Earpollution's lovely Sabrina Wade was recently married to her fiancÚ, Jason. Although Sabrina has a penchant for loud, gritty, and just plain all around messed-up-in-a-pleasing-sort-of-way music, we know that doesn't hide what a sweetheart she really is. From all of us here at eP, big congratulations, and best wishes for the both of you!
In the March issue of Earpollution, Mark Teppo introduced us to the first installment of the 60 Minute Soundtrack: "The Hour of Monsters." Earpollution wants to know the music and sounds that drive the hours of your day, so check out the article and email your 60 Minute Soundtrack to: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be publishing reader's soundtracks in an upcoming issue.
As Earpollution's April cover takes us deep underwater, inside this month's Profiles, Mark Teppo pulls us back out and launches us into orbit with Laika--music for the next millennium. And if one Profiles, feature weren't enough, eP Editor Craig Young catches up with former Fudge Tunnel frontman Alex Newport to find out what it takes to be an engineer, why antagonizing your audience can be fun, and why Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie deserve to be locked up in a ring together. Cool By Proxy finds Earpollution's Man on the Beat, Cecil Beatty-Yasutake, shining an investigative light into the dark, cobweb filled corners of Seattle's Hip Hop/R&B club scene. Elsewhere: the Earpollution staff drunk and giddy at Love and Rockets; "Committed To Excellence" with Fugazi in Olympia; 7 inches each from the Backyard Babies and The Hellacopters; one year inside the aural world of Coil; plus much, much more for you to run out and blow your lunch money on!
If you haven't heard this word buzzing incessantly around your head over the past few months, filling your ears and overflowing the magazine racks with article after article, you obviously have no pulse and are most likely dead. This latest little gem of Internet technology has become the crack cocaine of the online music world. You can't search for music on the Net without tripping over a half-dozen MP3 sites offering up the goods you're after. Anyone with the most meager computer and Internet resources can put songs online in the MP3 format and watch their site take on thousands of hits as rabid fans line up to download the latest songs by their favorite artists. In a two-part essay, Earpollution looks under the MP3 hood to take a closer inspection of the technology driving this craze, and then crawls climbs back atop the roof to take a look at the politics fueling this technology.
I have found a use for the eight gigabyte hard drive: MP3. MP3 is an audio format that encodes music, whether digital--off a CD--or otherwise, say a TV broadcast. It was developed by the movie industry, officially known as "MPEG I, layer III." The original intent was to provide a compressible audio format for multichannel audio to fit where a single stereo track would fit before. This encoding, more precisely known as lossy compression, is exactly that--lossy. You lose sound detail during encoding.
This encoding is about 10:1, meaning that a single minute of CD-stereo sound, roughly ten megabytes of data, is compressed into about a megabyte of MP3-stereo sound.
For the radical compression to work, certain frequencies of sound, in particular high frequencies, are not encoded faithfully. Simply, some audio and some definition is lost. MP3s are not clones of the master recording, and this is obvious listening to a sound file on anything better than computer speakers.
In this article, I simply want to describe the technology, the software and the MP3 files available. I will not weigh in on the legal or moral implications of pirating music over the Internet. That is another, more contemplative article. With that in mind, I don't want to articulate any position that condones the distribution of MP3s--I don't. Nor am I unaware that music is owned by the copyright owner--it is. I will only describe how to get the players and what my impressions are of the growing MP3 collectors' resources available.
MP3s require a player to be installed on your computer. There are a number of different decoders available, all with some merit, but the best software available right now is from Winamp. Winamp gives you a good, slightly cramped interface that's easy to navigate around with a pointer. It's laid out very much like a normal stereo with a CD player, including a graphic EQ and preamp. Most important though is the playlist editor. It gives the user a way of loading the files that Winamp will play back, in any order, from any directory. You can also save a list of favorite mixes, which Winamp will load. Handy. Winamp also has a few other features that enhance operability. On their website, there is a whole group of links devoted to Plugins and Skins. Plugins, like their browser applet counterparts, extend the ability of Winamp to other uses. Many of them are visually oriented, giving you a sound-synced screensaver for instance. Others let the user alter playback--using effects, such as flanging or reverb. Another particularly cool one mixes tracks into another during playback. Yet another lets the world know what you're listening to on Internet Relay Chat or ICQ, a popular messaging service.
Skins are home-authored interface bitmaps that "fit" over the stock Winamp user interface. They are a coat of paint, but rather than simply selecting a color, they typically are a photo or picture, but with varying degrees of integration into the base display. Most are pretty basic, some tasteless, but a few are labors of love, rivaling commercially released products. What's astounding about these two groups is that home users design them. Someone has developed these things for their use and decided to make available, free to anyone who wishes, their expression. The degree of success and desirability in this distribution is questionable in some cases, but it is indicative of the whole MP3 culture: free, completely available for the cost of your Internet connection.
MP3s are collected over the internet by two main avenues: via the web or by FTP client. We are familiar with the web, which uses an anonymous protocol for transferring data from client to server, but FTP, File Transfer Protocol for short, allows the home user to be a server, too. This is great for swapping files, with some shareware programs such as Cute FTP and Bulletproof FTP approaching web-browser-level simplicity. Both of these programs also automate a key feature of FTP MP3 swapping: ratios. A ratio site makes the home client swap a file to get a file. This ratio can vary from 1 file given to one file received to as much as one file for ten (Bulletproof FTP automates this procedure once the home user queues files for uploading.)
How do you find these FTP sites? Mostly, by using specific search engines. Some search engines will list these sites, but due to the mercurial nature of the Internet and the illegality of pirated music, rarely do a good job. Sites that do keep up on the newest FTP sites and their contents are Audio Galaxy, MP3.box and Lycos' FAST MP3. There, you'll find pretty comprehensive search engines keyed to both an artist and the song title.
The web's MP3 resources are comprehensive but don't compare to the FTP domains. I perceive this to be both for legal reasons and for collecting reasons. For most MP3 devotees, getting sizable collections of music on a hard drive is the goal. Finding your favorites, discovering new tastes or indulging a guilty pleasure is so easy that your hard drive space will fill up before your curiosity will run out. This is undoubtedly the reason FTP sites are the natural extension of your collection: it allows you to share your musical tastes and get some music back for your own. If your taste is diverse, you'll definitely find interesting work on the Internet, but not to the degree you'd find it in an online record store. The talent to get MP3s sometimes does not complement an equally advanced aesthetic--there's plenty of bad music, some good, a few gems. Certainly, longer works of music are difficult to find, owing to longer download times, and the risks of a broken connection erasing your time spent. Very little classical music or longer jazz pieces are on the internet, and country, folk and blues aren't as easy to find as, say, the latest pop or Hip-Hop recordings. Of course, what's one person's Guernica is another person's anathema. Whatever it is, it's usually available, for free.
On Wednesday, March 24th, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industries (IFPI) filed a criminal complaint against Lycos and their FAST MP3 search engine. It is the contention of the IFPI that the FAST search engine is not so much a forwarding station for finding MP3 music (illegal and otherwise) on the Internet, but rather, because of the way it interfaces with the sites, it is an active participant in copyright infringement. According to the IFPI, the delineation between Lycos and the MP3 sites it searches is so imperceptible that, "The result is the same. You do not even feel or see that you are transmitted to another site." RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America), is waiting to see how this all turns out before weighing in against Lycos, and potentially, any other MP3 search engine currently online.
Long accused of dragging it's feet on the issue, the Corporate Monsters of Music have finally come out swinging in an attempt to put MP3 technology in check. It's not their intent to stop the spread of MP3 files, but rather--according to them--it is a concerted effort to control and protect the copyrights of the music. Protecting the ownership of the music is an honorable reason, but the fact of the matter is that the IFPI, RIAA, and other affiliated music conglomerates are losing billions of dollars in potential profits each year because of illegal MP3 proliferation. A lost revenue of five billion dollars last year, according to them, and the real reason behind this latest action. It's that profit loss that will see them using all means possible to control MP3, MP4, and any and all related technology.
To this end, many companies are looking at developing and incorporating encryption technology that controls who, where, and how Internet sound files are downloaded. RIAA has announced the Secure Digital Music Initative, a well funded and executed effort to bring together recording and technological players in an attempt to provide quality digital music and to protect artists' copyrights; Microsoft and Liquid Audio are both working independently on an encryption standard; and recently Sony, Warner, BMG, EMI and Universal announced an exclusive Internet label partnership to distribute music online. All of these methods would require restrictive means to both download and play back sound files.
Is this wrong? Are we shaking our fists at the Corporate Monsters of Music because they're trying to control something that would be best be left alone? Who, then, should have control? As was evidenced by the recent MP3 conference in Manhattan last month, there are many independent artists, labels, and distributors scrambling to find a means of spreading their music without having to bow down to the Powers That Be. MP3 and related technology is the rock in David's sling, poised to bring down Goliath. Keynote speaker Chuck D of Public Enemy put it best: "Digital distribution levels the playing field."
Both MP3 and the Internet offer a lucrative means for artists and smaller labels to circumvent the majors. It affords them a higher percentage of sales (which they rightfully deserve), and more importantly it allows the musician to maintain the rights to their music. Public Enemy, Throwing Muses' Kristen Hersch, and Frank Black are but three of the many artists reaping and keeping the benefit of MP3 use. Fire Ants' guitarist Dave Hermann: "We've been doing what record companies have been doing for years: handing out free copies of singles [via MP3] to entice people to buy the records."
But what happens when someone with a little free time on their hands and some Internet know-how copies the latest Fire Ants' record and uploads it as a series of MP3 files, allowing anyone to lift it off his site for free? Five billion dollars of lost revenue, according to the big guys. And the loss to independents? Irrevocably more, obviously. They certainly are not in a position to be handing away free copies of albums to the tune of (on average) ten thousand a day per site.
Which brings us back to our original question: is the control of MP3 technology wrong? Is it merely a benefit to the Corporate Monsters and another way to fill their coffers at the expense of everyone else? Who is currently losing? Everyone besides the listener; on this matter the playing field is level. Developing a secure encryption method may very well mean that the independent player maintains control of their music, their art, their livelihood. The problem is in ensuring that it doesn't become the exclusive tool of the music business elite, and--lest we've forgotten--establishing control of these exclusive tools is one of the reasons behind IFPI's criminal complaint.
It would be very nice to see independents have a fair shake at implementing MP3 (and other technology) encryption methods to gain better leverage against the misappropriation of their hard work. However, it's not likely unless they can ante up with the big players. Unfair? Yes. Then again, with technology evolving and transforming at the speed of light, MP3s might be the 8-tracks of the year 2000, and it should be interesting to see the industry scratch their heads in befuddlement when they realize everyone has stopped using the technology they've just bought control of.