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Web Developer's Journal: No We Won't Pay - MP3 Will Give Streaming a Bloody Nose

Jul 02, 2000, 15:34 (7 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Andrew Starling)

By Andrew Starling, Web Developer's Journal

Big media companies hope that the free MP3 phenomenon will toddle off into a quiet corner somewhere and die, so they can make money out of streaming audio. No chance.

Don't they know the Internet has changed the rules? It's free and it's going to stay that way. Corporations can rip us off in real life for our CDs and tapes, and we're kind of used to it, but nobody is going to persuade us to pay for content on the Internet, whether it's words, music, or video. It's our resource, it belongs to the users, not the providers, and they'd better sit up and take notice before they lose cartloads of money trying to sell us something we don't want to pay for on a medium they don't own.

Calm Down

Without doubt, MP3 on the Internet is a phenomenon. Napster alone is now credited with more than 10 million users. There are plenty of smaller sites offering hundreds of MP3s, and big traffic in MP3 exchanges through ICQ, IRC, Freenet and other Internet formats.

But MP3s do have a tiny problem with legality. Many of the most sought after files are illegal, they're rip-off from CDs without the copyright holder's permission. Once you start dealing with truly legal MP3's you're diving into a mixed bag of mediocre and plain poor music that probably couldn't make money anyway, so may as well be given away.

This theft of copyright is a genuine weakness in MP3 life, and a moral weakness too. After all, as Bruce Morris points out in "Streaming's Gonna Kick MP3 Butt", musicians need to eat and pay mortgages like everybody else. If they can't get paid they'll have to put down their guitars and go back to accountancy or driving freight trains.

The question of whether MP3s reduce CD sales still hasn't been resolved. Any report that concludes MP3s damage CD sales is soon followed by one that claims they introduce people to more music which they then go out and buy. About the best we can pick up from all these reports is that whatever influence MP3 has on CD sales is pretty marginal. Most of the big music companies sat back and did nothing while the MP3 movement grew. The reason they've got involved now is not because of poor CD sales, but because they want a piece of the action. If people are going to use the Internet to listen to music, they want it to be a commercial transaction with payment and profit involved.

Going Underground

That's why they've started squeezing the big MP3 sites like Napster. And within six months that squeeze will tighten into a bear hug as commission charges are demanded by the MP3 patent holders for downloading any MP3 - whether it's commercial music or a home recording of a dog howling in a bathroom.

They're going to drive MP3 underground, and they'll succeed to the same extent as the music industry in general succeeds against piracy. If you're living in the US or Europe, you don't find pirate CDs in your record store, but if you get on a plane to China, Thailand or Vietnam, you have to check pretty thoroughly if you want the genuine article rather than a local rip-off.

Look at audio tapes and the situation is far more out of control. In poor countries you'll find far more tapes than CDs in circulation, and most are technically illegal. Even in the US and Europe most people have a few tapes that were "recorded by a friend". Go to jail right now.

The philosophy the music companies follow is that provided they have sufficient control over rich countries and can make plenty of money there, they'll let the poorer countries go their own way - it's too expensive to stay on top of what's happening in the middle of Zaire and Borneo.

So they're pressurizing the big US MP3 sites who are already conceding defeat. But MP3 will stay alive on ICQ and Freenet where it's almost impossible to eradicate. Anarchists will create MP3 Web sites and fold them after a couple of months when the heat becomes too great, or move them to Liberia or Mongolia or some other place where life is slow and officials like long siestas. A game of cat and mouse starts up where the cat is in control but the mouse keeps disappearing into holes and reappearing a few minutes later.

Supply Led

With the field cleared of mice and MP3s, or at least partially cleared, big business will be able to get on with its task of providing subscription streaming audio (and MP3s with a price tag) that nobody wants.

There is simply no precedent for getting payment for content from Internet users. OK, I exaggerate, there are at least two sites that succeed. In fact on the business information side there are hundreds. But entertainment? No.

Why is music going to be different?

Er, well, it's not.

The big music companies don't seem to have recognized yet that they fail to have control over one crucial aspect of the Internet - distribution. In the CD industry, distribution and retailing are tied up tighter than a virgin's - well, you get the idea - and if you look at one of the few successful models of subscription entertainment, cable TV, the poor virgin seems positively loose by comparison.

Knocking out Napster in the courts and stepping on any other upstart MP3 Website is the music industry's way of trying to get a grip on distribution. Technical measures like special encoding that allows one play only, or fails to play pirate versions, are further admirable methods of attempting to protect copyright and at the same time get a stranglehold on distribution. In fact the biggest commercial benefit of having music streamed rather than providing it as an MP3 file is that the provider remains in control, the user can only listen when attached by a long tenuous wire or paid-for wireless connection.

But all these measures are doomed to failure.

Computers are superb recording devices. Whatever I see or hear on my computer I can record. Any kind of technical measures to stop me are mere complications. And I don't need a VCR as I do when recording TV (which in any case often relies on timeliness for its value), nor do I need tape to tape or a CD burner. All I need is plenty of space on my hard drive. Even if I bought streaming music, I'd only have to buy it once.

Actually big business did recognize this weakness some time ago, which is why a lot of browser software is getting more restrictive rather than less. Try, for example, altering whether Windows Media Player reads a certain type of file or it doesn't. It's possible if you're a bit of a geek, but not easy. That kind of control clearly can't be entrusted with mere casual users.

Wrong Again

But ho hum, people can copy-burn CDs and they rarely bother, they can tape radio music and they rarely bother, most regular punters won't make the effort to learn how to get around technical barriers when it comes to copying streamed music, nor will they search for MP3 sites on ICQ or in Liberia. But they will pay subscription fees like they do for cable, and ultimately the big, voracious music companies win and everything I've written here is the equivalent of a dog howling in the bathroom.

Ok, but a very musical dog backed by a decent guitarist. Clearly the music industry is going to damage MP3s and they're going to get some money through cable Internet channels and WAP channels and other restricted distribution areas of the Internet. But I bet they get their fingers burned on the Internet at large.

They've managed to keep us away from uncontrollable DAT (digital audio tape) devices, away from CD burners (until quite recently) and they'll partially succeed in keeping us away from MP3s. Yet it will only be partial. The Internet is a medium that reduces their control, rather than increasing it. New artists will pump out MP3s to get known, a new generation of record labels will use the Internet to the full, and all in all there'll be a lot more free music of decent quality floating around - some legal, some not.

That means less money into the coffers of the music barons, and, unfortunately, less money into the upturned hats of music artists at the bottom of the greasy pole. I do believe the Internet will do that - reduce the amount of money artists get. Big corporations have spent the last few years trying to convert it from a free library into a corporate money-maker, with very little success. There's no reason to assume the music industry will do any better. There'll simply be less money in music than there used to be.

Nobody is going to cry over a few lost millions for megabands (particularly Metallica), but it's as shame for the talent at kerb-level. In the long term it may mean a big change in the way a career in music is approached and the way it's played and listened to.

Maybe it will mean we go back to the way music was in previous centuries, where many people played instruments but only a handful ever dreamed of getting paid for it, and then not much more than a pittance.

Maybe it will even turn music back into an art form, and less of a business.

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