MP3 audio is setting the music industry on its ear.
Through MP3 — a small-size digital file format boasting CD-quality sound — you can listen to sound files from a pager-size player on your belt, through a streaming audio connection on your PC, through tiny earphones or huge speakers. You can pick your favorite tracks, burn custom CDs, e-mail files to friends, listen to stuff recorded 30 years ago or last night.
And much of the software — music files, MP3 players and other accoutrements — is free.
It’s so cool, so slick, so revolutionary that there must be a catch.
And here it is: As many as 1 million MP3 sound files sprinkled around the Internet are illegal.
Last summer — around the time that MP3 pulled ahead of sex as the No. 1 term submitted to search engines — the recording industry got serious about tracking down pirated music online.
Last Thursday, the industry came out swinging, releasing details of a coordinated anti-piracy program in more than 20 countries.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry says it wants to pave the way for musicians and their record labels to deliver music legally over the Net. To do so, it will seek to introduce copyright legislation overseas and bust Internet providers whose customers use their equipment to store stolen tunes.
MP3 hit the mass market a year ago, with the release of Diamond Multimedia’s Rio MP3 player.
The Rio, which stores audio files on flash memory, unleashed downloaded music: instead of sitting at your PC while favorite tunes played in the background, users could store them on the Rio and head out to have adventures.
“Sitting at your computer and listening to downloaded music was a big yawn,” said Joe Butt, a consumer technology analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
At $118 to $300 each, the MP3 players aren’t cheap. But they’re the size of a pager and have no moving parts, making them ideal for listening while exercising or wandering around.
“Every teen-ager I know wants one of these things,” said Amy Hill of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.
The second-generation Rio player just hit stores, featuring twice as much memory, a Universal Serial Bus link and software for both Mac and PC. Other manufacturers will release MP3 players this fall, including Samsung, I-Jam (sold only on the Internet), AudioVox, Casio and RCA.
Atlanta-based i2Go.com just introduced eGo, a $299 player designed for cars. In December, Sony Corp. will release the Memory Stick Walkman, which features a storage device the size of a piece of chewing gum.
It will sell for $430 in Japan and allow customers to download up to 80 minutes of music.”It’s a human-friendly media and we hope it will be everywhere,” said Kunitake Ando, president of Sony’s Personal IT Network Co.
If the medium itself is friendly, the music industry’s initial response to it was not.
The Recording Industry Association of America sued Diamond to block distribution of the Rio. That suit was thrown out by the court.
Now, the $40 billion music industry has taken a two-pronged approach: beat them and join them. With Forrester Research estimating 1999 demand at a million audio players for downloaded music, the industry began to take a serious look at the Internet as a sales channel.
In June, record companies and technology companies called for digital “watermarks” to music released on CDs or online, making it easier to spot pirated copies. They’re working together to develop a set of standards for digital music.
And they’re throwing weight and money behind commercial MP3 sites such as Liquid Audio and MP3.com, where users can pay by the track to download tunes by popular artists or check out unsigned artists like the Oklahoma Prune Pickers or the Ex-Cretins for free.
Too much time on the road has kept Oakland, Calif., singer-songwriter David Gans from putting his work on MP3.com and elsewhere. “I should be,” he said. “I just haven’t had the time and energy.”
But he does use his own Web site (www.trufun.com) to promote himself as a solo artist, songwriter, writer, photographer and host of the syndicated Grateful Dead Hour. (You can listen to his other weekly radio show in streaming audio at www.kpfa.org.)
Internet downloads may benefit independent musicians more than anybody, by providing a direct connection between performers and listeners, bypassing “the ridiculous and largely criminal” music industry, he said.
The Grateful Dead were never the poster children for protecting intellectual property; the band gave up policing the creation of bootleg tapes and eventually provided a “tapers’ section” at shows, where microphone stands would sprout behind the soundboard.
But that was part of the social contract: The band let fans tape the music, and “we would in exchange support their commercial endeavors,” everything from show tickets to skull-and-roses window stickers.
Gans, who is one of three producers of an upcoming Grateful Dead box set, regrets that such a contract has been replaced by an ethos of “the musicians are rich and I’m not” among music collectors.
“They lay down all those completely bogus arguments,” he said.
Targeting complaints at the Internet providers whose servers store the pirated tunes is an attempt to enlist ISPs in the anti-piracy crusade. Music publishers hope that the prospect of hefty fines and/or legal action will inspire service providers to police their customers for copyright violations.
Illegal download sites are everywhere on the Net, but they’re usually not in one place for very long. And if you download songs placed online by people other than the copyright holder — or hand off copies of originals to someone else — you’ve broken the law.
Gans suggests users might want to think twice about the ethical implications of hijacking the fruits of other people’s labor, no matter how famous or successful or rich those others might be.
“There’s a sort of culture of entitlement that has been allowed to flourish — a whole generation of people who don’t value something unless it comes to them for free,” he said.
November 1, 1999
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