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"The Music Industry Finally Takes It Seriously"

I was considering writing this week's Soapbox about Valentine's Day, since there is so much approval as well as disapproval of this holiday. I could have talked about how I don't care if it's a commercial holiday or not, or how I don't care that it's saying there's just one day you should love someone special. I just don't care enough to write about it. Everyone has their own beliefs. Good for them. What I do know is that this is the first Valentine's Day I've lived in which there's been a woman who loves me as her boyfriend. You better believe I'm going to participate in this holiday and make her feel like the special treasure she is to me. I love you, Anna. As for the rest of you, come on...the proud-to-be-single dances are just too funny.

But no, instead of discussing the sweeter merits of capitalism, I chose this week to attack the music industry and defend what they call illegal reproduction of their artists' songs.

Most readers probably won't be very in tuned with the whole MP3 movement. MP3s are basically sound files which are used primarily for full-length music tracks. They can be compressed into 3-8MB files, startlingly less than how much room an actual CD track takes up. MP3s of all your favorite artists are being traded and downloaded all over the 'Net as I write this, and the whole community around it is growing phenomenally fast.

Once people figured out how to convert CD tracks into WAV files, which is a standard audio format for Windows-based computers, and then convert that into MP3 format, the idea spread like wildfire. I remember half a year ago or so, MP3s started to catch on. People were ripping their favorite songs off CDs and converting them to MP3, so they could listen to them on their computers without any audible loss of sound quality. I remember that it soon followed that people used the Internet to trade their MP3s for other MP3s that they wanted.

Now MP3s are huge on the Internet, and especially among young people (read, college students with high bandwidth ethernets). Next to Quake, and I think some educational uses, MP3s take up the most of bandwidth on most university networks. The people who choose to distribute MP3s using FTP servers are often quickly shut down because their sites use up so much of the bandwidth that the Internet provider can no longer support them.

Do you need a certain European mix of one of your favorite rave songs? Are you looking for that rare 1975 country music song? Chances are that you can find someone who has it. And if no one else has it, the tools are readily available for you to take a track off a CD and convert it to MP3.

Why do people do this? For one, because MP3s can be currency: people trade them for favors, for other MP3s, and even for pirated games or hard-to-find information. Yes, the MP3 community is associated with the warez community, although the overlapping isn't all that great. The Internet provides a perfect medium for trading valuable data, since there is software to do just about anything you please on your home computer now. Not to mention you have at least hundreds of people willing to trade something with you. Some people merely encode CD tracks to MP3 so they can listen to them on their computers without having the CD available (that they bought legitimately).

People also use MP3s because of many of the same reasons people use pirated software: they have a problem with the rising prices for CDs and games. I personally don't find this a valid argument, but people are tired of paying $60 for one game, or $17 for a CD. A lot of the forms of entertainment sold out there, well, suck. Have you bought a game for a price which would warrant extortion, then find out it wasn't worth a single penny? I know you Mageslayer people were disappointed. ;) Proponents of MP3s and pirated software claim that they are able to sample a product before they buy it, so they can make a more intelligent choice. Also, if there's just one track on a CD you like, and a single isn't available (and singles cost a fortune themselves), why would you want to pay nearly $20 to get a whole album of the other songs? Why not keep the one track you like, as if taping it off the radio?

Being able to sample things which traditionally required you to buy them first is a great thing. Most online CD stores have RealAudio clips of songs to download and listen to, for users to see if they like the style of the artist. Movie stores online probably have RealVideo clips. Amazon lets you not only find books that match the genre you're looking for, but suggests other similar books to A) allow the user to purchase other books he might like or B) allow the user to see if the book he wants to get is in good company with the others. The way to go is sampling. And isn't digital information the best way to do this?

Most of the people I know who listen to MP3s will buy an album if they like the artist and his music. They won't simply leech off the artist and have a whole CD on their hard disk. Gamers are the same -- they test games by acquiring them for free, then if the game is mindblowing and intriguing, like Forsaken, then they'll go out and buy the game (and a new computer specially built for it). Consumers are far more informed than they used to be, even if the means by which they obtain the information is illegal. This puts pressure on companies to release higher-quality content to appeal to the people who would otherwise not fork over the cash if they tested it first.

So let's not sidestep around this anymore -- let's get to the real reason I chose to write about this. Record companies. Yep, record companies. Where were they before? Record companies didn't really take part in the Internet until it was dangerous for them not to. They didn't put up web sites because they CARED -- they put up sites to keep up or get ahead of their competitors. It's not about providing information and clips to the consumer -- it's about stopping the company across the street from laughing at your company's lack of 'Net presence.

Wired wrote a good article about all of this -- Geffen is not going to be able to get what it wants.

And even after record companies had web sites, you could tell they weren't intent on useful sites. The sites are figureheads, something to put the URL of on the bottom of a magazine ad under the logo. What did it take for record companies to take the 'Net seriously? The chance that they would lose money. Hell, record companies, more concerned about the duplication of minidiscs than the remarkable breakthrough of the technology, demanded (or so I've heard) that a portion of the money from every minidisc player sold should go to them.

Isn't that sick? Yeah, the video industry's lost SO much money due to people distributing copies of their favorite movies. The music industry's lost a fortune from people recording CDs onto tapes, and radio to tape. Sure. Aren't both industries doing the best they've ever done? They must earn a bundle of cash off us.

Everyone knows people are ripping tracks off CDs and distributing them on the 'Net. And the record companies can't take it. They can't take the fact that the money they've squeezed out of artists and other contributors is being stolen from them, too. Where were these companies before MP3s became popular? Sitting contently, watching music lovers purchase CDs distributed by their companies for $16.95 a pop.

Humans rarely do things because they believe in them -- they do things because they are afraid of their enemies. It's very selfish.

So in come the record companies and they're boastfully telling magazines like Wired how easy it is to find MP3 sites. Isn't that a sign that they have no chance in stopping the reproduction of their music? Record companies are shutting down web sites which deliver MP3s to others. Cease and desist, you know? X-Files and Simpsons fans on the 'Net know, for sure.

Geffen supposedly sent out 100 e-mails to various MP3 FTP sites telling them to shut down or risk prosecution. From what I'm told, some sites have recently stopped working. Geffen's reasoning? They want to clean up the Internet so that more companies will sell online? Right. I get dirty just writing that, there's so much muck on it.

(As an aside, have you heard of any cases of people having their personal info snatched by snoopers watching for their credit cards? Neither have I. The 'Net's pretty damn safe to buy things on, especially with secure servers. As if anyone cares enough to watch you send thousands of packets in hopes of nabbing that $200 credit limit card.)

The companies just don't understand how things work. If they did, they'd realize that none of the MP3 sites are up very long, anyway. Usually a system administrator will remove the contents, or tell the user to get rid of the files because too many people are downloading them. Companies don't understand that the reason it's so easy to find MP3 sites is because there's such a large backlash against the abuse record companies have given consumers. Instead of taking advantage of the enthusiasm in MP3s, record companies are shunning it, and alienating even more people in the process. The Prohibition, anyone?

It's not so damn hard to have favorable public opinion if you're running a company. You have to identify with your customers. You can't appear to be a panel of old, grey-haired CPA washouts who censor lyrics and shut everything down, or give the Internet the cold shoulder. You have to do things like how id Software does it: release shareware and use the people on the Internet for feedback. Monitor fan newsgroups online and incorporate their ideas into scripts and products. Believe in the 'Net as a free world where information costs nothing beyond giving information in return.

Perhaps the attitude of big companies towards the 'Net will change eventually. I know most corporations with money laugh at the Internet and only use it as a gimmick. I'm surprised their consultants haven't informed them how much money they could save (not earn, mind you, but save...can't earn anything from the Internet), or how many more loyal customers they could appeal to.

Is this whole Internet thing still a big joke, now that people have taken your holy CDs and spliced and shredded them so they could distribute music you didn't even produce, for free, instead of for three or four hours of minimum wage? Is the Internet still for geeks and nerds, or is it a place where CD hardware protection means nothing? You aren't laughing at it now, are you?

The Internet is going to completely derail the videocassette, music, and related industries. There are people out there who, for their hobbies, know the technical specifications for hardware better than the people who do tech support for them. There are plenty of poor college students and people who dislike companies and people who believe in free information. People will be trading MP3s, pirated games, and recipes for bombs on the Internet forever, and there isn't really anything anyone can do about it. There's no way you can monitor everyone's actions on the Internet. Warez groups have hacked versions of computer games on the 'Net before the games even hit the shelves. Yet it's these same hackers who write many of the most intelligent and technical reviews of the games, which encourage people to buy the game. How many people had a pirated version of Quake before they bought the CD? Virtually everyone? But Quake's now the biggest game in the industry.

Remember when it used to be illegal to tape everything off TV? Now, after everyone taped all their favorite shows and traded with others, usually for free, the rules changed (like water) so that only duplicated videos sold for currency were illegal. How is this situation any different from MP3s? I haven't heard of anyone paying money for MP3s (although I'm sure it happens for hard-to-find songs), so the MP3 community basically does everything because it believes in MP3s, not because it wants to make money or cause anyone else to lose money. Companies are just mad because consumers have the advantage now.

Companies need to grow up and get with the times. In the age of computers and information, individuals are able to do more and more what before only big-budget productions could handle. Times are a'changin'. The more you resist, the more the Internet is going to fight back. So embrace the 'Net, or it'll burn you.

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