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MP3's Bad Rap

Jeff Partyka

June 2000 | When Albert Hofmann first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) in a Switzerland laboratory in 1938, he was merely performing the 25th in a series of experiments involving lysergic acid compounds. He expected the result to be nothing more than a circulatory and respiratory stimulant, but insteadMP3's Bad Rapas he discovered himself five years later, when he accidentally ingested someMP3's Bad Raphe created a powerful intoxicant that would within decades leave an indelible mark on youth cultures around the world, contributing to the creation of an underground culture in which kids routinely hid away from parents, police, and other authority figures to, among other activities, "drop acid."

Today, plenty of college kids are still holing up to take drugs. But many have become preoccupied with another pastime with a dubious reputation and a three-character moniker: MP3. Like that of LSD, MP3's appeal to the young stems from uses its creators didn't have in mind.

I don't pretend to know the whole story behind the origin of MP3 technology, but by all accounts MP3 was not wrought by devious minds who were out to "stick it to the Man" by surreptitiously distributing copyright-protected recorded works via the Internet. Rather, it originated as a practical means of distributing reasonably high-quality audioMP3's Bad Rapand not just musicMP3's Bad Rapwithout hogging the bandwidth that uncompressed CD-quality sound files would certainly consume on their journey from one computer to another.

Nevertheless, the development and allure of Web sites like MP3.com and products like NapsterMP3's Bad Rapa free application with which users around the world can swap MP3 filesMP3's Bad Rapwere simply inevitable. As a music lover and musician produced of influences, I can say I'd be a radically different person today had I not absorbed every note of, say, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album at some crucial point in my teenage years. And it disturbs me that the distribution model has so changed that kids who decide they want that album's opening track, "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," will simply find it on the Internet and download it individually, depriving themselves of hearing in full a truly significant 20th century work of art. (I can take comfort in the likelihood that many will be thwarted by searching for it under the wrong title, "Everybody Must Get Stoned.")

On the other hand, I generally detest Neil Sedaka's music, but I heard his '70s hit "Bad Blood" featured (to hilarious effect) on an episode of That '70s Show, and I found myself wanting to have it. Believe me when I say that I did not simply download an MP3 of the song; I, being an unrepentant vinyl junkie, managed to dig up an old 45 of the song for $1 in a Boston store, and burn it onto a CD-R for my everlasting enjoyment. But what about the majority of people who don't enjoy digging through scratchy old 45s in a musty shop, and wouldn't even touch vinyl with the proverbial 10-foot pole anyway? And who, like me, would never purchase a full-length Neil Sedaka CD for the sake of owning one song, whose appeal exists strictly on a "'70s kitsch" level? MP3 is so easy and convenient, and it sounds so good (probably better than that 45 if drawn from a high-quality source), that no one should really be surprised at the proliferation of piracy on the 'Net.

With all the hubbub about the (at best) questionable ethics and legality of the sharing of popular music via MP3, it's easy to forget the more practical and less nefarious purposes MP3 can serve. When the smoke clears, the technology will have dragged the music industry (kicking and screaming, of course) into a new era. Thousands of unsigned recording artists have used, and will continue to use, MP3 technology to reach listeners they never could have without it. Even among record companies, one reasonably prominent independent label, Minneapolis-based Twin/Tone, has stopped selling its music on physical media, relying solely on electronic distribution. And some major artists, including Tori Amos and Brian Wilson, have made certain material initially available only via electronic formats. I personally doubt discs and tapes will fade into complete obsolescence any time soon, given the allure of professional packaging and the fact that only a subset of the music-buying population has or will have the means and inclination to tangle with PCs, software, and recorders. But I am confident that MP3MP3's Bad Rapor some as-yet-undiscovered descendantMP3's Bad Rapis sure to coexist with traditionally packaged music in some way in the years to come.

MP3 and its brethren can also prove an asset in non-musical environments. Many Web sites are delivering content that truly takes advantage of the multimedia potential of the Internet: audio interviews, video clips, and animated presentations, while still not quite commonplace, are helping more and more Web sites stand out from the crowd.

The public's perception of MP3 is currently somewhat tarnished, thanks to the images of college kids hunched over PCs in dorm rooms, cheating Eddie Vedder out of untold millions by distributing unauthorized copies of "Jeremy." But let's remember that it ain't all bad. Its potential is too great for us to shrug it off as just a tool for piracy.

Tell any of those collegiate MP3 hounds that LSD wasn't always illegal, and their eyes will surely bug in disbelief, given the drug's longstanding outlaw status. Here's hoping we won't someday be recalling MP3's long-lost legality with similar bemusement, along with a future generation that finds the suggestion just as dubious.

Jeff Partyka (jeffjp@yahoo.com), a former associate editor and current Waxing Digital columnist at EMedia, is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer currently employed at the Alzheimer's Association of Eastern Massachusetts.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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