English 111, Section 33
March 6, 2000
The Digital Music Revolution
A wind of change is blowing. Computers and the Internet are becoming ever more ingrained in today’s society. Their increased speed and power have allowed many old forms of business to migrate to the digital realm, and one of those businesses has been the topic of many a discussion recently. The music business – production, recording, and distribution – is feeling the impact of this turn towards the Internet in various ways. Piracy, for example, is rampant today and is limiting the growth of legitimate music business on the Internet. Should piracy be eliminated, the recording industry could feel some very positive effects from the turn towards digital music on the Internet.
One of the primary debates over digital music is centered upon its distribution. With the ever-increasing speeds of the Internet and the computers themselves, the popularity of digital music has soared. As Gary Chapman writes in his article, "Internet Could Threaten Big Music, Film Companies," the most popular type of digital music available on the Internet is called "MP3." MP3 files, Chapman says, are essentially songs or other bits of audio that are compressed with a special algorithm. This algorithm, which compresses sound files by a ratio of twelve to one, makes it easy to store numerous MP3 songs on a computer – these songs are in fact small enough to be easily sent via email (Chapman N. pag.). Since the advent of MP3 technology, the proliferation of songs on the Internet has skyrocketed. Cameron Heffernan, in his PC World article "You Say You Want A Revolution," reported that as of November 1999, the term "MP3" was the most searched for term on the Internet, coming ahead of even the term "sex". The magazine Wired also conducted an informal survey of college students at the University of California at Berkeley, which Wired reporter Christopher Jones said claimed that "just under half of [the 40 students interviewed] had downloaded MP3 files from the Net or a campus server" (Jones N. pag.). According to Gary Chapman, portable hardware devices for playing these MP3 files away from your computer are becoming popular as well.
This increase in the distribution of music in a digital form has not always been of legitimate nature – in fact, according to some sources, the majority of digital music that is available on the Internet is pirated and originally came from a legitimate purchase. As Cameron Heffernan claims, "nothing prevents people from ripping multiple copies of their personal music library and posting the tunes on the Web" (Heffernan 206). This piracy hurts the record companies and the respective musicians by cutting into their profits. The record industry and the artists seem to reason that the Internet can be a powerful music and promotional tool, but that further steps must be taken to control the threat of piracy. Digital music has the possibility to change the way we buy and listen to music, and most people agree that the change will be for the better. However, some industry leaders are skeptical of the digital music revolution and the effects it could have on the traditional music industry. Digital music will only have that possibility to change the industry, though, if piracy is eliminated.
Music piracy is not something new, but digital music that can be transferred over the Internet is. According to a letter written by Hilary Rosen and Cary H. Sherman of the Recording Industry Association of America to the CEO of Diamond Multimedia on October 6, 1998, "we found – in a single afternoon – some 80 MP3 sites containing more than 20,000 MP3 files" (Rosen and Sherman N. pag.). As Rosen and Sherman continue to claim, "Not surprisingly, virtually all of those files are unlicensed recordings of America’s favorite artists" (Rosen and Sherman N. pag.). And two years later, most digital music files that are available on the Internet are still unlicensed, copyrighted works. In Christopher Jones’ article "Battling the Free Music Movement," Jones shows the popular view of digital music files amongst college attendants, the group that generally downloads them the most. The author tells of Cheryl, a molecular biology major at UC Berkeley, who has "hundreds of files on her computer, most of them copyrighted songs" (Jones N. pag.). Jones also tells of two girls at Berkeley who were reluctant to speak about the downloading of copyrighted songs on campus, "But finally they said, ‘well, everyone in the dorms [downloads MP3s]’" (Jones N. pag.). A good majority of the piracy of music on campuses seems to be aided by a popular music-sharing application called Napster. This program allows users to join a virtual trading community in which they share their personal MP3 collections with other Napster users, according to a press release made by the RIAA on December 7, 1999. Doug Reece, in his MP3.com article "Napster Expelled from Oxford," tells of a number of universities across the country that have been forced to implement blocking procedures to disallow Napster access to students through the school network, due to the application’s heavy network usage. For example, Dick Jacobson, the Systems Administrator for the North Dakota Higher Education Computer Network, in an email to students, staff, and faculty of North Dakota State University, explains why Napster access has been restricted at NDSU. Jacobson claims that on one occasion, Napster was using two-thirds of the total school’s Internet feed. Since NDSU does not have the funds to support the increased network usage, Jacobson said, they have opted to restrict access to Napster.
The RIAA, the watchdog of copyright issues in the recording industry, has noticed Napster and sued its makers in December 1999 for violating copyright laws ("Recording" N. pag.). A day after the suit was filed, Doug Reece reported on the situation for MP3.com in his article "RIAA Sues Napster!" In it, Reece tells of the RIAA’s opinion that "Napster is about facilitating piracy, and trying to build the business on the backs of artists and copyright owners" (Reece N. pag.). The author also tells of the RIAA taking a random sample of the over 200,000 digital music files on Napster at that time, and finding that almost all of them were of illegitimate origin. The RIAA, in retribution, is asking for $100,000 per song pirated via the Napster software (Reece, "RIAA" N. pag.). Although other anti-piracy suits have been filed in the past, the suit against Napster seemed to spark an outcry against digital music piracy like never before. As Scott Stapp, the lead singer for the band Creed says, "I have decided to sell my music to anyone who wants it, that is how I feed my family… my music is my home. Napster is sneaking in the back door and robbing me blind" ("Recording" N. pag.). Sean "Puffy" Combs, the CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment, Inc. also expresses disdain at Napster, in that the software allowed thousands of people to download the Notorious BIG album "Born Again" a week before it had been released ("Recording" N. pag.). Simon Renshaw, the personal manager of the Dixie Chicks, makes a point as well by saying that the Internet is full of possibilities for the music industry and piracy will not only hurt today’s musicians but tomorrow’s as well ("Recording" N. pag.).
Abundant as the piracy of music may be, many online music sites do contain only legitimate, licensed material. For example, Cary Sherman of the RIAA cites websites such as UBL, IUMA, Farm Club, and MP3.com as being unique promotional tools for bands that do not infringe upon any copyrights (Reece, "RIAA" N. pag.). Listen.com, for example, tells the user that a song may not yet be legally available for download if one tries to search for a band that hasn’t had their songs authorized for digital distribution. Today’s technology leaders are building security systems into their compression technologies, as well, according to an article by Hilary Rosen entitled "Labels Turning in to Net." "They are not seeking to [lock up digital music] in a cumbersome way but are finding ways to allow the music to flourish and the creators to get paid," Rosen said (Rosen, "Labels" N. pag.). One method of accomplishing this will be through the Secure Digital Music Initiative, a joint venture started in 1998 by the RIAA, BMG, EMI, Sony, Warner, and Universal (Heffernan 206). Essentially, SDMI was designed to reject the playback of illegal MP3s on portable players, such as Diamond Multimedia’s Rio player. SDMI accomplishes this by using a digital receipt of sorts, or a watermark, to identify the digital music file. In the year 2000 all new generations of portable players are to support the SDMI standard, effectively helping artists and record companies gain profits from the digital music revolution (Heffernan 206, 207).
If these counteractive measures against the piracy of digital music are successful, digital music will be in a position to change the recording industry as we know it. A number of people seem to believe that digital music could spell the eventual demise of true, physical stores and traditional media. Not surprisingly, those associated with the recording industry seem not to talk much of their possible demise. Hilary Rosen, the CEO of the RIAA, for example, tells in a CNET News.com opinion article that "The array of music posted on the Internet today is like a giant yard sale – loads of stuff that’s cheap or free" (Rosen, "Labels" N. pag.). Rosen goes on to equate the meager online music retailers to food courts in a mall, "where nachos and pizza and corn dogs and teriyaki burgers – anything you want – [is] out there on the steam table, and you have to sort through it to find something you want" (Rosen, "Labels" N. pag.). However, she expresses that the true, in-the-flesh music store allows artists to display their albums visually, and allows the customer to easily choose music selections (Rosen, "Labels" N. pag.). Robert Kohn, in his CNET News.com article "Net Levels Playing Field," states that he feels there will be a "wholesale dismantling of the traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ music retail operations" and that the major record distributors will lose 80 percent of their operations since physical media will no longer be needed in the digital era (Kohn N. pag.). Cameron Heffernan also explains that although the record distributors would like to explore the Internet as a distribution medium, they "don’t want to risk torpedoing the existing sales model, which has been highly lucrative over the years" (Heffernan 207). He also believes that since the distribution of music will be swifter, artists may opt for releasing a few tracks a month versus a complete album (Heffernan 207). Robert Kohn feels that this overall change in the industry will come very soon. In fact, Broadcast.com’s co-founder and president Mark Cuban claims that this change could happen in as soon as five years (Chapman N. pag.).
A growing number of people, however, see the digital music revolution as something beneficial. Robert Kohn, in his article, states that he feels the extra manpower and financial reserves used by the record industry to produce and distribute physical music, once freed by the surge to release albums on the Internet, could be used to find and develop artists that would have gone unnoticed. He also feels the current piracy issue will be resolved if the digital music files can be made easier to buy than steal, through means of low prices for music purchases and digital copy-protection techniques. Thus, the elimination of piracy would lead to more profits for the artists and record companies (Kohn N. pag.). The problem with compensation for digital music is already being tended to by various means. According to the Wired News Report’s "Streaming For Dollars" article, websites such as www.com and Los Angeles’ House of Blues are using pay-per-view technology, along with licensing agreements, to pay artists their respective royalties when their material is broadcast over the Internet. In www.com’s case, a royalty is paid to the artists for work broadcast over their unique Internet radio stations. The Los Angeles House of Blues, however, allows users to watch concerts as pay-per-view events ("Streaming" N. pag.).
Another benefit of the increased popularity of digital music is that it makes it possible for artists to promote themselves. In a CNET News.com article entitled "Ice T, Others Sound Off On Net’s Benefit for Artists," Courtney Macavinta gives some insight as to how some musicians are using the Internet for their benefit. The rap artist Ice T, for one, is rather optimistic about the advancements. "My record may not sell as much as it would if I was on the majors, but I’m in a position now to make power moves," Ice T commented (Macavinta, "Ice T" N. pag.). Ice T also foresees online record releases being quite common, since he believes that within a few years essentially everyone will own a computer (Macavinta, "Ice T" N. pag.). Jonatha Brooke, another musician, is more hesitant though. In Macavinta’s article, Brooke explains that although the Internet is a great promotional tool, the new artists will still be in need of record labels to get them going, since the chance of being successful on the Internet alone is slim.
Some new artists would beg to differ with Brooke, however. MP3.com, one of the original promoters of unsigned bands, recently started its "Payback for Playback" program that rewards its more popular artists with cash. For example, Courtney Macavinta, in her article "Some MP3 Artists Scraping by without Labels," talks about Alex Smith, a high-school senior in Stillwater, MN. Smith formed a one-man band entitled "The Cynic Project," using his keyboard and computer. Resulting from an estimated 100 hours of work, Smith has received over $12,500 from the MP3.com "Payback for Playback" program and CD sales from the website. "I’m not going to spend it all at once; I’m going to buy more music stuff and put some aside for college…" said Smith of his earnings (Macavinta, "Some MP3" N. pag.). Michael Robertson, the CEO of MP3.com, is quoted in Macavinta’s article as saying that the "Payback for Playback" system is useful because it pays the musicians for not just album sales, but for downloads as well.
The revolution occurring in today’s media field due to the Internet is grand and amazing. Musicians are no longer bound to record companies should they choose not to be, and the popularity of music in digital forms can mean good profits for both the musician and record company. With popular forms of media, however, there comes piracy. I strongly feel that this digital music revolution can only be successful if piracy can be eliminated, allowing for the rightful copyright owners to gain the rewards of producing popular music. The best way that I feel this can be done is through not only copy-protection schemes like the SDMI and watermarking in general that were described earlier, but in making the songs easier and more profitable to download than to pirate. People will not waste time trying to illegally copy a watermarked file should it be easier just to buy that file for, say, $.99
The success of the digital music revolution will also bring forth more prosperity to everyone involved in the recording and distribution process. There is no doubt in my mind that there will be some business closures and possible job layoffs as a result of the turn towards digital music on the Internet. However, I reject the notion that the inevitable demise of a good portion of the physical, in-the-flesh components of the music business will be a bad thing. With the advent of portable MP3 players and the like, distributors will no longer have to manufacture and ship physical media – they will simply upload the music to a number of commercial websites and reap the profits. The artists will also benefit from the ability to start out in the business easily– sites such as MP3.com already make this a possibility; just look at 17 year-old Alex Smith’s success.
A wind of change is indeed blowing, emanating from a storm of silicon and fiber technology. Music will be delivered and used in ways one can only dream of, and the artist and audience will come ever closer through the ease and freedom that technology will bring.
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