This month, Simon Trask looks at the current state of online music delivery. Can musicians really bypass the record companies and go DIY on the Internet?
So far, Net Notes has looked at how you can use the Internet as an information and software resource to aid your creative endeavours as a recording musician. However, the net is also going to have a far‑reaching impact on what happens to your precious music once its leaves the confines of the recording studio — and on how you get paid (or not) for that music. Whether you're unsigned and unknown, being courted by a label, or already signed, now is a good time to check out your options. The best way to understand what's going on is, of course, to get online yourself and start exploring the available technology along with what other people are already doing. A good place to start is www.tt.net/lounge/diatribes/inde..., where you'll find two articles written in support of online music delivery by Paul Stark, co‑founder of the veteran US indie record company Twin/Tone Records. Despite being labelled diatribes by Stark, these are sober, well‑informed pieces written from the considered perspective of a veteran industry figure who has faced the issues and is putting his beliefs into practice (see alliedchemical.com/blackops/index2.html).
UK‑based Cerberus are already veterans of online music delivery and commerce. With their Cerberus Digital Jukebox (www.cdj.co.uk) they pioneered secure music downloads over the net allied with online credit card purchases, using their own custom system. However, after a flurry of publicity the company has been quiet for the past year. As MD Ricky Adar puts it: "The truth of the matter is that we haven't had that many downloads. There is a market on the web — but we don't think it's a market that's going to mature as fast as we'd like." The company has been looking to in‑store music kiosks and satellite delivery as additional outlets for its music catalogue.
For some, online delivery is progressing more slowly than they would like, while for others it's developing too quickly for comfort. The major record labels continue to be reluctant to move beyond the safe territory of web‑based marketing into digital delivery, citing fears over piracy. It's not only the majors who are cautious, though. Stalwart indie electronic label WARP Records (www.warp‑net.com/) is adopting a wait‑and‑see attitude, having experienced the attentions of the online music pirates, but has found the Internet useful for stimulating sales in other ways. The company runs a mail order sales operation via its web site which, while it doesn't come close to shifting the number of units they sell via conventional record stores, has brought in custom from around the world, and proven particularly effective as a way to sell back catalogue.
Over the past year, the Record Industry Association of America (www.riaa.com/) has been busy acting as the record industry's online pitbull, savaging pirate music sites and baring its fangs at computer peripherals giant Diamond Multimedia with an (unsuccessful) court injunction against Diamond's Rio portable MP3 music player (of which more in the box on page 246). Nonetheless, online digital delivery of music is widely seen by the record industry as the future that won't go away, and so the industry is gradually learning to be more constructive in dealing with the subject. To this end, the RIAA has announced the formation of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (see www.sdmi.org/tech/sdmiinfo.htm) which is attracting backing from the major record companies as well as some computer and consumer electronics companies. The aim, according to the RIAA, is to have an 'open' standard for online music delivery, incorporating a range of delivery technologies, in place by the end of 1999. Whether that range will include MP3 files remains to be seen.
World Of Acronyms
MP3 (short for MPEG1 Layer III — see box) is a perceptual coding‑based audio compression technology which has attracted much notoriety over the past year as the technology of choice for online music pirating. Essentially, MP3 allows audio to be compressed at various ratios using perceptual audio coding techniques, with 12:1 compression providing what is commonly termed 'near CD' quality. The 'MP3 scene' began on college campuses, where students with free broadband access to the net began uploading MP3‑encoded versions of CDs onto the net for anyone to download. The record industry began clamping down on pirate sites when it found out what was going on, hitting sites with cease‑and‑desist orders and instigating lawsuits where necessary.
However, MP3 has also been at the heart of a groundswell of grassroots activity by musicians looking for an alternative to the existing industry and its way of doing business. The 'MP3 scene' is gradually going legit, with Internet‑based record companies such as GoodNoise Records (www.goodnoise.com) championing the format within a commerce setting, and a growing number of name artists declaring support for the format. The Beastie Boys (www.beastieboys.com/) began posting live versions of their tracks in MP3 format for free download from their web site last summer. Public Enemy, already rumoured to be unhappy with their record label Def Jam, caused a stir recently when they began posting MP3 files of tracks from their upcoming Bring the Noise 2000 album on their web site (www.public‑enemy.com). They were forced to remove the files by their record company, but in response PE's Chuck D posted a characteristically outspoken statement at www.public‑enemy.com/audiovideo/btn.html. Veteran rocker Billy Idol (www.billyidol.com/) was also recently forced by his record company to remove a couple of free MP3 tracks that he'd put up online as a 'Christmas present' to his fans.
MP3 is widely seen as an open system competing against two closed systems, namely Liquid Audio (www.liquidaudio.com) and a2b Music — loosely paralleling the current OS war between Linux on the one hand and Windows or MacOS on the other. In fact, while the likes of Liquid Audio embody a particular (existing) model of commerce and rights, as with computer software there are other possible models and outlooks — see, for instance, the Free Music Philosophy page (www.ram.org/ramblings/philosophy...).
While a2b Music is backed by telecoms giant AT&T (who were also involved in the development of MPEG2 AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) , as used by a2b), it's a relatively recent entrant into the field, and Liquid Audio offers a more mature and rounded system. Liquid Audio, founded in 1996 by members of the music and recording industries, is going from strength to strength with its Liquid Music System, which consists of server, mastering and player software. Following the model first established by Netscape, the player software (which is available for Windows and Mac) can be downloaded for free from the company's web site. The Liquifier software costs $295, while server configuration prices are available from Liquid Audio on request. The latest version of the Liquid Music System, v4.0, introduces a stand‑alone Mac version of the Liquifier software at last (previously there was only a Pro Tools plug‑in for the Mac, while the Windows Liquifier has always been stand‑alone). The new system also adds MPEG2 AAC capability to the existing Dolby Net compression, along with other features such as new watermarking technology, downloadable player 'faceplates' for visual customisation, a territory control feature for geographical limiting of downloads, improved time‑limit functionality, and the capability to stream Liquid Audio previews within RealNetworks' G2 software (greatly extending Liquid Audio's reach, as RealNetworks is by far the most widely used audio streaming software on the net).
The Liquid Audio system allows for both audio streaming (live playback of audio as it's transmitted over the net) and downloadable audio files. Streaming is typically used on record company and record store web sites to provide online previews of tracks, often in the form of 30‑second tasters. RealNetworks' RealMedia streaming media format is the most widely used (you can download a free Windows or Mac player from (www.real.com/), but increasingly Liquid Audio is being adopted for streaming as well as online sales. Liquid Audio streaming previews can also be saved to disk for subsequent replay. Once someone has paid for and downloaded a full track in Liquid Audio format to their hard drive, they have the option of burning it to CD from the player software, providing they have one of the supported CD‑R machines hooked up to their computer. Liquid Audio have also recently signed deals with removeable media manufacturer Iomega to tie Liquid Audio downloads to individual Zip disks (each disk has a unique ID), and with Diamond Multimedia to include Liquid Audio support in their Rio player. A core issue for the record industry is the prevention of digital copying of downloaded tracks, and Liquid Audio are keen to enforce this.
In the UK, a company called MediaWave (www.mediawaveav.co.uk) is offering Liquid Audio hosting services. You can find a pricing page at www.mediawaveav.co.uk/prices/liq... this is well worth checking out, as it'll give you a good idea of the costs and the commerce setup requirements involved for going into business online (also look out for transaction fees, such as the 25 cents which go to Liquid Audio on each commercial download). An example of Liquid Audio streaming previews is provided by tt.net/trg/projects/89365.html, which is the home page for a band called Ousia. Here you can listen to and download previews of selected tracks from their album using the Liquid Audio MusicPlayer, and if you click on the 'Buy CD' button in the player you're taken to a web page at online music retail store CDnow where you can listen to track previews in RealAudio format and buy the CD online.
Streaming audio previews coupled with links to online record stores provide one way to generate online music sales without having to deal with downloadable audio files and commerce systems. Another way is provided by the new breed of online custom CD compilation companies. Essentially, these companies burn and mail one‑off CDs containing licensed tracks chosen and paid for online by web site visitors after previewing the tracks in streaming audio form. One of the best of this new genre of web site is CDuctive (www.cductive.com/), which concentrates on dance/electronica and indie music and has licensed tracks from many well‑known dance labels. So far, the major labels have fought shy of licensing material to the compilers. The big online record stores such as CDnow (www.cdnow.com/), Tower Records (www.towerrecords.com/) and Music Boulevard (www.musicblvd.com/) are now also starting to offer custom CD facilities.
The site for all matters MP3 is the appropriately named www.mp3.com/. Here you can download MP3 software for a variety of computer OS platforms (with Windows being the most catered for, of course), read up on all the latest MP3 news, learn about MP3, and even post your own tracks in MP3 format. The advantage of MP3 is that it's not a closed system; the software to encode and play tracks is readily and either freely or inexpensively available from a range of developers. The MP3.com site hosts over 6000 tracks by some 2000 artists; tracks are available for free download, and each artist gets their own web page and can upload their tracks for free. MP3.com also has an online service called DAM (Digital Automatic Music) which allows artists to sell CDs of their tracks in MP3 format for between $4.99 and $9.99, with a 50/50 earning split between artist and company. It's worth pointing out that, even after compression, MP3 tracks work out at around 1Mb per minute of music, so at current download rates for most people (who are on dialup modems) even a three‑minute pop song is a non‑trivial download — and longer tracks are a major undertaking. Still, this hasn't stopped MP3.com from being one of the most popular music sites on the net.
Another area in which MP3 is challenging the existing industry is the emerging genre of portable MP3 players, as exemplified by Diamond Multimedia's $199 walkman‑sized Rio PMP300 player (www.diamondmm.com/products/in‑depth/rio‑id.html), which uses the new generation of flash memory cards to store MP3 audio files downloaded from supplied MP3 jukebox software running on a Windows PC. Rio, which is capable of storing up to an hour of MP3‑encoded music with the addition of a plug‑in card, frees online music from the computer desktop. Samsung have announced that they will enter the portable MP3 player market shortly (they also make the requisite flash memory cards), and other companies are expected to follow. If you're interested in getting a more in‑depth knowledge of the various MPEG perceptual audio coding schemes available, then look up the Fraunhofer Institute's Audio and Multimedia web page (www.iis.fhg.de/amm/). The Institute was the main developer of MPEG Layer III as well as the more recent (and superior) MPEG2 AAC coding scheme, and is also involved in the ongoing work on MPEG4 audio. Another good site to check out is www.tnt.uni‑hannover.de/project/mpeg/audio/faq/, the home of the MPEG Audio FAQ.
Another perceptual coding format emerging as a potential rival for MPEG2 AAC is NTT's TwinVQ (music.jpn.net/), which is short for Transform‑domain Weighted Interleave Vector Quantisation. TwinVQ has been been licensed by Yamaha as SoundVQ. You can read about SoundVQ at www.yamaha‑xg.com/english/xg/SoundVQ/, and follow links to download free player and encoder software for Windows or Mac.