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Sound Investment?

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A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine declared MP3 was now more popular than sex. It was overblown, of course — and tongue-in-cheek. Still, if you’re a musician or fervent music fan, or simply into getting stuff for free, the recent audio-coding technology that allows digital music files to be downloaded from the internet — with CD quality — has mushroomed in popularity.

MP3 — an abbreviation of MPEG 1 Layer 3, whatever that means — is just one of several similar technologies, but serves as the “it” word for now. Chances are good this development will not go the way of the eight-track. Not surprisingly, the music industry is in a major tizzy, and abuzz with questions like: What will happen to copyrighted material? How can we protect artists? How will we make money? How can we control this?!!!

Some of the questions of industry, or individual artists, are not without merit, but MP3 users like Burlington’s Jim Lockridge have some answers. Lockridge is the proprietor of Big Heavy World, the website for Burlington’s “urban scene” — read: mostly music. This man with a mission has kept up with every online technology to come down the pike, and as such was the ideal resource for an educational chat about MP3 — what it is, what it implies, where it’s going, and what it’s got to do with Burlington bands.

SEVEN DAYS: How can MP3 be helpful to unsigned — or signed, for that matter — bands?

Jim Lockridge: MP3, and the various other digital music compression formats, allow a fluid distribution of music, without geographic boundaries. Potential fans can discover a band’s music while tapping into it from a different county or different country. Since it’s digital, material replication becomes moot. A single MP3 file could be copied from a website or transmitted via email a thousand times without a corresponding manufacturing expense. So MP3 potentially exposes music, at nearly nil expense, to a potentially limitless audience.

SD: Won't giving away music via the internet dilute bands’ ability to sell their records?

JL: Is the glass half full or half empty? Are you an optimist or pessimist? If your intent is to bend this new technology toward creating opportunity, you can do it. A promotional single is what it is, whether it’s in digital format or plastic or vinyl.

SD: Big record companies are understandably worried that until there is some sort of “secure” delivery system for MP3 music, they won't be able to collect for the downloads, nor control what the music is used for. Any indication that the big guys may find some way to control MP3?

JL: The “big guys” pretty nearly have it nailed. SecureMP3, J. River’s Music Exchange and MCY Music are companies that offer or will soon offer controlled commercialization of MP3 and the formats that follow it. I’m keen on the InterTrust technology that is being put to use by Universal and BMG, which allows creative “rule” making regarding how particular digital products are made available to consumers, online or off. Keep in mind that there are proprietary digital music distribution methods that are alternatives to MP3, such as Liquid Audio and AT&T’s a2b. The industry is exploring the issue cooperatively under SDMI [Strategic Digital Music Initiative].

SD: The issue of what the music is used for is, to my mind, a somewhat serious one, in that it really messes with the rather sacred concept of copyright. Is there anything bands can do to limit unauthorized use — or blatant appropriation — of their music? And wouldn't it be better if these download/delivery systems came with a small fee that would go to the artists? (For example, Kristin Hersh has already set up an MP3 subscription service for her music.) Otherwise it seems like were going to have a whole generation of kids who don't respect copyrights and the notion that musicians deserve to get paid. After all, music doesn't appear by magic.

JL: MP3, mix cassette tapes, I think any opportunity to duplicate music in an unauthorized manner will be put to use by some element of society. When a standard emerges for commercial digital distribution, I think society at large will embrace it. Especially if it allows flexibility to the consumer — it’s a luxury to purchase digital singles from a CD at less expense than purchasing the original. We’ll accept and enjoy this option.

SD: Another thing I think about is the lack of art — if people are downloading music onto some generic disc at home, it’s not going to have the visual vitality of CD jackets, not to mention the information contained on them. (I realize the same could have been said, and probably was, about the advent of cassette tapes, and still we’ve all recorded lots of music, for playing in the car, sharing with friends, etc.) Are arrangements being made for consumers to download artwork/photos/liner notes with the music?

JL: In most cases MP3 or similar distribution allows for “meta data” to be attached — small scans of album art and liner notes. Basic text data usually accompanies MP3 files and scrolls across the player interface.

SD: MP3 was pretty unknown to most of us until fairly recently. What’s your guess as to how commonplace it will be a year from now?

JL: “MP3” is individually something we’ll all forget about as new compression formats evolve and improve. Microsoft’s current technology is supposedly twice as good at compressing files as MP3 is, and also supposedly sounds better.

SD: How do people “get" their music into MP3 format? Does it change the way music is recorded, or what it's recorded onto, etc.?

JL: Music is usually “ripped” track by track from a CD, which means each track is converted into a standard audio file on the computer's hard drive.The CD is put into a computer's CDRom drive, ripped and the standard audio file is then compressed, or encoded, as an MP3 file. It’s convenient to rip a CD, so it's possible musicians would record to or dupe masters onto recordable CDs to facilitate digital encoding with a computer, if that’s their interest. It was a process I employed to sequence Tonic Two — manipulating MP3 files in the computer eased the task of sequencing the tracks of the compilation.

SD: From the consumer end, what does one need to be able to download MP3 and listen to it, or copy it at home?

JL: MP3 players can be downloaded free of charge from the internet. Free MP3 players that are widely popular include WinAMP (for PCs) and MacAMP (for Macintosh). There are many MP3 players available, including shareware brands that have useful all-in-one functions for ripping, encoding and playing MP3. MusicMatch for PC is an example.

SD: What does an MP3 player look like? Can you just keep the music stored in the computer and play it from there?

JL: MP3 players generally employ the concept of “skins,” which are creative interfaces generally available for free download from the internet. The MP3 player a person would use in their computer could generally have any of a variety of looks depending on the skin they choose to apply to the interface. Portable battery-powered MP3 players (like the Creative Labs NOMAD and Diamond Multimedia Rio) are embodying high-tech industrial design aesthetics.

SD: So some of this stuff is available free — what are the costs involved?

JL: Software, generally free. Hardware — portable MP3 players — generally under $200. Music, widely available on the internet for free, and commercialized singles sell for around $1.

SD: What have you done so far to incorporate MP3 into what Big Heavy already offers?

JL: Big Heavy World has published an MP3 showcase on the Big Heavy site. It makes authorized singles from local musicians and bands available at no charge, with links to their webpages and our online Co-Op Music Store, where physical CDs can be purchased. Big Heavy World has managed to get a few dozen authorized Burlington tracks onto a widely distributed MP3 sampler CD that will ship in the box with Creative Labs’ new NOMAD line of portable MP3 players.

JL: Rather than thinking strictly of MP3 but rather of “digital distribution” of music, we expect it to represent the natural trajectory of our efforts. We started putting the internet to use over three years ago to promote the music of Burlington — we’ve followed, and been entwined with, nearly every notable evolution in its related technologies. Independent digital distribution, whether free or “secure” — meaning commercial — is something we’ve been actively pursuing. Our present success at positioning so many local CDs with Liquid Audio and our growing friendship with rights-protection technologies are a natural development for us.

SD: Back to the bands who might use MP3 to make their music available: What’s the advantage to using an existing site like MP3.com, versus doing it themselves from an individual or indie label site — or from bigheavyworld.com, for that matter?

JL: It’s smart to park music where there is traffic. BHW enjoys modest traffic — over 9,200 visits have been registered to our MP3 Showcase in a matter of weeks, which is a fun number for a local portal like ours. MP3.com sees millions of visitors who recognize it nationally as an aggregator of MP3 content. There’s no reason other than the data-hosting expense not to make your MP3 files available from your own site, though. My perspective is that there will be an increasing value in niche- or fan-oriented W\web destinations. That might sound silly, but it’s basically the anti-Big Box concept transposed to the internet.

SD: What local bands are using MP3 via Big Heavy World?

JL: About a dozen bands have released MP3 through the BHW site. The next BHW compilation, an “enhanced” CD with software as well as audio tracks is called Tonic Two: Core Breach Burlington. It should have a live Non Compos Mentis bonus track in MP3 format as a digital file on the CD. Like Sonic Tonic before it, this one’s a benefit for Spectrum Youth and Family Services. Burlington artists on the CD are Chainsaws and Children, Zola Turn, Minimus, The Implants, Chin Ho!, Wide Wail, Bag of Panties, Starlight Conspiracy, Barbacoa, James Kochalka Superstar and Spill. [They] are joined by friends of the Burlington music scene, Sam Black Church from Boston, Battershell from New York, and Touching Zoe from New Jersey.


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