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Left of the Dial: Will MP3 a New Publishing Model Make?

Joshua McDaniel

August 2000 | One of my special triumvirate, the pillars upon which the rest of my music collection is built, vanished. I could stand to lose every single record, tape, CD, MP3--I could even lose my home--but I cannot lose Hüsker Dü's New Day Rising, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Mojo Nixon's and Skid Roper's Bo-Day-Shus. And now Bo-Day-Shus is gone. Really gone, out-of-print gone, and my soul is rent. Bo-Day-Shus never even made it to CD--a grave crime, if you ask me. So I was left to tramp the shadowy streets and search the assorted used record and tape stores about town. I went to all of them, scoured, and found nothing. Even Patrick, our beloved local archivist of great musical works, couldn't help me: "You can't get Mojo's older stuff anymore." My heart turned black and bitter, and when it cracked, the earth shook.

But Mojo himself came to me, in one of those Keatsian waking-dreams, and just as Keats had his Nightingale to assuage him, I had Mojo. He directed me to Mojoworld, where, he said, "The liquor stores are open 24 hours a day. If they card you, and you're old enough to buy it, you get it free." Beneath the waterslide that ran with barbecue sauce, I found a simulacrum of the desk in my bachelor pad of the future. My monitor shone with www.mojo.com, and my hard disk sang like a choir of angels as Bo-Day-Shus graced its sectors. "What do I owe you, Mojo?" I asked, a humble pilgrim at his feet. "Are you a Communist or a Libertarian?" was his only reply. There ended my vision, in exactly the same way Ode to a Nightingale ends:

Fled is that music--Do I wake or sleep?

Mojoworld, I suppose, is the ideal: I want to pay Mojo and Skid for Bo-Day-Shus, directly, in a digital communion. That's a perfect producer/consumer relationship, in that they plug the hole in my heart, and they reap all of the profits of the plugging. But one artist and one buyer don't a new digital delivery day a-dawning make. The key here is that I, consumer, want to pay, even though I could probably download the tracks that constitute Bo-Day-Shus for free, using the embattled Napster or one of its clones.

Why do I want to pay, when I could have it for free? My personal response is I'd feel guilty doing that, and I want guys like Mojo to be well compensated for their labor so that they keep producing. Happily, I, and almost everyone I know, would put down some bread at www. mojo.com, or whatever their personal variant might be. Another possible response here, from another consumer, is that the tracks that constitute Bo-Day-Shus are nowhere to be found, either on the Internet, or on any hard disks in contact with the Napster server; or, it's entirely inconvenient to go out hunting for those tracks, I want the whole thing now; or, MP3 lacks sufficient quality for my golden ears. The list goes on, but the premise remains the same: we don't have to pay, but we can be enticed into it. Even better: put it out there for free, and make your money elsewhere. That's what's what, Big Five.

POISON YEARS

Once you open the floodgates to personal choice where it had never before been imagined, there's no turning back the tide. Once the question is reframed, it will never fit in the old frame again. It's not a whole lot different from the day when Muhammad Ali undid two centuries of patriotic presumption in a single off-hand remark from his front porch in Louisville: "I got no quarrel with the Vietcong." The advent and sudden popularity of Napster and its ilk has spawned a parallel rally cry: we don't have to pay if we don't want to.

It's hard to hear such a statement in anything but an annoying kid's nasal playground voice, but the salient element here is that this is no posture: it's fact. Unless something really bizarre happens-- Draconian legislation, or the Apocalypse--file-sharing over the Internet is here to stay. In fact, that's all the Internet is built to do, as I understand it--so as long as there's an Internet, there's file-sharing. Litigation against file-sharing applications like Napster, too, amounts to Hercules (yeah, you're big and powerful, I'll give you that, but you're dumb) attempting to strike off a head of the Hydra: even if you succeed in shutting down Napster, two new applications of comparable or greater power and sweep will spring up in its place, effectively tripling the attorney's fees, not to mention all the losses you'll suffer in Metallica's record sales. Now, I'm no MBA or anything, but my bet is it's not good business for a band to sue its own fans.

It's often not good business, either, to encrypt or protect data in this digital gig, mainly because, in addition to irritating your customer, your scheme will be cracked the second it's issued, and you'll have wasted all that time and all those resources. Right now, today, if you can play a track on your computer--any track, whether it's watermarked, proprietary, or set to expire in 30 days--you can record it to your hard disk as an unprotected, pristine WAV file using a neat and inexpensive piece of software called Total Recorder. Total Recorder is roughly the equivalent of past-posting in the off-track betting world. It jams itself between whatever software is playing your track and your sound card's driver, capturing the standard digits that are to become analog and play over your speakers. From those digits, the plain, unprotected, ready-to-be-burned WAV is wrought. Elegant, simple programming, and that's all that's needed right now to crack a watermark.

Surely, the hacker elite will keep pace with all other protections to come along, holding contests, as they always have, to see who will be the first to crack the latest and greatest scheme. That's how it's worked in the packaged software industry--any copy protection solutions provider will estimate the viability of the latest and greatest lockout scheme at roughly half a selling season-- and it's no different with Internet-distributed music. What's more, word gets around faster these days, and the code crackers are always only too happy to share their findings with the rest of us: skeptics, shoot over to www. cdfreaks.com.

SEE A LITTLE LIGHT

But this isn't a magazine about or for technology terrorists, or even particularly for music consumers, although just about anyone who's at ease with technology and enjoys listening to records would likely have a recreational interest in MP3-- particularly as the time and resource demands of music downloading diminish and thus cut less into our recreational hours. But for a community whose business is or depends on technology developed, acquired, and applied, the question remains, is there money, or only mischief, to be made in the MP3 domain?

In an indirect way, there's certainly enormous benefit to CD-R hardware and software manufacturers and vendors, since CD-R is arguably the most desirable destination for downloaded tracks. And since we've established time and again that CD-R has non-copyright infringing uses ample to keep it safe from the confiscating impulses of the RIAA and others, recorder manufacturers needn't waste much time worrying about reprisals if MP3 continues to be largely used for subterranean purposes. One-step MP3-to-WAV/AIFF conversion is available in just about any retail CD-R software package, and appears guilt-inducingly easy to anyone who remembers the days before cartoons became commonplace in CD recording programs. Nonetheless, as ever, the music-listening public that wants to get in on the MP3 action probably still would rather know as little about CD-R as possible, so there's a healthy market for crafty tools like Earjam that mask the Web-to-disk-to-disc transition and shield the user from the mess and michigas of CD recording.

But as for technologies emerging that might actually put effective pay-to-play shackles on MP3 itself, and claim its soul for our old friend the sale, don't bet on it. The old business model simply isn't going to be that cleanly uploaded. MP3, as opposed to a proprietary or protected format, makes no demands: it comes down fast, it doesn't have to be cracked, it's tiny, it's unobtrusive, you don't need any player in particular to listen to it, it's quickly and easily transferred to motile CD-R or a portable MP3 player, and, above all, you don't have to put on pants to acquire it. In short, and shorts, it's all about freedom and goodness, convenience ultimately. Down the road, long after WMA and Liquid Audio have been laughed off our bandwidth, MP3 will still be around, if for nothing else than its sheer convenience. What can replace it? What will we allow to replace it? Today, I can't think of anything. Tomorrow, some new super-high-quality, lower-bitrate, lower-hassle codec may show up: that's what MP3's replacement has to look like.

My money, then, finally, is on the company that gives away MP3s and derives income elsewhere, and the company that gives us a reason to buy MP3s, recognizing that we might just go get it for free otherwise, copyright or copy protection be damned. Technology-hip music fans can't be coerced by limited availability anymore; panted treks to Corpco Inc. Records and Tapes to be gouged are becoming the exception, holing up in your bunker to download some cheap or free tunes the rule, and it is good. The Genie sez: if you don't like it, rot.

As I mentioned, I'm not an MBA, but I really like the idea of my eyeballs paying for whatever music I download. MP3.com comes to mind here: thousands on thousands of tracks, good ones even, free for the download, just for showing up to the site and possibly looking at a banner ad. Another thing I think we can all dig is that MP3.com's artists are treated extraordinarily well, especially when compared to how big record companies typically treat their talent: not only do the artists get free exposure, just for the asking and the upload of their music, they also get paid a sum each time we listen to or download one of their songs. Then, if we really like what we're hearing, we can purchase the artist's CD (called a DAM CD out in those parts, which contain both CDDA and mp3 tracks) directly from MP3.com for under $10. The artist gets 50 percent of the proceeds from the sales of their DAM CDs; I could only wish for those kinds of royalties, and I'm certain Metallica echoes my sentiment there. Here's the kicker though: MP3.com boasts Mojo's presence too. For free, right now, I could download Mojo's "Orenthal James (Was a Mighty Bad Man)." If I didn't already have the CD containing that song, I would, after hearing that track, run out to get it, and given the music-buying public's longstanding predilection for nice packages and the comforts of ownership, this whetting-stone approach would probably work just as well on other music fans as it works for me. The fact is, people who routinely buy things they don't need but have to have will continue to buy those things, even if some distilled approximation can be acquired in new or alternative ways.

If I'm not in the mood to crawl out of my cave, I can either click through Mojo's page at MP3.com directly to his CD at CDNOW.com (cha ching, MP3.com just made clickthrough money) and wait days for the Mojo CD I buy there to arrive, or I could browse over to Emusic.com, and promptly download Mojo's Sock Ray Blue!, "Orenthal James" and all, in MP3 form, for $8.99--that's just a little over half of what I paid for the CD at my neighborhood mom-and-pop CD store. If I don't want the whole thing, I can select whichever tracks from the CD I want, and pay a mere 99¢ apiece, happy with a bargain, and comfortable in the knowledge Mojo's getting some of it. Handy tip for those who would charge more than 99¢ for a track: don't. MP3, we all surely know by now, as it's repeated incessantly, is near-CD quality, not CD quality. MP3 compression, by nature, removes sonic data that you can never get back: "decoded" MP3s, that is, MP3s inflated back to standard CD-DA data for recording to CD-R, also lack the data removed during the compression phase, and as such are somewhat degraded, maybe not sonically, but certainly logically, and consumers are equipped with that infernal logic thing, now more than ever.

Why am I paying Emusic.com here? Firstly, because I can't find, let alone download, an entire album from Napster, especially a relatively esoteric one (Mojo isn't really like Britney Spears, in many respects). Secondly, the price is right: $8.99 for the whole thing, can't beat that. Thirdly, it's MP3s I'm getting here; I know, when I go to prepare these MP3s for a burn, or even just listen to them for awhile, I won't have to use some weird proprietary or hacking program, I can just use my favorite MP3 or burning software, and remain totally above board, with no hassles whatsoever. Finally--and I hope this is important to a lot of us--my conscience is clear.

DREAMING AM I

The highly touted but yet-to-be-enacted Subscription Model excites me greatly. Here's what I envision, or what I would surely pay for, and imagine the whole Mojo Nation (and maybe even the Britney Nation) would pay for along with me: for some (reasonable) monthly sum, and via some client like Napster--except totally reliable and well-stocked, if not on user's hard disks, then on servers--I could download whatever amount of whatever MP3s I wanted. I'd feel like I was joining a club of like-minded types, part of some illusory but not entirely dissatisfying virtual community. I wouldn't mind looking at banner ads on this future Napster-like client either. And this is a model even the Big Five could buy into if they're still with us, and co-opt a bit of the bandwagon after they jump on it. And providing the metering, transacting, and recording tools, products, and services that would play well with this model could prove pretty lucrative. And as for the content owners, just imagine that somewhat-hard-to-tax-at-the-moment revenue for a minute...

The Subscription Model strikes me as the best of everything. You can guarantee billions of eyeballs for ads on the client, you've got fully legitimate users and uses, you've got the ultimate in no-pants convenience--especially if you opt to include burning capability in the client--and on, and on, and on. Public within a week of launch, I tell you.

Shooting off from that, if you'll let me get utopian for a second, I like to imagine artist collectives--real musicians, not poseur populists like Limp Bizkit--fully independent of any record companies, launching their own subscriberships, promoting themselves, or rather letting labor promote itself, reaping all the rewards and profits from their work. A total wresting and dislocation, at long last, of cultural power from these institutions and corporations that brought us the boy bands, and wrecked Western civilization. I like that future.

But I still don't have Bo-Day-Shus, or won't have it for a few days anyway. I'm informed by Jack Davis of Beat City Records in Ventura, California, that, "I think that it was meant to be for you to be the proud owner of this fine piece of vinyl. It was on hold for a customer of mine, but he's in jail now for not being a very good person." I offered a kidney; he only wants $6. It's nice to know that between Mom, Pop, Mojo, and good old-fashioned Altavista searches, everything can be put right again.


Companies Mentioned in This Article

Beat City Records
321 East Main Street, Ventura, CA 93001; http://www.beatcityrecords.com

CDNOW.com, Inc. 1005 Virginia Drive, Ft. Washington, PA 19034; http://www.cdnow.com

Earjam.com
55 Almaden Boulevard, Suite 425, San Jose, CA 95113-1608; 408/885-8740; Fax 408/885-8741; info@earjam.com; http://www.earjam.com

EMusic.com
1991 Broadway, Second Floor, Redwood City, CA 94063; 650/216-0200; Fax 650/556-9712

High Criteria (creators of Total Recorder)
4 Geranium Court, Richmond Hill, ON, L4C 7M7; 905/787-1216; Fax 416/650-9035; info@highcriteria.com; http://www.totalrecorder.com

Liquid Audio, Inc.
2221 Broadway, Redwood City, CA 94063 650/549-2000; Fax 650/549-2099; http://www.liquidaudio.com

MP3.com, Inc.
4790 Eastgate Mall, San Diego, CA 92121; 858/623-7000; Fax 858/623-7323; http://www.mp3.com

Napster, Inc.
4 West Fourth Avenue, Suite 401, San Mateo, CA 94402; http://www.napster.com


Joshua McDaniel is an IT solutions provider and freelance writer based in Denver, CO. He is also co-author,with Robert A. Starrett of The Little Audio CD Recording Book, published by PeachPit Press.

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