Hooking Up A Sound Idea Music Network Was Montco Singer's Brainchild

Posted: August 11, 1989

When Pete Townsend of The Who is on tour, he checks in with Perry Leopold of Skippack, Montgomery County, regularly.

Not that Leopold, 38, has a close personal relationship with the rock music legend, but the two are closely linked anyway - at least by computer.

Leopold, a Philadelphia-born former singer-songwriter, is the brain behind the Pan Network, the music industry's oldest and largest electronic data base and bulletin board.

Billboard magazine calls it "a link to the next generation," and Backstage magazine editor Anthony Vignoni says Pan is the most "up to date way to find out what's going on in the industry."

From his home office in Skippack, Leopold coordinates electronic mail and communications for many of the country's top music stars, as well as several thousand technicians, back-up musicians and producers.

Nowadays, it seems, most bands carry a portable computer and a fax machine in addition to all those amplifiers and teen-age groupies, and as soon as they plunk down in Peoria or Pottstown, they dial up Leopold's system. By plugging in or simply turning on their fax, they can receive updates on appearances, music industry gossip or personal messages.

"We are a network of people, 3,000 of us," said Leopold, who toured with Janis Ian and Hall and Oates in the late 1970s. "We use state-of-the-art technology to bring a whole industry together."

He began Pan, an acronym for Performing Artists Network, in 1981, after a decade of touring. The idea for the network grew out of another project, a book he wrote that year called "How to Book Your Act." Burnt out from the road and looking for a "paid vacation," he published the volume himself and sold only 300 copies through classified advertisements in the music trade papers. Not exactly gangbusters, but soon he was deluged with letters from people who wanted personal advice about structuring and selling their act.

"They wanted me to be their surrogate personal manager," he said. "I couldn't possibly do that, so instead I sent them a list of people who had bought the book. I figured they'd find each other."

The list blossomed into the basis for Pan. He started the company with $5, he said. By 1983, the company put its data base on computer and plunged into the electronic mail business. While many of his contemporaries were still trying to crack the charts or checking into drug rehabs, Leopold was embracing the technological revolution.

"Back then, a lot of people in the music industry were comfortable with sound technology," he said, "but not with computers. I figured they would eventually realize the advantages of intergrating the two."

Today, with only "three-and-a-half employees and a lot of hours," the network has 3,000 subscribers across the country and in 36 foreign countries. Members, who pay a sign-up fee of $150 and monthly fees of $20 to $40, can get and send personalized messages to other users in addition to reading the announcements that are circulated throughout the system. Most recently, Leopold has incorporated fax technology into the network, hooking his subscribers' machines into the system as well.

His acceptance of the fax revolution is typical of his attitude toward new technology, he said. His only competitor, Esi Street, went out of business recently - the victim of ignoring how fax would gnaw into its profits.

"I saw fax coming down the pike a few years ago, and I realized that if I didn't work with it, it would kill me," he said. "So I found a way to make it enhance my service."

Leopold said the newest wrinkle in the relationship between music and computers is the ability to send recordings over the fax network.

"You can send musical impulses over the phone lines as well as visual images," he says. "The sender feeds the (musical cassette) into his machine and they are reassembled by the machine at the receiving end. Lots of people collaborate on songs together that way."

Whatever the innovation, Leopold says he will be on the cutting edge of musical and computer technology. However, he says his dream is to get back to playing rock 'n' roll and writing songs eventually.

"Right now my music is mostly confined to singing to my 2 1/2-year-old daughter," he says. "And I rarely leave home for more than a week a year. Sometimes I can't believe how much my life has changed. But I guess that's what progress is about."

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