It's only rock'n'roll, but they like it downloadable

The recording industry has declared war on a new breed of `pirates' who are using freely available, easy-to-use technology to copy and distribute CD-quality music files over the Internet. They might be outgunned, but the so-called MP3 Community could end up forcing change upon the industry. Andy Oldfield reports.
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The Independent Culture
It's a typical wired teenager's bedroom. Stacks of video games, magazines, CD-Roms, music CDs, a stereo system and, in pride of place, right next to the inexpensive phone line provided by a local cable company, is a muscular PC with hefty speakers and an industrial-strength sub-woofer unit.

Mark likes computer games and surfing the Net. He likes music, too. But if you browse the collection of music CDs scattered around his room and ask him to play you one of his favourite tracks, he is likely to ignore his stereo system, fire up the PC and double-click on an Mpeg-1 Layer 3 compression (MP3) file instead.

Mark is an example of the record companies' latest and worst nightmare. He's not an isolated example, either. Once, record company executives and lawyers gnashed their teeth as people made home tape recordings of albums and swapped them with their friends. Now, there's a hi-tech twist and a new generation are turning their CD tracks into high-quality MP3 computer sound files and swapping them, either among friends on Zip disks and newly burnt CDs, or among friends and strangers via newsgroups and FTP over the Internet.

Record companies such as Geffen in the US have been launching an offensive against the MP3 pirates. In the past few weeks they have been targeting over 100 Web sites and a couple of weeks ago succeeded in getting network administrators to shut down many pirate sites.

It's probably a never-ending task. A cursory look at Usenet shows there are more than 750 newsgroups devoted to music. Dip into them at random and a high percentage of the postings are along the lines of who has what MP3 files to swap, or where the hottest and latest MP3 sites are. Out on the Web, there is a burgeoning community of sites taking their lead from pages set up by students in America where hundreds of MP3s are up for grabs.

The phenomenon is huge, and with the technology at the heart of it being simple, it's not going to fade away. The old-tech method of copying an often ropy vinyl album on to a cassette tape via a music centre that had seen better days resulted more often than not in appalling recordings - amplifier hum, wow and flutter, crackles and hisses. But if you take a digital source, such as a CD, and make a digital copy of it you get a perfect copy. For the criminally enterprising it's easy enough to burn a new CD or several and sell them. You don't have to be a sound engineer or have access to exotic equipment, either. A decent Pentium-based multimedia PC does just fine. If its specifications are good enough for playing games, they will be more than adequate for a spot of digital piracy.

Although Mark is a proficient computer user, he's not a programmer or a techie geek. That doesn't stop him making MP3s with no difficulty at all. All the software he uses to grab, encode and play back the files is shareware that can be downloaded from MP3 sites. Loading WinBac software on to his PC, he puts a music CD into his CD-Rom drive, selects a track and hits the onscreen record button. The WAV file produced as the track is "ripped" is big, nearly 45Mb. But compressing it and encoding it as an MP3, with another shareware package called MPGEncoder, brings it down to about 4Mb. You can fit 23 or 24 of those on to a Zip disk. Or download it over the Web in about 20 minutes, which at evening and weekend rates is not expensive.

Mark is often online for 10 or more hours at a stretch over the weekend anyway, so he just downloads new files in the background while he gets on with Web surfing or e-mailing. How does it sound? I couldn't tell the difference between the copy and the original CD track, as played through Mark's PC.

Unsurprisingly, the record companies are taking action against the MP3 pirates. Bad enough that they might be losing individual sales now, but they are also worried about controlling an emerging distribution network and future profits. Jim Griffen, the director of entertainment technology at Geffen, went on record last year in Forbes magazine, saying: "The reason we go after pirates is to clean up the Internet for commerce, otherwise anarchy reigns."

In the letter sent to FTP site owners, Geffen said: "Geffen, together with the rest of the recording industry, intends to stop those who take the work of our artists and redistribute it without permission. Universities and Internet Service Providers everywhere share our desire to ensure respect for intellectual property rights, and we will work closely with them, along with law enforcement authorities where necessary, to achieve respect for our artists' rights.

"Please don't assume we are ignorant to the possibilities of digital audio - we have the same profit motive we've always had, and we want exposure for our artists and can imagine as well as you can the possibilities for selling and marketing music online."

The possibilities are extremely lucrative. Revenue from sales of recorded music online is set to increase from $25m in 1996 to $1.3bn in 2000 and an increasing proportion of that revenue will be from the sale of music for download, rather than Web-based mail order.

Money is definitely part of the problem. Echoing the justifications of a previous generation of illicit copiers of music, Mark defends his posting and downloading of MP3s: "CDs are too expensive - especially singles."

It is a sentiment echoed by the MP3 community in the US. Community is the operative word, although virtual and geographically diverse, it is well-defined and coherent both in its perception of itself and of how it sees the recording industry. Many put the blame at the door of the music business for greed and overpricing of products. Michael Robertson, president of the MP3.com site, told Wired: "It's ridiculous to spend $16 on a CD if all you want is one song. The music industry is making a bucketful of money."

One of the things the MP3 community argues strongly for is the flexibility and versatility of MP3 files. It is a medium that gives them, rather than a music corporation or even an artist, power over how they experience music. It gives them the freedom to use their computer and the Internet to manage their music collection. Not only because it allows them to burn unique compilation CDs, and share their music with friends, but also because it frees them from the one-hour limit of the CD - as hard drives get larger, hours of music can be stored.

Importantly, they say the medium offers the potential for independent artists to get known whether or not they have the backing of the big record labels. Some even claim that they are trailblazing the technology and doing what the industry itself ought to be doing more of - advertising and promoting music.

The record companies say their contracts with artists make them take the stance they do. The MP3 community says the record companies are disingenuous, callous, indifferent to the music and interested only in the bottom line. In the eyes of the MP3 community, Geffen's policy towards them only reinforces those views.

Not that they are not taking it lying down. "Blex", who ran one of the sites targeted by Geffen, has closed down his site (http://www.cybrzn.com/blex/mp3/) to protect others in the community. "Geffen threatened all the site ops of the MP3 sites to shut down their sites because of copyright violations," he said. "If they refused, they would get the big bad FBI involved; obviously shutting down the site sounds logical."

For fellow devotees of MP3 who would like to take up the issue direct with Geffen, he has left Jim Griffin's e-mail address as well as links to a campaign to boycott Geffen records. Geffen has said it will continue its policy of persuading MP3 sites to cease illegal activities.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is taking a harder line and has sued FTP site owners and been awarded damages of up to $1m against individual pirates, although so far it has said it will not collect them as long as the pirates refrain from infringing copyright. The association claims to have shut down 250 pirates last year.

The MP3 community's response, meanwhile, is to close ranks. On the one hand it is engaging the industry in argument through Web sites such as MP3.com (http://www.mp3.com/), and on the other it is becoming more covert - instead of static FTP sites, the sites will start to move, overseas servers will be used more and those who want to use them will find out where they are via Internet Relay Chat or combinations of anonymous e- mail accounts and Internet messaging systems such as ICQ that allow quick and easy direct file transfer.

"Record companies will never get rid of us," says Mark. "They've not done that well when the sites have been easy to find. With ICQ and stuff, they'll get left behind, there's too many people who are into the music and the Net."

That might be an over-optimistic appraisal, but it's an attitude that means the record companies will have to put more time and effort into trying to keep pace with the pirates.

It's as if the Sixties were being rerun with the music business standing once more accused of hijacking music that served as a focus for a community and repackaging it for consumerism. In the past, that led to the creation of new independent record labels which more or less followed the corporate model on a smaller scale. Now the technology is being used that enables the disaffected to bypass the record companies altogether. Artists can sell their music in the form of MP3, or something similar, direct to fans via digital cash. Who needs a record label when you've got a Web site?

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