Sound Check

The latest song from Public Enemy can't be found in music stores. A listen to the song, explains why. "Swindler's Lust," which can be downloaded off the group's official Web site (http://www.public-enemy.com), expresses an outrage over how the music industry treats its performers. "A dollar a rhyme and we barely get a dime," Chuck D grumbles in the beginning; the chorus to this foreboding number runs something like this: "If you don't own the master, then the master owns you." Not so subtle a message. And that the group released it only online sends another message."Swindler's Lust" is the not the first track that the hip-hop group has released on the Web. According to press reports, it attempted to release an entire album of remixes, BTN 2000, last November but PE's distributor, PolyGram, threatened legal action and demanded the songs be removed from the Web site.Whether or not Public Enemy's outrage is genuine, the group is on the cutting edge. For many people are predicting that digital music downloadable from the Internet will radically change the relationship that musicians have with their recording companies as well as with their fans. And no digital format has as much potential these days as MP3.What is MP3? MP3 (which stands for M-Peg Layer 3) is a file format that stores music digitally, like CDs do. Though recordings made in the MP3 format approach CD quality they take up a fraction of the encoded space. Imagine CD-quality recordings that can be copied from one disk to another, from a computer to a portable player, or from one computer to another via e-mail. No more driving to the store to pick up a CD -- songs can be downloaded online.There are a variety of ways to play MP3 recordings, the most common being computers themselves. One can use any number of MP3 player programs, many of which are free. The most commonly used, at least for Windows-based computers, is Winamp (http://www.winamp.com). Computer sound too tinny? Burning your own CDs is another option; CD players that can record now come as cheaply as $200. Just want to take the music and run? Diamond Multimedia has just released a portable lightweight MP3 player, Diamond's Rio PMP300. And this March, another company, Empeg, plans to introduce an MP3 car stereo (http://www.empeg.com/mainhtml) which can hold up to 35 hours of music.Like many things computer-related, the buzz currently outweighs the reality with MP3. The PMP300 only holds 60 minutes of music and loading the recordings takes time. As far as home listening goes, no pair of computer speakers will sound nearly as good as a trusted amp driving a nice pair of Bose speakers. And it still takes time to download a song off the Internet. In other words, until technology catches up, digital ubiquity is a while off. But technology will evolve, and for the recording industry as we now know it, the writing is on the wall.In the most immediate sense, the ease of making copies means more people may dub and share recordings without any payment to the companies that financed the recording of those recordings. The Recording Industry Association of Association of America (RIAA) has taken numerous steps to stem the actual and potential tide of illicit MP3 recordings. Not only have they gone after pirate sites with a legal vengeance, but last April, the RIAA launched a Website called Soundbyting (http://www.soundbyting.com) to instill in college students the notion that downloading songs without the artist's (or more accurately, the record company's) permission is illegal. One has to wonder how persuasive the site can be as it takes the haughty tone of a nagging parent: "Even if you can't think of how the author or owner gets hurt, think about the fact that piracy on the Net hurts everybody who wants a chance to use this wonderful new technology," the site reads, quoting ex-ClariNet publisher Brad Templeton. (Now say you're sorry, Johnny, and erase that illegal recording.). This fall, the association filed an injunction to stop the Diamond portable MP3 player from shipping to stores, citing that the company wouldn't pay the same royalties that manufactures of blank cassettes do under the 1992 Digital Home Recording Act. A federal district court judge denied the preliminary injunction however.The record industry should be worried. The MP3 underground is already in full force. Getting there is easy enough -- simply scroll through MP3 newsgroups: alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.1970s, for instance, or alt.binaries.mp3.bootleg. There you can post a request for a song and hope someone sends it or posts it anonymously. Or you can keep your eyes peeled for announcements of temporary Web and FTP sites holding copies of today's hot hits.Those looking to download illicit copies however, will find out pretty quickly that its really easier just to buy the damn recordings at the store. In response to newsgroup queries to see if MP3 requests actually get filled, one Australian individual requesting Ace of Base and Culture Club tracks wrote, "I didn't receive ANY replies to my posting for MP3's!! I find it quite difficult to find the MP3's I want -- even using special MP3 search engines -- because the servers are usually flooded with people trying to get them or the site is no longer valid. Even when you are successful in starting to download an MP3 song -- it cuts out halfway through the download or it takes so long you get frustrated and stop the download."Oddly enough, whatever the threat to the music industry MP3 may have, the digital format poses a much bigger threat to the survival of the bootleg recording industry, which has long charged premium prices for badly recorded illegal material. Now much of that badly recorded illegal material can be found for free on the Internet. The Live&Rare download site (http://listen.to/liverare/) houses numerous tracks by the likes of Radiohead, Primus, Rage Against the Machine, and the Smashing Pumpkins, most of which are recorded from live Danish and Swedish Radio broadcasts. In response to e-mail queries, the Webmaster reported that thus far no record label or the radio station has contacted him about removing songs. "Now, a lot of bands say it's OK to distribute bootleg via the Internet as long that you NOT charge any money for them," he e-mailed.Still, concentrating on pirate or bootleg recordings may miss the point."I don't necessarily think that its MP3 that's the threat to the music industry, I think the threat is that digital music is going to change the rules of the game," says Steve Grady, vice-president of corporate communications for GoodNoise. Founded in January 1998, GoodNoise is both a music label on its own right and a distributor for other labels as well. GoodNoise itself is mostly known for the signing of ex-Pixie Frank Black, whose latest album is available online. While Web-based CD stores like CDNow offer a surprising number of 30-second song samples from the albums they sell, GoodNoise takes this try-before-you-buy process one step further, offering low fidelity recordings of entire songs in its catalogue for free download. One might think this would lead to a fair amount of pirating, but according to Grady, they've found very little."I think there's a good reason for that," Grady says. "First of all, we met the demand. If someone wants to purchase a Frank Black album, there's a place they can go to get it legally. And the songs are only 99 cents , and the [whole] CD is only $8.99. When it's 99 cents a pop, it's easier for them to buy it and download it then it is for them to search and spend 45 minutes looking for an illegal file. It's not worth their time.You don't fight piracy by withholding content. You fight it by making content easily available and making it at a good price and giving them a lot of value with that."There are more than a few advantages to GoodNoise's approach. One is that it exposes to a worldwide audience a lot of music that was previously considered too marginal for major labels to deal with. Large labels look for large returns and may not be interested in genres, such as acid jazz or reggae, that will only sell a few tens of thousands of copies per title at best. While independent labels may not have the distribution muscle to get their albums out worldwide, with the World Wide Web, an artist can have a worldwide reach.Of course, such Internet exposure can only help relatively unknown musicians, such as GoodNoise's Reid Paley, as there is little incentive for someone who's never heard of him to buy his album. For established acts, the story is different. They're more likely to lose sales with the new format. So predictably, most have been slow to place their material in the MP3 format. While Billy Idol and Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) have released material online, it can be safely be assumed that their biggest selling years are behind them. Among chart-topping artists still in their labels' good graces, only the Beastie Boys have released material in MP3."We might as well be involved," Beastie Mike "D" Diamond told Red Herring magazine. "It's better than having [downloadable recordings] exist without our involvement at all."With all this in mind, it wouldn't be hard to imagine MP3 affecting the music industry in the same way cable television affected network television. There's only so much listening time and entertainment dollar to go around. Established acts will lose market share to smaller, more specialized niches. There will be fewer multi-million dollar album productions but a wider variety of music available. As Grady says, "The playing field has been leveled."Joab Jackson can be reached at joabj@charm.net

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