by Mark Teppo


I got an MP3 player recently as part of a promotion for doing business with Emusic. They sell albums and singles from labels whose material they have licensed. Emusic turns everything into MP3s and makes them available for immediate download, provided you've got no qualms about sending them a credit card number. A lot of the music is from labels that are defunct or have miniscule distribution or are from albums that are no longer in print. It's a great little service and, to help facilitate your conversion to a MP3-centric world, they've got a couple of ways for you to take home a portable player as well.

As you may remember, last year when we first touched upon the phenomenon of MP3 technology [click here to read the article. --ed.], Diamond was about to release their first portable MP3 player and were getting their butts chomped by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) for providing an easy and affordable manner by which Internet users could traffic in illegally garnered music. The RIAA's argument (which persists in slightly altered form to this day) is that the MP3 medium is one that is not providing an overhead--a security assurance--for payment of royalties to the artists for the transmission of their songs. There are agreements to ensure payment--however minute--makes its way to the artist from radio, television, jukebox or other forms of public airplay; there is a tax on blank media sold in the stores that is meant to cover the loss of revenue to artists from people who make illegal recordings of music for their friends. To date, there is no such policy or law in place covering MP3s and the transfer of copyrighted music across the Internet. And what's making the RIAA more and more pissed is that they don't seem to be making any headway in getting such protection in place.

[ riaa - are the wrong in suing mp3.com? ]

This is a good year to be graduating from law school with a degree in electronic and copyright law. There are more lawsuits being flung back and forth on the subject of digital music transfer over the Internet right now than excuses you'll get out of a teenager when you catch him using your credit card to download porn. The RIAA is suing MP3.com. They're also suing Napster.com. MP3.com is countersuing the RIAA. You can go to the MP3 news section at Wired Online and randomly click on any part of the screen and the odds are in your favor that you've just pulled up an article detailing a recently enjoined lawsuit. It's a brave new worlds, kids, and everyone is ready to fuck over their buddy for a piece of the digital turf. And you know who is going to lose? That would be the artists. Plus e change...

I'm not going to argue that the MP3 technology is a bad thing. My music collection has been bettered because of it. My bank account is more solvent because I haven't been forced to outbid some schmo with even less sense than I for that copy of Curve's "Superblaster" single--all for that one damn song I don't have. I've got back catalog from the FAX label that is otherwise ridiculously priced if I want a real CD and wasn't happy with settling for a lower sound quality version from Emusic. I've got a remix CD from the last Golden Palominos release that was only available online. The digital delivery of music is the future and if we're not careful, we're going to get slapped around like the little spineless bitches we are every time we pony up $17.95 for a CD from Tower.

(Historical aside: Nearly a decade ago, Tower Records muscled the major labels into an agreement where they--the labels--would sell their product directly to Tower and no longer require Tower to buy the merchandise from the huge distributors like Valley Distributions. The labels rolled over and Tower cut out one stop that the music has to make to get from the pressing plant to you. What did that mean to them? They were getting the CDs at a lower cost. And, with the advancement of pressing technology, the basic cost per disc has been dropping as well. Do we see any of this? No. I'd be surprised if you can find any place that is selling their CDs at a higher price point than Tower. Well, you'll have to go all the way to France and they've got an excuse--it's called a "luxury tax." Tower's excuse? We've been dumb enough to allow them to raise the prices. Yet another reason to spend money at your local independent record store. [hear, hear! --ed.])

[ mp3.com - are they right in allowing music to be transfered to easily? ]

This huge scramble is going on because the world is going to be wired before any agreement is reached as to whether 2000 or 2001 is the start of the new millennium...and he who controls the spice controls the galaxy. I've got two words for you: Amazon and Microsoft. Neither is really interested in selling you something that will make your life better or enriched. They're just interested in getting you tied to them now so that when the wiring is complete, you've got a new parasitic attachment that is controlling and flourishing off every mouse click and web page transaction you make. The schizophrenic Internet Trinity of your online avatar will be your tiny voice trying to make itself heard over the numbingly code-bloated voice of your OS Papa Bill and the shrill "consume or die" worm-tonguing of your check-writin' Mama Jeff.

In InternetMusicLand, everyone is scrambling for control of the format by which digital media is going to be transmitted to your desktop. And if not control, then the best damn portal through which you have to travel to get this music. Because even though the RIAA is getting stomped on such a regular basis at the courthouse that their lawyers are travelling with knee braces and shoulder pads, they are going to prevail. Sooner or later, they'll land on an argument that will have some relevance and level of acceptability to all parties and the litigation landscape will be wiped clean. From that point on, it's all just a matter of who positioned themselves correctly.

The current front runners are MP3.com and Napster. Microsoft would love to have the de facto stranglehold on the music business but, as always, they're about six months behind. (Which doesn't mean they can't catch up--Netscape learned that lesson the hard way.) But for the first generation of music control, Microsoft is effectively out of the picture as they struggle to sidestep the federal government's Sword of Damocles which is being lifted over their heads. MP3.com is trying to be your friend--acting as your surrogate jukebox--but they're coming across too much like a Hoover salesman who can't quite figure out why you're not teeming with excitement over his fantastic new model. Napster, on the other hand, is your friend--your pot-smokin', illegal ID, only a matter of time before he gets popped kind of friend. He's great to hang out with and has got some really great shit but that last time when he picked up a couple of six packs with the roach still hanging out of the corner of his mouth and the K-9 unit having just pulled into the parking lot of the 7-11? Yeah, it's not a bad idea to start being a little more circumspect about taking his calls.

[ napster - are they just plain wrong? ]

MP3.com has released a little piece of software called Beam-it, whereby they can tap your CD drive, check the CD that is in there and, if they have it in their service, make it instantly available for you to listen at any computer. The idea here is that you log in to their website at home, pop a couple of CDs in the drive, and then when you go to work and log back into my.mp3.com, those CDs will be available for your instant listening pleasure. And not just there, but anywhere you can find an Internet connection.

And you know what? It really is a benefit to society that when I'm trapped in gridlock I can pick up my Sprint PCS phone, dial in to the Internet, log on to my.mp3.com, and immediately listen to Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time" over that tiny speaker in my phone. It will be the soothing panacea that I need to prevent road rage from overwhelming me while I wait for yet another Washington driver to consider for fifty seconds that the two car lengths I've allowed in front of me really are for his dumb ass to merge into. (No, really, it's a trap. I'm going to wait until you're halfway across the line and then I'm going to speed up, honk my horn loudly, flip you the bird, and force you back into your lane. At least, that's what the subliminal messages buried in the latest Korn album are telling me to do.)

Come on, is anyone buying this? MP3.com is so concerned about us being "tethered" to our own machines that they want to release us from those plastic and iron prisons and deliver unto us our music collection at any Internet point that we so desire. Has anyone bothered to point out to them that there is a reason that people chunk down a couple grand for speakers? It's because they want to hear the music. F-I-D-E-L-I-T-Y. As in high. As in if I wanted to hear the equivalent of a 96kbps transmission over a 1/4" speaker, I'd pantomime to the guy in the car next to me to crank his stereo up to 11. Then I can hear his radio through his windows and mine, because he's obviously getting a better signal from the local Viacom-controlled radio station than I am.

[ britney spears - just plain wrong ]

There's a reason I buy CDs. Many reasons actually, but the important one here is CD-quality music. I want to hear the music. I don't want to have to worry about whether or not the aluminum foil rabbit ears I built for my Palm Pilot are turned the right way to get the satellite signal bouncing off the Bank of America tower; or if the sunspots today are going to cause my ISP to drop off the face of the earth; or if a Denial of Services flood on the West Coast is causing so much net congestion that I'm getting throughput of about 0.1kbps; or that the speaker on which I am hearing my CD is actually a mono device rated to only cover about a quarter of the frequency range.

We won't even bother mentioning that the convergent set of my CD collection and MP3.com's recent acquisition of 40,000 CDs to create the largest online library of music is about fourteen percent. Yeah, you'll get real familiar with that "we can't find the CD you're talking about" message if you've got anything that wasn't purchased through a major US distributor like, say, Tower. Kind of ironic, isn't it? We, those elitist bastards who have actually gotten online, are expected to have the musical taste of the lowest common denominator.

The underlying point of this Beam-it technology isn't to release you from your PC tether, but to actually tether you to their service. They want you to be free, but on their terms. And--even then--only if you like the same music that they deem popular enough to add to their library. And they're running an earnest email campaign to get you to "sign up your buddies." They're not interested in getting you to use their service, they want your presence, your little binary footprint in their database so that they can use this huge blot of data to squish the RIAA. See? This can't be illegal. Look how many people are using it. And, even if it is illegal, how are you going to actually prosecute all of these people? Your laws are nothing. I fart in your general direction...

Trust me. The fact that this service may actually be beneficial to you is a happy accident. They are getting so much more from this transaction than you are. It's like (omigosh!) paying $18 for a CD that cost the retailer about a third of that.

The RIAA has got its feathers all ruffled over the whole issue of performance rights that they are seeing in the Beam-it software and in MP3.com's Instant Listening service. And frankly, they've got no real case. They're still living in the 20th century and haven't understood a basic principle of 21st century digital living: proximity to your purchase has no bearing. Asking MP3.com to play back a CD from your collection on your office computer (or whatever Internet-ready device you've got gripped in your sweaty little paw) is not a public performance of that music. It is you listening to your music. If the RIAA is going to get fussy about the possibility of other people hearing your "performance" through this service, then they might as well start cruising the fraternity rows at college campuses on a Friday night and start extorting performance fees from any yaboo who left his window open while he's playing Metallica on his personal boombox.

[ metallica - they ain't so wrong ]

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