While "MP3" may sound like some new Star Wars droid, it's actually one of the hottest things going on the net these days. Mega-search engine Lycos says it's the second most popular search term lately-behind "sex," of course.
MP3 is an important, relatively new file format that allows a five-minute, CD-quality recording to be stored in about four megabytes of disk space. To the average 56K modem owner, that's about ten minutes of download time. Transfer your MP3 files to CD, and you can store something in the neighborhood of 11 hours of music.
Or, purchase the Diamond Rio MP3 Player ($200), a small Walkman-type device into which you load an hour of music straight from your computer. It runs on a single AA battery, and since it has no moving parts, the Rio does not skip, even when subjected to heavy vibration and movement.
Sound cool? It is. In the December 1998 issues, the Diamond Rio won the Popular Science "Best of What's New" award and the "Number One Hardware Stocking Stuffer" in Computer Gaming World.
So why is the $6 billion recording industry so pissed off? Money, of course.
In a legal action last fall, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) claimed that Diamond's Rio MP3 player violated the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act, and sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the shipment of the device. Perhaps because the Rio has no recording capabilities, Diamond emerged victorious.
But that hasn't stopped the controversy. While the preliminary injunction failed, the actual lawsuit rolled on. In December 1998, Diamond's Vice President of Corporate Marketing, Ken Wirt asserted:
"Clearly, it appears that the RIAA's lawsuit against Diamond is being driven by the interests of its largest members, the big five record labels, who are seeking to maintain their control of music distribution and prevent the unfettered freedom of musicians without recording contracts at their member companies to distribute their music to a broad audience.
... Upcoming musicians, numbering in the thousands, are using the Internet to their advantage to create awareness in a cost-effective manner, which is clearly a threat to the major record labels' current distribution model."
And it's not just the up-and-comers who want to use MP3s to introduce their work to potential fans. David Bowie, Billy Idol, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys have all tried to distribute MP3s on their websites, and been shut down by or fallen into disfavor with their labels.
In the short term, it's the new bands who are really reaping the benefits of MP3s. Put a free song or two on your site, publicize the address, and then sell your CDs to people who like what they hear. That made the difference for Athens, Georgia, improvisational rock band Day by the River (www.daybytheriver.com). In a recent ZDNet article, the band's manager said, "The Internet brought us to the next level. ... People from 51 countries are downloading our music."
What concerns the recording industry is that anyone can download the software to create MP3 files, transfer their lawfully purchased CD collection to MP3, and distribute it all for free. This, of course, is illegal, but it's being done on a massive scale on the net. And Warner Brothers really wants to get paid each time "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls is sent over the Net.
To accomplish this, the media giants are working with the technology giants to create piracy-proof products to be marketed by next Christmas. Complicating these efforts is the fact that behemoth Microsoft is rumored to be working on its own version of the portable media player, and the fact that the Redmond giant has refused to alter its media player so that it can't play the MP3 files. Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold explains in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, "you can't scrap a popular legitimate feature (not all MP3 files are pirated) just because it is abused by some people."
Meanwhile, MP3 junkies are producing, providing, downloading and trading thousands upon thousands of MP3 files, some of them legal, most of them likely not. There's even at least one MP3 search engine at mp3.box.sk. And now Lycos has announced that it will soon provide MP3 search capabilities for their database of half a million MP3 titles. The new Lycos feature will not distinguish between legal and illegal recordings.
Interestingly, one such enthusiast with whom I spoke said, "One of the reasons MP3s are so popular isn't finding the latest hits, but rather finding old songs, impossible to find in a store."