Are CDs Obsolete?



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As he often does in these heady days of point-and-click Internet Commerce, the UPS man brought me a package yesterday. Inside, along with the usual baggies, booklets, and bubblewrap, was a little electronic gizmo that looks something like an undersized Walkman. My Diamond Rio MP3 player had arrived. 

The Rio has no moving parts. Rather than tapes or CDs, it plays MP3 files downloaded from my computer. The Rio has 32 MB of RAM; that's enough for about 35 minutes of high-quality audio. (In a Moore's Law year-and-a-half, this figure will undoubtedly jump to 64MB or more.)

It's more than a solid-state Walkman.  It's an atom bomb dropped squarely on the recorded music industry.

Can you say paradigm shift?

MP3, which stands for MPEG Audio Layer 3, is an audio compression scheme, part of the MPEG family of "lossy" compression technologies. At a typical data rate of 128 kilobits per second, MP3 sounds very good. Not quite CD quality, but damned close, especially considering it occupies one-twelfth the space of uncompressed CD audio.  128 kilobits per second works out to a little less than a megabyte per minute. 

(I should mention that you don't need a Rio to play MP3 files if you don't mind doing your listening at your sound card-equipped PC.  The Windows 98 media player is MP3 savvy, and various shareware products are available.)

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The Rio Windows MP3 Player (hats off to the programmer responsible for this tasty look)

Where does one get MP3 files to play?  Aye, that's the big question. The recording industry wouldn't have a problem with the Rio in particular or MP3s in general if one went down to Blockbuster Music and downloaded them from a credit card-eating kiosk. Or if people only made them for their own use from CDs they had bought earlier at said Blockbuster Music.

But the fact is, mostly, people pirate MP3s. Visit your favorite search engine and look for the string "MP3."  (But be warned: searching for MP3s is so common a net activity that web parasites are now piggybacking this term to lure unsuspecting surfers to ad-heavy, new-browser-instance-spawning, mp3-free porn sites.) With a little persistence, it's not hard to find one of the thousands of ftp servers or web sites offering free, anonymous downloads of popular music. New ones open faster than music industry lawyers can shut down the old ones.  There are simply too many cash-poor college kids out there.

Stealing is bad, but having worked in the heavily pirated PC software industry for many years, it's hard for me to feel too sorry for the music publishers.  They used the excuse of the new, "expensive-to-produce" CD format a decade and a half ago to double the price of an album from about $7 to about $15. Today full retail is $17.99, and my understanding is that the actual musicians get a dollar of that, about what they made in the vinyl era.  It's temping to ponder a future, less hierarchical music industry in which one would pay a buck or two to download an album and most or all of that would go to the artist. Oh, I suppose I'll miss the challenge of opening a new CD, but I'll get over it.

Be Your Own Warner Brothers   MP3 allows any musician with a little recording gear to get his work out to the world—no recording contracts or cardboard marketing popups at Tower Records required.  (How to find an audience or make any money are unanswered, nontrivial questions.)

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MusicMatch Jukebox, ready to crunch an album

New tools make it a no-brainer to create MP3s. I'm translating an album into MP3 form as I write this. When finished (on my PC a CD takes about an hour to cook), I'll have boiled 600 meg of raw wave data down to a series of 3-5 meg song files that I can post to a web site or newsgroup, or send as email. I'm not going to, but the colleges and universities are full of kids with little money and less guilt doing exactly this.

Personal Computer as Music System Component    Let's do a little arithmetic.  One music CD = about 10 four minute songs = approximately 40 minutes of music = 40 megabytes in MP3 form.  That's 25 albums per gigabyte, so a 20 gigabyte drive can hold 500 albums. So in effect, there's a 5000 song jukebox lurking in every high-end 1998, midrange 1999 PC.  (People have been saying for 15 years that there's no need for faster computers and bigger hard disks, and every year or two, something comes out that proves them wrong.).  

On Demand Audio   Today's 56kbs modems simply don't have the bandwidth to stream (download and play simultaneously) 128kbs MP3 audio. But down the road, when DSL or cable modems or some other technology finally brings decent bandwidth to the home, quality music playback of infinite variety becomes possible. Licensed, streaming play of individual songs is a technology the music recording industry could profit from, if they keep  prices low enough to largely remove the piracy temptation, say a penny or two a song.  Metered usage is lucrative; ask any electric company.

Bill, Bundle Jimi   But even if the data pipes stay narrow, not so long from now, we'll be buying personal computers with terabyte hard disks. They'll have room for Office version 14 and a massive music library.  Perhaps Microsoft can throw a few billion the recording industry's way to include the complete catalogs of  Bach, Beatles, Beethoven, Stones, Pearl Jam, Dylan, Hendrix, U2, Alanis, Zeppelin, Mozart, No Clue, Tchaikovsky, Who, Handel, et al., as part of Windows 007.  That would certainly make me consider an upgrade.





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