>Blast from the Past: MP3: the digital music revolution

>I forgot all about this article until I searched my name and the auburn plainsman together. I used to work for them. 🙂

The Auburn Plainsman Online


thursday may 18. 2000
MP3: the digital music revolution
Features Editor

For four long years Elizabeth Farr searched for “Can’t Let You Go.” She had asked friends, browsed music stores and even queried the vast Internet to no avail. It wasn’t until a college friend recommended she try Napster, an interactive music search engine, that she found her needle in the haystack.

But if the music industry wins its pending lawsuit against Napster, millions of Internet music junkies will be quickly kicked out of their cyberspace music café.

Word of the lawsuit spread fast in Harper Hall, the campus residence where
Farr has lived the last four years.

“People were saying anyone who had illegal MP3s would be under suspicion,” Farr said. “They said people were going to come and check our computers for MP3s and possible copyright infringements.”

But Napster isn’t the only Internet company to come under the fire of the hard-hitting music industry. Several court cases involving MP3.com, a groundbreaking Internet music provider, have also been making news across music communities both on and offline.

However, the many devoted MP3 fans on Auburn’s campus feel the courts’ rulings will have little affect on their collections of MP3s, highly compressed digital reproductions of CD-quality songs.

Having already tasted the forbidden fruit, they are in no hurry to put it down.

It wasn’t long ago that MP3s (Motion Pictures Experts Group Layer 3) were being hailed as the future of music. Capable of revolutionizing music for the digital age, the MP3 format drew comparisons to Mosaic, the first browser to transform the text-based Net into the graphically rich realm we now call cyberspace.

MP3’s roots run surprisingly deep. With the development of Bulletin Board Services (BBS) in the early ‘90s came the growth of a subculture of music fans who would leave their modems on for hours downloading precious bootlegged songs in computer formated forms.

In the mid ‘90s, BBS’s began closing down as the Internet began drawing millions into its World Wide Web. College students, using high-speed Web access available through campus networks, began rallying behind the new standard in digital audio, MP3, which allows several minutes of CD-quality digital audio to be downloaded in only a few seconds across campus networks.

Napster, developed by a 19-year-old college student, allows even the least adept Web surfer to trade MP3 tunes online. Since the program’s release last year, nearly nine million have come to call it home on the Web.

What a tangled Web we weave …

But many legal obstacles now threaten one of the most popular emerging technologies on the Web. Lawsuits against MP3.com and Napster have sent MP3.com’s stock tumbling and Napster’s users anxiously awaiting the final verdict.

Courts have issued several summary judgments in favor of major music labels, represented by the Recording Industry Association of America.

The RIAA interpreted Judge Rakoff’s April 28 summary judgment to mean MP3.com’s reproduction of thousands of CDs into a database without authorization constitutes copyright infringement.

As for MP3 technology, RIAA and its members say they have no objection to the format itself. RIAA has a problem only with the illegal uses of the format to distribute copyrighted recordings without the permission of the artist or record company.

“To the extent that artists use MP3 technology to distribute their work — music that they own the rights to — that’s great,” the RIAA states on its Web site. “In fact, it’s a potent example of the ways in which the Internet can connect creators and fans and produce new opportunities for the distribution of music.”

However, that is what MP3.com had in mind when it introduced Instant Listening and Beam-It, services designed to allow users to listen to their CDs anywhere they have an Internet connection.

The RIAA agrees, in concept, Instant Listening and Beam-It are great ideas. “However, MP3.com does not own the rights to most, if any, of those 45,000 albums,” the RIAA Web site states. “And (MP3.com) had no right to copy them into a digital music library without getting authority from the people who own the copyrights.”

But many students feel copyrights are for courtrooms and simply ignore them as they scour the Web for tunes by their favorite bands.

“Honestly, I don’t worry about it,” said Blake Britton, a senior in management information systems. “As long as I am not selling it for profit, it isn’t worth their time to go after individuals like me.

“Most people I know don’t worry about it and still won’t worry about it even if Napster is shut down,” Britton said. “People have already bitten from the forbidden fruit. They have a taste for it and want more. There is little that can be done to stop it.”

But the music industry disagrees and hopes its lawsuits against MP3.com and Napster will set precedents discouraging the pirating of copyrighted music.

Napster, an immensely popular site with college students, has created for its users a virtual trading community of music stored in MP3 format, which uses compression software to make high-quality audio easily swappable online.

Napster users can search for specific songs and within seconds download a CD-quality version of a song, the RIAA contends, the user may not have the legal rights to. According to the RIAA Web site, “the overwhelming majority of the MP3 files offered on Napster are infringing — and we believe Napster knows this and even encourages it.”

On May 5, U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel rejected Napster’s defense that the company was a “mere conduit” for infringing recordings and not itself a host of copyrighted material.

“I disagree with the judge’s decision,” Britton said. “I know the RIAA has good intentions. But with any kind of new technology, that’s just something you have to deal with.”

“Whenever you have a cheap means to copy anything, more people will start doing it,” Britton said. “Somebody is always going to try to figure out how to get around new types of copy protection.”

History repeats itself, yet again

In the last 20 years, the entertainment industry has waged wars against the onslaught of new technology.

Citing copyright infringement, lawsuits were filed with the introduction of the video cassette recorder and tape cassette recorder.

The entertainment industry, concerned that new cassette technology would allow people with such recording devices to make personal copies of music, once plastered the sleeves of vinyl albums with the phrase “Home Taping is KILLING the Music Industry.”

Judges in these lawsuits found the great majority of consumers didn’t use these devices to steal content; rather, consumers used them as tools of convenience. “Time shifting,” the court ruled, is a concept where the consumer transfers music from one medium to another for the convenience of playing it at another time or place.

Time shifting is the same concept that allows music aficionados to legally archive copies of purchased music in whatever form they like — cassette tape, CD or MP3.

A handful of companies have even created portable MP3 players that can accommodate anywhere from a dozen to several hundred songs depending on the device’s storage capacity. The miniature walkman-like devices allow consumers to “mix” together songs in ways never possible before the creation of the MP3 format.

Why buy the cow if you can get the MP3 for free?

Britton, who admits he downloads rare MP3s daily from Napster and other sources, said he does so “only because these songs are hard to find at music stores or are only available as expensive imports.”

“I definitely think most people use it to sample artists’ music,” said
Elizabeth Farr, a senior in history. “It helps me decide what I like before I go to Amazon.com and buy it.

“If anything, I’ll hear a song on the radio and think ‘I have to go get that CD,’” Farr said. “But if I don’t know much about the rest of the CD, I’ll search for the artist on Napster and download other songs on that CD to see if it’s worth my time and money.”

For many, the conveniences offered by MP3s are too great not to use these highly compressible and easily tradable tunes. And with sound quality rivaling that of CDs, the RIAA feels MP3s are stealing possible sales away from the artists and record labels who own the music.

But Britton disagrees. “If you download an MP3, you are probably going to go out and buy the better sounding product, the CD,” Britton said. “There can be a noticeable quality difference between a CD and an MP3; though MP3s are by far superior to tapes.”

MP3s: revolutionizing the way small bands do business
But music listeners aren’t the only ones taking advantage of this new technology. Up-and-coming bands frequently use MP3s because they provide CD-quality audio in a small file size, the ultimate in convenience and portability on the Net.

Daniel Jackson, vocalist for Auburn-based band bol o sol, said, “The music industry tells us that up-and-coming bands need to have music accessible from a Web site.

“MP3s are going to revolutionize music,” Jackson said. “Now small bands that would not have gotten any attention can get recognized very easily.”

Many small bands such as bol o sol lack the marketing machine provided by a major record label. In struggling to make a name for themselves in an already saturated music market, these bands have begun to embrace the easily copied and converted MP3 format for distribution of their music online.

“We don’t have a problem if you record our music or make copies of our music as long as you keep it free,” Jackson said. “We are trying to make our way through the ranks. But at this point, we are just looking for exposure.”

Sami Serrag, guitarist for The Experiment, an Auburn-based jazz/rock/reggae band, agreed.

“You have to hope that people who do burn copies are respectful of the music,” Serrag said. “If they do it because they like the music, then it’s obviously a good thing.

“If you trust your audience, they will reward you sooner or later,” Serrag said. “But you have to earn it.

Gaining exposure and building a fan following are integral aspects of developing up-and-comingbands. Wide spread distribution of a band’s songs in MP3 form enables fans local and abroad to listen and gain respect for its music. Serrag said without the whims of public opinion to control a band’s music, an MP3 can eventually get artists to the point where they can actually speak to their audience.

The fate of digital music and the MP3

But the fate of the format remains unknown. Numerous lawsuits could financially crush MP3.com and Napster, leaving millions of music lovers homeless on the Web. With MP3’s future dangling in the web of cyberspace, the RIAA is struggling to maintain its once dominant grip in this new digital era.

“They are going to have to work out new rules,” Serrag said. “They can’t apply real-time laws to something digital. It is different world on the Internet.

“Napster is just taking advantage of the technology,” Serrag said. “The music industry needs to come up with another way of protecting themselves.”

Serrag and many others believe the industry has yet to address the real issues underlying MP3 technology. “The digital world is taking over business and the transfer of information,” Serrag said. “They can try to incorporate it, or they can fight it.”

Michael Robertson, CEO of MP3.com, shared a similar view in an email May 11 to My.MP3.com subscribers. “This is a groundbreaking time for digital music, copyright law and the Internet in general,” Robertson wrote.

Though MP3.com is facing potentially company-crippling damages for its violation of copyright laws, Robertson assured MP3.com patrons that “MP3.com will act responsibly, work tirelessly on your behalf and remain a beacon of progress in the digital music space.”

Most feel that despite any courthouse rulings against Napster and MP3.com, the rules governing the subculture of MP3 enthusiasts will not be affected. Even if Napster is shutdown, there are dozens of copycats waiting to fill the shoes and meet the demand left in this departing giant’s wake.

Jackson said the RIAA’s possible future victory against Napster may set a precedent, but it won’t stop people from pirating music.

“All Napster does is provide an easy means of trading files,” Britton said.
“Before, you really had to hunt, and the majority of computer users couldn’t find an MP3 if they didn’t have Napster.

“It will put a dent in piracy, but it won’t last long,” Britton said. “I can guarantee people will find a way around it.”
Obladi Oblada life goes on

Despite the talk and threats from the RIAA, college students have yet to change their ways.

Recently, Farr bought a new hard drive to accommodate storage for several hundred cherished MP3s.

Britton has finished the most recent addition to his collection of soundtracks – a recordable CD filled with 160 tracks including scores from “The Karate Kid II” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

Serrag is preparing The Experiment to record a live album of last weekend’s performance at the Cosmic Groove festival. After the show, Serrag plans to convert the recordings to MP3s and make them available on the Web.


About Blake Britton

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