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Bytes to Beats

The MP3 digital music technology has sent tremors through the recording industry as more and more original and bootleg recordings spread across the Internet.

By CHRISTOPHER BLANK, Times Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 1999


Pat Ortman, an alternative rock musician without a record company to back him up, needed a way to spread the word about his music. He passed on traditional methods -- sending compact discs in bulk to music critics, hiring consultants and shelling out lots of cash.

Instead, the Los Angeles musician booted up his computer and clicked onto the latest advance in music technology: MP3.

It stands for MPEG1 Audio Layer-3, and it is the newest, fastest way to compress, download and distribute music on the Internet. It is also popular: According to SearchTerms.com, MP3 is the second-most-requested search topic on the Internet -- ranked behind only "sex."

For music lovers, it has created an online boom of free or dirt cheap music sites. For others (such as executives in the $12.2-billion record industry), MP3 threatens established artists and profits with concerns of bootlegging and piracy.

For Ortman, MP3 has meant some high-tech notoriety. He is one of the first alt-rock artists to release an album solely in MP3 format.

"I was really surprised by the amount of attention it's gotten," said Ortman, 25. "I've been putting my songs on the Internet since 1993, but this is one of the best ways to be heard."

MP3 emerged last year as the best riff on an old idea: compressing hefty sound files without losing quality. Previously, tunes from the Internet required too much storage space to make the family computer a jukebox. With MP3, a song that would have hogged 50 megabytes -- about the size of 50 short novels -- can be compressed and stored at about 5 megabytes, or about 1 meg per minute of music.

Playing the songs requires MP3 software. Different versions can be downloaded free, or as shareware such as the popular Winamp application, which costs $10 to register. Once the software, or player, is installed, MP3 files appear as song titles in the player. The key to MP3's appeal -- and the reason it has record companies jittery -- is the sound quality: It is comparable to that of a compact disc. That means a kid with a computer can convert a music collection to MP3, and post it on the Internet for anyone to download . . . free.

Free music has already sprung up all over the Internet. On one popular music site, MP3.com (which does not own the technology itself), Ortman's single, I Owe It to You, made the top 10 list of downloads.

"My reason for releasing the album over the Internet was to screw the record labels," Ortman said. "At MP3.com, they've posted one of my songs so people can get a taste.

"If you want the entire album, you can buy it directly from them. The company will make a copy of the disc for you with both regular CD and MP3 formats on it. Basically, they handle all the production costs that an independent artist would normally have to pay for himself."

Within a week, Ortman's free MP3 single lured 50 buyers of his album, which costs $5.99 and is sent to the new owner the old-fashioned way, via the postal service. Even after the company took its share of the profits, Ortman said the album has paid for itself. And with more than 200,000 daily visitors to mp3.com, Ortman's one electronic post is a far more effective way of communicating than posting hundreds of fliers on telephone poles.

While MP3 appears to be a good mass marketing plan for musicians who can't break into the tight circle of major record labels, it can backfire in the same way it can promote. Once someone has the music, it can end up as free material on the Net.

"No matter what you release, there is going to be a certain amount of pirating and bootlegging," Ortman said, noting that bootleg audio tapes and records that have been around for decades. "Look at the Grateful Dead, or Bob Dylan. For new musicians, it can actually be helpful by getting the word out."

The industry strikes back

The recording industry hasn't exactly embraced the idea of music freely exchanging hands over the Web. It calls it piracy.

A lot of the free music available online is the work of unknown artists such as Ortman. However, some sites illegally post more popular music, drawing protests from artists, record companies and the Recording Industry Association of America.

In December, major record companies, including Universal Music, Sony Music, EMI Recorded Music, BMG Entertainment and Warner Music Group, met with the RIAA to discuss a uniform standard of distributing music on the Internet. Last week, the group said it would work with IBM to create an online music store in an attempt to protect the industry from bootleggers.

Known as the Digital Music Initiative, one of the objectives of the meeting was to promise "a voluntary digital music security specification by next fall."

"Basically, we want to be able to protect copyrighted material on the Internet," said RIAA senior vice president Steve Fabrizio. "We are not against MP3. But its use allows any 15-year-old kid with a computer the chance to become a worldwide publisher of music."

According to the RIAA, music piracy worldwide costs record companies $5-billion annually. The RIAA wants to rein in MP3 by creating a system that makes it more difficult to obtain unauthorized music on the Internet. But how different can downloading a song from the Internet be from taping a song off the radio, which is legal?

"The difference is that from the radio, a recording is from one analog site to another analog site," Fabrizio said. "MP3 enables you to record first generation digital recordings over and over with no loss of quality, and to send it to millions of people. That constitutes serial recording, which is illegal."

According to the federal Audio Home Recording Act passed in 1992, certain recording devices are immune from liability. Cassette recorders, mini-disc recorders and certain CD-recorders (ones that encode the copy so that it cannot be used to make further recordings) are legal when used for private, non-commercial purposes. By contrast, serial recording devices are those that can be used to make a number of first generation sound recordings.

But "every step in the process of uploading your personal CD collection onto MP3 -- even if it's only on your personal computer -- is in violation of the serial recording restrictions," Fabrizio said.

So far, at least one MP3-related company has come into the RIAA's crosshairs. In October, the RIAA filed a lawsuit against Diamond Multimedia to block the sale of a device called the Rio, a portable MP3 player resembling a Walkman. A user can load up to 60 minutes of MP3 files into the Rio, which stores the songs on a microchip. Diamond has prevailed so far, and the Rio shipped to stores in November. In December, Diamond Multimedia countersued the RIAA for violations of state and federal antitrust laws. According to Ken Wirt, Diamond's vice president of corporate marketing, "the lawsuit is based on the RIAA's knowledge of the large market potential and their attempt to stifle it."

Part of the argument is whether the Rio is actually a serial recording device.

Diamond's view: "The Rio is really a computer peripheral product. Without a computer, the Rio is a paperweight," Wirt said.

Fabrizio countered, "The Rio only has two modes: serial copying mode and paperweight mode. They have lost the argument whether it is just a peripheral device. The only way the Rio works is through a process of serial copying. Most of the sites out there where you can download free music are unauthorized."

Legal hassles aside, Rios are selling briskly, with company chief executive Bill Schroeder telling a technology conference in San Francisco this month that 100,000 units had been shipped since November, according to a report on C/Net (www.news.com).

Responding to such booming interest, the RIAA's vigilance included a warning sent to Lycos Inc., which provides a search engine for MP3 files (mp3.lycos.com). The site could potentially provide links to unauthorized Internet music, the RIAA argues.

"We're definitely not trying to subvert their aims," Lycos spokesman Brian Payea said of the recording industry. "As far as policing our site, if the RIAA tells us that one of our links is unauthorized, we may end up having to remove the link."

In addition, companies that host Web pages fall under the same law that protects intellectual property. With more than 33-million customer Web sites on its server, Web portal GeoCities has tight restrictions on what individuals can post on their Web sites -- restrictions that prohibit copyrighted material.

"In cases that are intellectual property issues, we send them an e-mail and usually give them a week to 10 days to remove the material," said Bruce Zanca, vice president of communications. "Then we remove the page. Some things are immediately taken down. We get calls and correspondence from lawyers about copyright issues all the time."

While many established musicians support the efforts of the RIAA to protect their material from misuse, opponents counter that even the threat of widespread piracy is not grounds enough to rein in the unfettered spirit of the Internet.

"I'm not sure about uniform standards," singer/songwriter David Bowie told the New York Times. "They've never appealed to me. And however much they try and move in that direction, it ain't going to work."

Some mainstream artists such as Bowie view MP3 as a way to regain some of the freedom they have to give up to the powerful record labels.

Groups such as Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys have incurred the wrath of their record labels by posting some of their music online.

Songwriter Todd Rundgren sells $25 annual subscriptions to download music from his Web site (tr-i.com).

"It occurred to me that with the aid of some modern advances I could go directly to my audience, ask them if they would commit to buying the music, and then deliver it to them as it is produced, thus eliminating the middlemen," Rundgren tells potential subscribers on his Web site.

At GoodNoise (www.goodnoise.com), visitors can find the latest album from Frank Black, former leader of the alt-rock group the Pixies. They can download it from the site for $8.99, or have the CD sent for $11.99 plus shipping. The record company Rykodisc, which also features discs on GoodNoise, allows browsers to download music from more than 40 discs at 99 cents per song.

Still, MP3's ripple in online music has yet to become a tsunami. A CD player still has a lot going over a computer. MP3's much-touted sound quality may not be so impressive coming through puny PC speakers, or a cheap sound card. Even at 5 megs per song, it still takes time to download each file, depending upon a computer's modem speed and the size of the file, from a few minutes on up.

However, with more affordable hard drive space, high-speed cable modems and the computer's expanding role in the household, MP3 may be the next step in the evolution of music.

For now, Ortman, like other independent artists, is benefiting from the initial interest in MP3. But just as music stores still carry cassettes alongside CDs, Ortman plans a traditional release of his album Naked.

"I've been getting calls from people who don't have computers," Ortman said. "I think I'll need to make some CD copies for them."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.


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