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