Tangled Webs

   Listen to the Music
Issue 4.1
Jan 11, 1999

What the People Need

The MP3 (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3) audio format is a great technology with a bad reputation. For those not in the know, MP3 is the most popular file format for digital music on the Internet. The files are extremely small and the sound is CD quality. Although there are hundreds of MP3 sites and hundreds of thousands of files in circulation, the best single source for MP3 information, players and music files is http://www.mp3.com.

MP3 was shoved into the spotlight in October when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed suit seeking to halt distribution of Diamond Multimedia's Rio MP3 player. The Rio is basically an MP3 walkman. It's about the size of a pager and allows owners to transfer MP3 files from their computer into the device.

The RIAA claimed that since MP3 is the format of choice among music pirates, the Rio abetted music piracy, and petitioned to have distribution halted under the American Home Recording Act, which requires digital audio recording devices to implement measures to prevent unauthorized copying. RIAA won a preliminary injunction, but the courts eventually decided that since the Rio was not a recording device, it was not subject to the law. The Rio shipped in time for Christmas.

Despite the legal win, MP3 is still widely associated with music piracy. In fact, I don't think I've seen a mainstream news article mention MP3 in any other context. Granted, there is quite a bit of pirated music on the Internet, and most of it is in MP3 format. However, this is hardly surprising because nearly all music on the Internet is in MP3 format.

It Ain't So Hard to Do

Those who focus on the piracy angle overlook a far more important story; the development of a dynamic new Internet-based music industry, and it all revolves around MP3. Hundreds of independent bands have already released albums in this format, and a few months ago the first Internet-only record company began operations. GoodNoise distributes its music only in MP3. A single song costs 99 cents and an album $8.99.

The best way to get a feel for how large and dynamics this industry is becoming is to visit mp3.com's music downloads area. According to mp3.com, there have been over eight million song downloads -- that's eight million legal song downloads -- from their site alone. MP3 is not about piracy. It and the Internet are providing a new way for independent artists and small record companies to promote, sell, and market their music.

Despite the existence of this growing market, the RIAA is still trying to frame to debate in terms of piracy and claims that since MP3 files can be copied and transferred easily they infringe on artists' rights to control distribution of their work. While the sentiment is agreeable, it is hard not to notice the industry's hypocrisy on this point.

Last month, both veteran rocker Billy Idol and gangsta rapper Chuck D released songs on the Internet in MP3 format. In both cases, their record companies came down hard and forced them to remove the songs from their websites. Chuck D's rather colorful opinions of the industry's concern for artists' rights can be found at his website at http://www.public-enemy.com.

Just Let the Music Play

The RIAA is still appealing its case in the courts, but they have also announced that they will be developing their own standard for the industry. On December 15, RIAA announced the Secure Digital Music Initiative in New York City. Present were the biggest names from the recording and software industries; including BMG, EMI, Sony, AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft. Notably absent were the companies involved with MP3 and the developing Internet music industry.

Amid much fanfare it was announced that the new music file format that would protect copyrights and that this standard would be ready by the fall of 1999. However, no one seemed to know what this standard was to be or why existing formats like Liquid Audio or a2b, both of which have built-in copy protection, could not be used.

So what precisely was the point of this posh shindig? As RIAA lawyer Cary Sherman explained "We've announced the mechanism to get the kind of dialog going to create an open standard which will energize the digital music market." In other words, they wanted to announce that they were planning to talk about planning to do what has already been done. Without them.

The recording industry simply does not seem to understand that the Internet has fundamentally and permanently changed their industry. MP3 is already the de-facto standard. It is in use by millions of consumers who can no longer be forced to adopt a new standard simply because an industry coalition decrees it. Consumers must be convinced that there is benefit in adopting the new technology, and this where RIAA falls flat.

RIAA's position statements deal only with how MP3 threatens the status quo, and how consumer choice should be restricted to maximize record companies revenues. It doesn't seem that serious thought is being given to why consumers would want to adopt their new format or how it would benefit the Internet music industry. If the RIAA manages to deliver this new standard it will undoubtedly be ushered in by expensive media events in New York and impassive yawns on the Internet.

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© Copyright 1999, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
This article fist appeared in the Jan 8, 1999 edition of The Japan Times.
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