The new sound-sphere is global. It ripples at great speed across languages, ideologies, frontiers and races. The economics of this musical esperanto is staggering. Rock and pop breed concentric worlds of fashion, setting and life-style. Popular music has brought with it sociologies of private and public manner, of group solidarity. The politics of Eden come loud.
George Steiner

Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.
Noël Coward

Entropy Gradient
We wrote this in late '97 for Forbes -- don't laugh, it could happen. However, it was never published, and it was our own damn fault. We assumed the magazine had never done anything on this theme. Wrong! The piece they'd already run was pretty good, too. That'll teach us.

This may be a trifle dated, but MP3 is again getting hotter'n a two-dollar pistol, and hell, we couldn't sell this article anyway, so -- on the basic "Mikey'll Eat Anything" theory -- we're fobbing it off on you. To check out some more recent happenings in this arena, you might want to scan a couple of the following sites:

But that's just news. Now on with the rant...
The Comedy of the Commons:
The Future (if any) of Intellectual Property

Jimmy just turned 14. He can't wait for the new Metallica album to hit the stands. Jimmy has a new CD-R, a device that is to waycool commercial music what the Xerox machine was to boring paper documents. His software warns him that the songs he is about to copy to that spanking new recordable compact disc are protected by law and that he needs to get permission before replicating them for the 28 kids waiting to see just how well his new gear works.

Oh, but did we mention? Jimmy can't read.

In the past decade, the equipment needed to record CDs has fallen precipitously from $100,000-plus cabinets the size of a washing machine down to street level prices below $300 for units that fit comfortably in the hand. Thanks to the miracle of software, some devices for replicating CD-quality audio have no physical dimensions whatsoever, unless you count the footprint of the already near-ubiquitous multimedia computer.

Last year, an article explaining "MP3" technology on C|NET's evidently precipitated a barrage of response, not all of it wholly enthusiastic. MP3 is the affectionate Internet shorthand for the far more formidable "Motion Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer 3" -- for our purposes, a method of compressing audio files to a tenth their native size with little perceived loss to the human ear. Why would this be controversial? Just think of it as enabling commercial music "to go." The net is already chockablock with illicit MP3 audio files, pirated hits ready to be snatched up by avid fans to whom the concept of copyright is nothing more than an annoyance. Some uses of MP3 are legitimate, of course -- in much the same way that marijuana can be prescribed to treat glaucoma.

Because nature abhors a vacuum, there's plenty of MP3 playback software on the net as well. Many of these packages are homebrewed, though as the popularity of the form has risen, commercial producers have launched newer and slicker offerings. Take your pick from dozens of players that'll blast that MP3 back through your speakers at satisfyingly window-rattling volume. Can you tell the difference from the original cut? If so, you've got one hell of a set of ears. Brandenberg II? Maybe. Nine Inch Nails? No way, dude.

In a follow-up piece (which used to be at this URL, but has since mysteriously disappeared), the same C|NET writer attempted to calm these turbulent waters, first rhetorically extracting a promise that readers would not abuse MP3 to illegally repackage copyrighted music -- then explaining where to get the necessary "rippers" to do just that. A ripper, as the name implies, is a little shareware app for ripping (off) tracks from a commercial audio CD. Once ripped, a song can be easily compressed to MP3 and uploaded to a website. Hey kids, collect the whole set! Trade em with your pals!

Would you like fries with that?

Despite the rampant predilection to blame the Internet for everything unwholesome in today's society, the web is hardly the whole story here. Offline, things get even worse.

Remember Jimmy? Yeah, well he's not even on the net -- yet. More than likely the software he's using is a little number from Adaptec called Easy CD Creator. While the "Deluxe Edition" costs $99, Adaptec has brought off a marketing coup by bundling a "lite" version with nearly every CD-R being sold today -- and lots are being sold. These CD recorders enable storing 650 megabytes of data on media selling for around $2 per disc. You can back up all your files for cheap. You can also copy your entire music collection -- or anyone else's for that matter. Sony Electronics will even sell you the CD-R you can use to rip off Sony Music. Are we talking convergence here or what?

Jimmy slots a Nirvana disc into the CD-ROM drive that came with his multimedia Christmas present. Then he clicks the icon that brings up Easy CD Creator. It lists out the tracks on the commercial disc and asks in which order he wants to "burn" them to a fresh CD. True, a dialog box pops up a dire warning:

This product or software may be used to assist you in reproducing material in which you own the copyright or have obtained permission to copy from the copyright owner. Unless you own the copyright or have permission to copy from the copyright owner, you may be violating copyright law and be subject to payment of damages and other remedies. If you are uncertain about your rights you should contact your legal advisor.

Now as we said, Jimmy don't read so good, but his pal Stinky is pretty sharp in this department and suspects that the aforementioned "remedies" are not really something he and Jim are going to want to avail themselves of. Grabbing the mouse from Jimbo, he clicks the check-box next to where it says "Don't show this again." Not only is this software easy, it's User Friendly!

It also includes a ripper -- though Adaptec doesn't call it that. Converting recorded tracks into standard WAV files is a necessary step in the process of recording a new audio CD, so naturally CD Creator lets you do that. And thanks to Netshow -- a freebie from Microsoft -- a halfway decent MPEG Layer III encoder can be used to turn these wav files into MP3s ready for uploading to a website. It takes a few tricks and tweaks and the quality is lower than CD audio, but once Jimmy and Stinky get online -- sometime next week -- they'll find no lack of advice and tools to produce stuff that sounds every bit as good as the $16 CDs being kicked out by the major labels.

Game Over

As you might imagine, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the American Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers (ASCAP), and Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) are all pretty excited about these developments -- much in the way a fish gets excited when it hits into a treble-hook lure. They're putting up a great fight. For a fairly broad swath of congenitally anarchic websters, watching these powerful industry moguls jump and thrash is becoming a popular indoor sport.

In October 1997, BMI announced it had developed a "MusicBot" to sniff out copyrighted tunes illegally mounted on the web -- though any mention of this was hard to find on BMI's web site just a few months later. Could this widely heralded initiative have become a source of red-faced embarrassment overnight? Yeah it could.

It's often said that the Internet routes around obstacles. One of these obstacles is censorship, and you saw what happened there. The new candidate is copyright. Call it dirty names like theft and piracy, breaking the restrictions set up by intellectual property laws is often perceived as a worthy challenge by a certain class of diehard netheads. Is it ethically repugnant, morally wrong? While such issues are debated in law school think tanks and high-ticket industry conferences, some MP3 web commandos are inviting FTP listings from temporary sites and warning that they might not be available eight hours hence. Talk about planned obsolescence. News of these rapidly self-destructing net addresses passes by email and usenet postings through a floating world of astoundingly adept teen hackers outsmarting BMI's MusicBot just for the hell of it. Some have even stashed music "warez" inside large corporate websites, which then unwittingly serve them up to the laughing masses. Right now it's pretty much just a game. If it ever gets serious -- and it will -- count on kids with more time than money to bring far greater collective energy to bear on winning. Sorry guys, game over.

Meet the New Boss... Same as the Old Boss

What you will find on BMI's web site is information about legally licensing rights to digital music. It's simple. You just agree to pay a minimum fee of $500 out front, then provide auditable statistics on how many times your pages have been accessed and how many music files each page contains. Then you use the handy tables they provide to calculate how much you owe to BMI, and submit your quarterly payments. No harder, really, than filling out an IRS long form. And certain to be just as popular.

The BMI site also includes a set of Frequently Asked Questions about web-based music and copyright. This brilliantly quixotic how-to manual for would-be windmill jousters answers the question "Why do I need a license for my web site?" in the following way:

Musical compositions, like other intellectual property, belong to their copyright owners. A BMI license enables your web site to publicly perform musical works which are contained in BMI's catalogue, and to access the most performed musical repertoire in the world. A BMI license is an economical and efficient way to gain access to the public performing rights for more than 3 million musical works.
Forget for a moment that the five-finger discount enabled by MP3 is far more "economical and efficient," a much more interesting issue is entailed in that language about "most performed." BMI and its comrades-in-arms, ASCAP and RIAA, evolved and flourished in the context of a mass-market industry that many would argue has ill-served the very artists it purports to protect. The Top-40 phenomenon is just one symptom of such mass marketing, the Golden Rule of which is -- whether in the music biz or the automotive industry -- to move the highest possible number of widgets at the lowest possible unit production cost. What this translates to in the music scene is a handful of platinum hits getting nearly all the marketing juice. Signed acts that don't pay off quickly are just as quickly consigned to the dustbin of history. For proof, just flip on your radio.

Once upon a time, artists needed professional studios to produce their work, and only a recording company could pay the freight. No more. Today, thanks to the ever falling price of ever more capable technology, a band can cut a high quality demo in a basement studio for a few thousand bucks -- cheaper than some pieces of equipment. Bands also used to need a record company to distribute their stuff and collect royalties. Now, with distribution increasingly usurped by network pirates, such royalties are at serious risk. The self-appointed industry watchdogs claim to champion artists who are thus getting ripped off. But these are the largely unloved middlemen crying foul. What is most at risk is their traditional take, a protection-racket legacy from an era that is fading fast. If artists can now cut and distribute their own material, who needs these avaricious intermediaries?

Books such as Hit Men: Power Brokers & Fast Money Inside the Music Business and The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce have chronicled the abuses of an industry that has focused so much on money that the art became an afterthought. Big deal, you say. All industries are about making money. But there's always been a critical delta between buying a song and buying, say, a pair of shoes. While these transactions are treated as equal by hucksters in both businesses, they're not the same.

Into the Dreamtime

Music fans often form a relationship with artists that verges on the spiritual. Music has always had this quality to begin with. As much as it may be news to some, popular music often mediates genuine values in a commercial culture focused on anything but. Fans don't want to steal bread from the mouths of struggling artists. But many of the artists that reach "publication" are already industries unto themselves, not starving in garrets. And the rest see only a pittance from the revenues collected in their names. Not to mention the lion's share of musicians who never make it into the system -- not because they suck, but because they don't have mass-market potential. BMI, ASCAP and RIAA speak loudly in defense of artists, but the legislative and legal ramifications of digital copyright constitute a tangled thicket that has mostly benefited the industry itself and a growing cadre of lawyers specializing in intellectual property litigation. While much pop music is valued as street poetry -- and rightfully so -- no love is lost on the crew that peddles it.

Not too long back, John Perry Barlow, erstwhile lyricist for the Grateful Dead, penned a manifesto titled Let Our Music Go. Speaking of draconian industry attempts to restrict free musical expression, he says:

"...the economic threat to artists may be less important than the intellectual threat they present to the audience, and indeed, to the great collaboration that is civilization itself. In an economy where the principal article of commerce looks so much like speech as to be indistinguishable from it, those who have become accustomed to owning that article, rather than being its source, will attempt to make it scarce and thereby suppress it."

As available bandwidth increases, music will continue going online at a rapid clip. The legal stuff already there is mostly being merchandised in the same old way, with the net serving merely as a convenient pipeline to consumers. Whatever cultural trappings are brought to bear on the marketing of these "products," most are nothing more than cynical intimations of cybercool, a faux new-media mockery of the living bond between audience and artist that has somehow managed to survive against all odds in the best pop music.

We need something like sacred money -- a new means of exchange to support artists creating such strange and wonderful artifacts. They are not products, and neither are we consumers when we jack into the consensual hallucination that was the aboriginal cyberspace. In the Neolithic mindscape long before the pipes and wires of the Internet were even remotely imagined, music connected the people's heart as nothing else has since. Stranded in these last culturally wasted days of the millenium, some of us are hearing those strains coming from the border regions once again.

If you can hear them too, as they used to say on the Mickey Mouse Club: "This is dedicated to you -- the leaders of the 21st Century!" Rock on, Jimmy.

I know
it's only rock and roll
but I like it

Rolling Stones

Entropy Gradient Reversals
All Noise - All the Time


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