2000 / Music / Technology

Online Music: The Answers Are In

Examining The Future Of Music Delivery

Photo: Steven Key

Photo: Steven Key

First, let me thank everybody for taking the time to submit their questions about online music.

To answer your questions and my own, I posed them to Christopher Jones, the music and technology reporter for Wired.com. He’s covered the issues surrounding music, technology and the Internet for the past two years.

Although I would have preferred to set this up in a standard Q&A format (which would allow everybody who submitted a question to see their name in cyberspace), that didn’t seem feasible, given the complexity of the issues. So I’ve arranged this column into sections, each dealing with the overarching issues involved. I’ve provided some background when needed.

Also, for the sake of everyone’s eyes, more questions will be discussed and answered in next week’s column.

Audio Formats

If you want to type something on a computer, you need a word processing program. If you want to watch a video on a computer, you need a program like QuickTimeReal Video, and Windows Media.

As you can imagine, there are several formats out there that store music files and the players that play them.

The most prevalent audio formats on the Internet now are MP3, Liquid AudioMjuice, Windows Media and Real Audio. The most popular of these and the one that is grabbing all the headlines is MP3.

The two important aspects that these formats are trying to strike a balance between are sound quality and file size. If a music file is larger, it will probably have a higher sound quality. The downside is that if the file is large, it might take longer to download, it takes up more space on your computer and is just generally cumbersome. Of course, the smaller the file, the poorer sound you get.

(One important side note of this is to make the distinction between a music file that you must first save to your hard drive and one that is streaming — one you can play without downloading.)

Another aspect that separates these formats is the difference between what are called proprietary formats and non-proprietary formats. Jones explained this as the difference between a computer program that allows anyone to create tools in regard to it and one that has restrictions.

Think of it like the “Colonel’s secret recipe”: Some companies restrict or keep secret how their program works. Others have allowed everyone to see how it works and allowed any developer to create other programs that improve or complement that format. That means that there are sometimes several different players that play the same format.

Jones said he believes that it is MP3’s open standards, as well as MP3’s flexibility in encoding the music (you can make the file smaller or larger) and the ease with which it can be distributed, that make it so attractive to online music lovers

“It has gotten to the point where it’s a pretty solid little technology,” he said. “It sounds pretty good.”

Jones added that the media attention that MP3 has garnered has only raised its profile.

“MP3 was the one that got the early buzz, was open, and attracted a crowd, and that crowd kept getting bigger,” he said

As to the question which of these formats is best, Jones said the answer is pretty subjective.

“I don’t think there’s a heck of lot a difference between them,” he said.

MP3.com: Is This The Future?

When the Internet began to take off in the United States, it was presented as the realm of limitless information. The mantra: “You need never leave home.”

The growth of online businesses like Amazon.com has made it increasingly commonplace to order your CD on the ‘net and have it arrive in the mail a couple of days later.

This arrangement is agreeable to the major record companies because it is somewhat similar to how they do business with regular record stores.

But now you can download an entire album, store it and play it on your computer and never own the CD.

Experts argue that the ‘net would remove the need for having major record labels. Popular sites like MP3.com currently house MP3s for thousands of artists.

In addition to offering MP3s from unsigned artists, the site is starting to make inroads into offering music from record label artists.

As reported in last week’s column, MP3.com recently unveiled two new programs that would push the online music envelope even further. The first, called My.MP3.com or the Instant Listening Service, would allow customers to buy a CD online and have an MP3 copy of that album moved to an account which can be heard from any computer. The second program, called Beam-it, would allow customers to have an MP3 of an album transferred to their account after they insert that CD into their computer. In this instance, the music is not uploaded from the CD, but rather the disc is identified and the MP3 is taken from the MP3.com’s CD library.

These programs are now the center of a lawsuit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America against MP3.com, citing piracy. Both issues we’ll get to later.

But the question put to Mr. Jones: Is this a model for the future?

Jones said that although sites like MP3.com offer a new outlet to independent musicians, he doesn’t think it spells doom for the major labels.

On the contrary, Jones said that major labels will become even more critical. He said that with more artists vying for consumers’ attention and dollars, the marketing power of the majors will make them more vital for artists.

He added that it is because of the major label’s resources that sites like MP3.com will have trouble “breaking” an artist.

He said that in all likelihood, any artists gaining momentum will get an offer from a major.

“Somebody has to be there to weed through it and decide what’s good and what’s not,” Jones said.

The My.MP3.com suit: RIAA vs. MP3.com

This suit between the recording industry’s umbrella group and the leading MP3 site is garnering a great deal of publicity.

At the center of the dispute is MP3.com’s new services: Instant Listening Service and Beam-it. The RIAA’s suit maintains that the service doesn’t require proof of ownership of the music and effectively makes it easier to copy music. (What the law permits in terms of dubbing a blank tape from a CD or tape that is owned is already somewhat murky.)

According to a letter that MP3.com’s CEO, Michael Robertson, sent to RIAA president Hilary Rosen that was posted on MP3.com’s site, MP3.com claims that the suit is not strictly based on copyright concerns. Robertson writes that the RIAA’s actions and words are “the rhetoric of a monopolist.” They clearly believe that the suit was filed out of fear that MP3.com was, or will be, making inroads into their sales.

And maybe that is why MP3.com sued the RIAA earlier this week. Jones said that MP3.com’s suit, which accuses the RIAA of unfair business practices, defamation, trade libel, and interference with possible economic gains, contends that the RIAA has spoken negatively about MP3.com to business and financial partners.

As to how the RIAA’s suit will pan out, Jones said his sources lead him to believe that MP3.com will have trouble proving its case, based on the ownership question.

“You can make a copy of something you’ve bought, and whether or not that means you can have someone copy on your behalf — which is essentially what MP3.com was doing — [is the issue],” he said.

In next week’s column, we’ll discuss more questions with Wired.com’s Christopher Jones, including issues like music privacy, what other online music vendors are out there and some recommendations of interesting music Web sites.

For more info (because you just can’t wait):

Also From The Score …

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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