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.)
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
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.)
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