed page. And the do-it-yourself production tools just keep getting better.

But the sites that have figured out how to do fiction online have mostly been parodies like Landover Baptist Church or hoaxes like Dog Island. There have also been a number of phony sites tied to movies like The Manchurian Candidate and, most memorably, the elaborate multisite game launched to promote AI. So where's the Web-based fiction that does more than fool you or stealthily convince you to buy something?

Clubbo.com, a just-launched site for a faux indie record label, demonstrates that it is possible to weave a story out of hyperlinks. Clubbo's first entry tells the tale of Clipper Cowbridge's '60s novelty hit "Soda Pop Shop." But Cowbridge's one-page artist bio—he's a cash-strapped, Harvard-trained experimental composer who became known as the "Beethoven of burps"—only introduces his story. Along with a full-length, studio-quality "Soda Pop Shop" MP3, there's a convincingly retro photo of the artist as a young man and an interview transcript dated 40 years later in which the aging sound wiz confesses that his stint as a one-hit wonder left him unhappy with academia. Every Clubbo page is similarly packed with fictional multimedia—a magazine interview in PDF format, an animation cel, a link to a band's site, even a mock auction of junk rock paraphernalia.

The site avoids the heavy-handed lampoon of most Web humor, using a nuanced tone that welcomes exploration of the hyper-detailed storyline. Clubbo.com is less This IsSpinal Tap than A Mighty Wind—an ambivalent mix of cruel mockery and touching moments, all wrapped in a dry mimicry of record-label marketing copy. The high point is the outrageous tale of The Spooky Bunch, a Saturday morning cartoon from 1978 clearly inspired by the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Clubbo legend has it that the Moral Majority shut down the show after realizing the words their kids were singing along with from the living room: "I feel horny/ like a big rhinoceros/ Going bump in the night/ yeah it's outta sight/ The Spooky Bunch!"

Since the mid-1990s, I'd spent three or four San Francisco evenings chatting with the site's married co-authors, Elise Malmberg and Joe Gore. Before Clubbo became a kind of Web box set, Gore, a studio guitarist for Courtney Love and former editor for Guitar Player magazine, had been talking about how he was writing a novel about the music biz. Whenever he brought up his book, I nodded along, thinking he was just another rocker in midlife crisis mode.

Thankfully, Gore took the guts of the novel and combined it with the short, kitschy, home-recorded songs he'd been working on with Malmberg. They recruited a group of music and tech industry friends to do photo shoots and design album covers, ultimately concocting a story of 10 short-lived acts. The advantage of the site's conceit is that it allows the authors to connect thin, unrelated snippets of material into a much bigger story. Since Clubbo, with its history of massive failures in talent scouting, isn't the kind of label that harbors successful, long-term musicians, it doesn't seem odd that there are only one or two MP3s per band. A catalog of one single seems right for a Donovan knockoff like Devon Shire (voiced by American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel) and Indonesian indie rockers Tiger Love, who merge "U.K. punk, gamelan, and pan-Asian bubblegum pop" into a critically acclaimed and completely unlistenable racket.

Clubbo's loose structure means there's not just one way to read it. Since the site's mostly nonlinear, you can float in anywhere without feeling lost. And because there's such a variety of content for each artist, you can either drop in for a minute to catch a tune or wile away hour after hour reading interviews and bios. Hard-core Clubboheads can even wander off the site, as the authors have seeded the Net with fictional entries on functional sites. Some, like the eBay auction, are just pretend. Others, like the CafePress merchandise and the compilation album at CDBaby, are real enough that you can have them shipped to your door.

These interwoven fabrications are a symptom of Clubbo's one major weakness. If you're not already clued in to the label's fake history, it can be hard to pick out the fact from the fantasy. While Clubbo takes a big step in legitimizing Web fiction, the site still often wanders away from storytelling into trickery. If online fiction's going to come into its own, the authors have to lose their secret smirk—people are gonna think this thing is for real!—and learn that, whether you're online or offline, it's really all about the story.

Paul Boutin is a writer living in San Francisco.