Previous Article WWWiz Home Next Article


MP3: Tiny Bytes Hard for Music Biz to Swallow

by Catherine Deely

If one were to ask which music industry controversy is most guaranteed to raise blood pressures and generate contentious headlines, the answer wouldn't have anything to do with rap star feuds, or even Marilyn Manson, for that matter. Instead, the hottest debate raging across the music world, sweeping corporate bigwigs and everyday listeners alike into its vortex, concerns something vaguely entitled "Motion Picture Experts Group, Audio File 3."

In spite of its weighty moniker, the MP3 is actually one of the tiniest entities in the digital domain. Loosely defined, the MP3 is a modern file format used to record sound data. So what, one might ask? Downloadable attractions such as Audio RealPlayer and Netscape's Audio Plugin have long provided surfers with the chance to play, record, and indefinitely keep virtually whatever clips they choose. But why get so emotional about it?

The reason is simple: MP3s, unlike the typical .wav and .ausound files found on most sites, are able to compress data into previously unheard-of proportions. They are, in fact, able to pack sound information into approximately one-tenth the size of a .wav file, making sound faster to access, far easier to store, and far easier to reproduce.

It was perhaps inevitable that MP3s would come to engulf the music enterprise. Coupled with the advent of writeable CDs (see Wolf Camera's site for more information), this innovative file format quickly resulted in the copying of thousands of sound recordings onto discs costing a mere $2-3 each. Internet music enthusiasts quickly caught on, and before long, the equivalent of entire albums was making its way onto writeable CDs via the ingenious invention. Needless to say, this was not a trend met favorably by record labels, who knew full well the impact MP3s were having on their pocketbooks. As Web page author Marc Snelling sharply observes on his Dangerous Information site, "A compact disc with liner notes and a case costs (record companies) less than two dollars to produce in large quantities, and we all know how much they cost the consumer."

An important note to make here: some MP3 files are completely legal. MP3s of less than 30 seconds in duration are known as "samples." Because of their brief nature, samples pose no threat to copyrighted music, and are lawfully allowed to be played, downloaded and copied. MP3 samples are commonly utilized commercially, as in the case of hugely successful online music stores like CDNow, which offer shoppers the chance to play 30-second clips of tracks from select albums before purchasing.

Several Internet sites feature collections of samples; among the most popular are The MP3 Place, , and even a uniquely designed MP3 search engine, And just as tape decks once served their purpose, MP3s now have their own "recording studio." The Portable MP3 Player is a tiny device (albeit one carrying a $200 price tag) powered by a lone AA battery, which can store up to an hour of high-density sound. In an interesting note, the Recording Industry Association of America last year launched a greatly unsupported lawsuit against Diamond Multimedia, the creator of the Portable Player, alleging that the device encouraged piracy. Proponents of the Player, however, counter that it is perfectly acceptable for its intended use: legal MP3s.

So where, then, are the illegal MP3s hiding? In the interest of upholding both journalistic standards of integrity andthe law, I can't tell you, but suffice to say they're easy enough to find. While many sites accessible by the standard search engines are, understandably, hesitant to advertise their stockpile of illegally copied sound files, a great deal still carry them. The majority of "pirated" MP3s can be located through FTP servers and Usenet groups.

So how angry are record companies as they watch their profits plummet with every download of a copyrighted song or album? Very. Geffen Records has been particularly vocal about the MP3 plague. Highly sought-after artists such as Hole, Aerosmith and Beck are signed to the Geffen label, and are just as immensely popular with illicit MP3 users. In an acerbic open letter published in Velvet Donk magazine, the record company warned, "Because we oppose censorship in all forms, 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. If you decide to substitute your judgment for that of our artists and distribute their full-length songs without so much as asking, we will take appropriate steps to stop you."

Geffen went on to cite such tracing devices as Traceroute and WhoIs, which can identify individuals through IP addresses and site names. However, the sheer volume of users downloading and distributing MP3s makes it virtually impossible to apprehend, let alone convict, MP3 thieves of copyright.

Those who support the advent of MP3s argue that this breakthrough in digital audio means a new beginning for music, allowing listeners to enjoy their favorite artists and productions without forking over the often astronomical, and ever-rising, sums charged by record companies. At the same time, many advocate MP3s as a breath of fresh air for the music industry, taking timely advantage of the prevalent use of the Web in today's wired world. MP3 pirates proudly proclaim themselves the Robin Hoods of the Net, taking from the rich music executives to benefit those who deserve to hear the music they want, whenever they want, free from cutthroat costs and bureaucratic red tape.

Yet, record companies insist, they are not opposed to digitizing popular music; they are opposed to the taking of what is not rightfully earned. "The MP3 world is an exciting opportunity to welcome the future of digital audio, and we embrace its potential…we look forward to the day that we can use digital distribution on behalf of our artists," Geffen Records emphasizes.

What remains to be seen is whether such a day will ever come…and when it does, exactly who will pay the MP3 price.

Catherine Deely is currently completing her junior year at Boston College, where she is a Communication major specializing in WWW and Digital Media. In addition to being a certified Net addict, she holds high hopes of finding "THE dream job" -- combining writing, media, and research for an online publication.


Copyright (C) 1998 WWWiz Corporation - All Rights Reserved
Phone: 714.848.9600 FAX: 714.375.2493
WWWiz Web site developed and maintained by
GRAFX Digital Studio

Previous Article Next Article
WWWiz Home