Talkin' About a Revolution

The 2000 Consumer Electronics Showcase (CES) was nothing out of the ordinary. Just like the year before, some 100,000 odd consumers, manufacturers, techno-geeks and industry figureheads gathered inside the mammoth Las Vegas Convention Center to glance and try out the next wave of electronic appliances, software and hardware. Hundreds of companies, from RCA to Phillips, featured their newest TV's, car stereos, computerized palm pilots and household appliances, usually with some sort of bombastic visual display that screamed, "Not only is mine bigger than yours, but it's better, too."But for the first year, the International CES show has set aside floor space specifically for the new wave of portable, digital hardware -- displayed in settings that were slightly less daunting and obnoxious than its Magnavox and Sony peers down the hall. People of all age groups were found standing in front of mini-podiums, headphoned, toe-tapping and head-bopping while tinkering with a unit usually no larger than a pack of cigarettes. No matter what the brand, almost every unit on display was being tested by Joe Consumer or Jane Competitor. There was the M-Any players, small devices in the form of cassettes. Its company, Hyun Won Inc. -- based in South Korea -- touted the technologically-advanced player as the first to play downloaded music in a tape player. How did it sound? Great. There was the I Jam, one of the few portable players compatible with Apple computers. Its main spokesman was bouncing all over the place, talking nice with the Big Men in the Big Suits and rudely shuffling off the less-important-looking plebeians towards one of the uniformed -- and ill-informed -- college student assistants. But how's the sound quality? Fantastic. There was the Titia player, smaller than its competitors but for wear around the neck. There was the Nomad II, which claims to be the best on the market. There was RCA's well-publicized Lyra, the only portable music device at CES to have its own publicity banner up in the main hall, set up aside RCA's TV's and DVD players. And each player could have been mistaken for portable CD players in its aural projection.There was the SoundJam people, greeting curious onlookers waiting to hold a little player but instead gazing at a huge monitor that demonstrated the Mac's first digital audio system/software. A few watched the program's creator -- Bill Kincaid -- shuffle through various downloaded tunes, play one, and organize it according to its genre, title, artist and album title, as effortlessly as one would place a compact disc in its player and return the empty jewel case back in its place on the CD rack. And there were the busy RioPort people, demonstrating the ease of downloading songs of the Internet and prerecorded CDs and obtaining further information of the track from the Web. RioPort, Inc -- who run the RioPort.com website and the RioPort AudioManager, and are linked loosely to the revolutionary Diamond RioPlayer -- clearly had the largest amount of representatives on hand. And none of the RioPort reps are as enthusiastic as Brandon Talaich, who takes control of one unused computer terminal and goes to work downloading, shuffling, organizing and downloading again to a tiny Rio 500 player. "This is what sold me on the software, before I even worked here," Talaich says with a grin. "I can pop in any CD. I can say "get from CD" or "copy from CD." When I do that, it will ask me for names of the songs, and I click once, and it gets the titles from the Internet. I don't have to type in anything! I click three times, and I've got my whole CD on my hard drive, and it's in a nice folder called "My Music." Soon, I've got my whole collection archived. Now I take my player, USB it, [insert] my flash card, connect it, pick the tunes I want, download them and take it on a plane. And it's not just how you interface it with the Web, but the memory flash card you bought from Circuit City. Your jewel cases are breaking, your CDs are scratching -- you just put it on your hard drive now."What all the representatives and salesmen have in common is their devotion to the musical format known as MP3. The audio format -- technically called the MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) Audio Layer III -- is a compressed music file that shrinks a song down to a tenth of its normal size, yet retaining a sound quality during playback almost comparable to a CD. It is also the symbol and driving force behind the digital music revolution -- a dizzying global movement which is rewriting the rules for music production, distribution, marketing and copyright. It is also in the middle of a tug-of-war battle between two warring groups -- in one corner, the recording artists, computer programmers and music listeners; in the other, the corporate music industry. The former has embraced MP3s, seeing it as a changing of the guard, from greedy record labels to independent-spirited and consumer/fan-friendly artists eager to cut out the money-hungry middleman. The latter is battling MP3s because of its easily-pirated format and, more importantly, its threat to the conventional multibillion dollar record industry. But no matter which side one takes, he or she can't help but to stand mouth-agape at how, in just a couple of years, this little component of the Digital Age has exploded in popularity."Right now, MP3 has really taken a step forward," Talaich says. "Everything is out there. And it's easy to bootleg. There's so many players, as we see here [ at CES] today, and it's amazing."Better than sexConsider the mountain of issues and newsbites that have popped-up since the advent of the digital music era -- most in the last couple of months alone:* The most searched "word" on Internet search engines in 1999 was "MP3," beating out "sex" for the first time since the Net started in the early '90s.* The concern of piracy and copyright infringement have lead the industry to attempt the establishment of the Secure Digital Music Initiative and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (aimed at Internet webcasters), only to lead webmasters to find host sites outside the country to escape the confines of copyright law.* The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has already launched two major lawsuits against web companies, despite wanting to become a part of the Digital Age. * Rock icon Tom Petty released his single "Free World Now" in 1999 on the Internet as a free download -- before his album Echo was even released -- only to have his own record label, Warner Bros. remove the song from his website after the song was downloaded nearly 200,000 times in just three days.* Northwestern University blocked student online access this month to the Napster software program which allows for the free trade of MP3 files. University officials claimed the site (napster.com) represented astounding 30 percent of the total university traffic to the Net. * Net giant America Online has remained one step in front of everyone else by buying the student-created WinAmp player for over $80 million and the proprietary Liquid Audio desktop player/website service -- as well as joining up with Time Warner in the world's biggest megamerger. * One site -- Riffage.com -- has managed to begin selling downloads, emailing its featured artist sales reports every day and already has signed beneficiary agreements with Aol.com and Barnesandnoble.com, along with MP3 search engine Scour.net.* The new wave of record labels coming out are strictly or partially Internet-based imprints, like Atomic Pop, EMusic and Spin Records. * More and more major chains and independent music stores are going online; retail music sites like Amazon.com and CDnow.com offer the biggest variety and selection of titles in the world, including unsigned artist albums.* Internet radio has become a massive force online, with minimal commercials, more independent artist exposure, listener-chosen playlists, instant feedback capabilities, artist-DJ'd stations (David Bowie has programmed his own station on Rollingstone.com), broadcast streams of broadcast stations and megasites with over 100 niched stations to choose from (like spinner.com).* The MP3 portable player market has boomed, thanks to the success, advancements in technology and the hype of players like the Rio 500, the Nomad II and RCA-backed Lyra. The lack of moving parts have made the players more durable than CD players -- skip-free and capable of hours of music with the advent of matchbook-like flash cards that serve as digital, rewriteable mix tapes. * Ticketmaster has just announced a plan for online customers to purchase and print out their own tickets. And this is just scratching the surface of the current state of the digital music revolution. It is so daunting to try and research the topic, and relay that to the layman's online music experience, that the current glut of digital music books can only be welcome. This is where author Bruce Fries comes in. He's just one of many technical writers who have written books to help the general public understand the hype and get involved themselves. His already-released book, The MP3 and Internet Audio Handbook -- co-authored by brother Marty Fries and additionally researched by three college students (coincidentally, the hugest demographic of web music participants, thanks to high-speed university Internet connections) -- is one of the most complete and easy-to-understand tools on the market, next to MP3 For Dummies.Besides expertly and clearly detailing how one can go about making, listening to and copying music on their computer, Fries explores the economic dynamic of the digital music revolution and why it has become the phenomenon it has."I wanted this to be different from a typical computer book," Fries says. "People just want to download music. So I put it in a larger context. People could read about the benefits and how it affects the industry. I guess the key point is that I wrote this from the perspective of the consumer. I champion the right of fair use for the consumer and the rights of independent artists -- so they have control over their destinies."Fries says in his book that people are dissatisfied with conventional music distribution and find the digital music experience more convenient, economically viable and manageable. He also states that because finding music we like is such a time-consuming effort, we allow corporate record labels and radio stations to decide what we hear, and yet we have very little say in the matter. "MP3," he writes, "has changed all of this, virtually overnight."One thing leads to anotherDave Soto's computer set up in the office of his Summerlin, Nevada home is extraordinary to say the least. There are two major computer set-ups, another couple of systems sitting on the floor dormant, hardware scattered throughout the room and a huge cable "hub" that serves as his connection to the online world. Soto has just discovered the Napster website/program, though he's heard about it on the tekkie cable station, ZDTV. He types up "napster.com" on his browser and takes a quick look. In seconds, he's already downloading songs by Pennywise and the Promise Ring onto his computer. The site tells him how many users are on each FTP -- File Transfer Protocol, used to transfer files throughout the Net -- sites, downloading which songs. He chooses one song with few simultaneous downlownloaders and clicks away. Barely a minute has passed, and he's got a song. His eyes light up like a kid in FAO Schwartz."From the three seconds I've looked at it, I can tell it's gonna be one of the most revolutionary things on the Net," Soto declares emphatically. "It is so amazing!"Soto is impassioned about the digital music revolution to say the least. He's a champion of MP3 and Internet radio. Fed up with the radio dial, he quips that he'd much rather hear "the all-Fatboy Slim, all-the-time" station. As a webmaster and music fan, he also champions exposing unsigned bands to new music listeners. One recommendation, and someone's at the band's site. One download or stream of a band's song, and a CD purchase may be imminent. The possibilities after that are unlimited. And the artists -- especially the unsigned/independent ones -- know this. That's what the major labels -- and some commercial artists -- are frightened of."Interestingly, not all artists see MP3 as a threat," says Bill Kincaid, creator of the SoundJam MP player. "They recognize that the real game for them is publicity and not just the degree of which their 5 percent royalty checks are endangered.""Think about this," Soto says. "Most of the world does not have computers, or access to MP3 players. An artist is trying to find 10 or 20 people who like its stuff, hoping that those representatives go around to their friends who don't have [Internet capability and know-how] and say, 'I like this band. It's cool' And then those people will go out and buy the CD because they have no other means. So I really don't see a hardcore negative for the commercial bands. It's actually quite beneficial." The economic forecast for the Net promises less control and money for the industry, and more money and control for the artist. Acts can expect a 50 percent royalty rate on the sales of their albums, merchandise and MP3's. Fries states that a solitary web company can serve as a label, distributor and retailer. It may not be as widespread as the conventional promotion/distribution/retail machine behind groups like Interscope and stores like the Wherehouse, but the prospects for it to grow equivocally are high. Fries also argues that even paying a dollar per downloaded MP3 has led even him to buying a whole CD. This, to say nothing of the legions of music fans who buy each and every CD, live album, single, video and T-shirt -- not to mention tickets to multiple concerts -- of certain artists. Many of the online music fans just can't get enough, from audio/video bootlegs of concerts to cheaply-made fanzines. "With the rising prices in CD's, [the MP3's] are seen [positively]," Soto says. "It's like, yeah, I'd like to have the CD, but not for $20! It's getting ridiculous. I think it's turning into a world where you can download all the MP3's you want, and when you find a band you really like, you will want to support them [by buying CDs]. It's like a politician type thing. If you want the band to do well, if you like them well enough, you'll give them money.On the down lowThe digital music experience on the Internet has a long way to go. External MP3 players have only been around for two years; there are so many new devices on the way, like Sony's hyped, near-miniscule Memory Stick, Han-Go's Personal Jukebox, apparently capable of storing a staggering 81 hours (4.86 GB) of music and, of course, MP3 car stereos. Of course, once they emerge into the Best Buys of the world, and the craze catches on to the mainstream, few will really know how to use the mechanisms, or understand how they work -- as is largely the case now with Rio players and WinAmp programs. But Fries thinks the intimidation factor of consumers will dissipate. "There's a big barrier between the technology and the mainstream consumers," Fries says. "There's products on the horizon that remove that layer of complexity. A majority of the people I know just want to hear the music. They don't care what format it's in."It doesn't seem the Net is ready to supplant the joy of entering a record store, browsing about, checking out samples on listening stations and taking home the desired product at that moment. There's still something about handling the physical product and impulse shopping as opposed to ordering the virtual one that should keep chain behemoths like Tower Records and local brick-and-mortar businesses like Big B's easily afloat for years to come. To what extent such stores will be successful is unclear, though, in the age of the virtual stockroom and Amazon.com. And conventional distribution, promotion and hype through the mega-labels will not escape the minds of bands who want to get big quick. Very few bands with any large degree of commercial ambition will eschew the established record industry for a grassroots campaign online to become the next Blink-182 or Savage Garden. But the rules will change as a greater number of artists choose the independence, profitability and guerrilla warfare of the Internet over trusting some sleazy A&R rep at a label. Independent labels who have suffered financially due to the success of music companies like the Universal group will find ways to incorporate its operations online to stay alive. This business of online music can only benefit local artists looking for international publicity, as more and more bands go online to thicken up their fanbases. The availability of software on the Net is astounding. Much of the programs and desktop players are available for free download on the Net, as are their upgrades. The name of the game here is "free." Almost all of the downloadable music on the Net is of no cost, and even as more singles are uploaded/downloaded for purchase, all it takes is one kid with an FTP account and that $2 purchase begets thousands and thousands of copies on the master playlists across the globe. This accessibility and minimal cost factor is a huge reason why the digital music revolution is growing and growing every month. The lawsuits organizations like the RIAA have filed against companies like MP3.com and Diamond Rio (the attempt to sue the latter failed in 1999 and the Diamond RioPlayer 300 saw 100,000 units fly into the hands of customers with a wave of free -- there's that word again -- publicity) will not deter online entrepreneurs and fanatics from distributing music, regardless of legality. Online users can only cheer and perpetuate the use of MP3's when people like MP3.com chief executive officer Michael Robertson addresses the RIAA with consumer-friendly rhetoric like "Your organization says that it controls 90 percent of the off-line distribution of music. But the question is, to whom does the music belong? When the customer buys a CD, does the industry get to tell the consumer where she can listen to her music? The type of technology that she can use to play the CD? ... Is it all about forcing customers to use out-dates technologies to induce yet another CD sale? We think the future points in a different direction."

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