MP3 music plays well with artists and fans

During the past few weeks, we have attentively watched the accelerating battle between the Recording Industry Association of America and proponents of the distribution of music over the Internet. At stake is a large slice of the $40 billion global music market. The recording association argues that the popular MP3 — Moving Picture Expert Group, Audio Layer 3 — file format commonly used to digitally encode and transfer near-compact disc quality music does not contain adequate copy protection to prevent rampant piracy. MP3 supporters argue that the issue is really about money, freedom and control — the record labels have them; the artists and public want them. The recording industry should abandon its hopeless fight.
We went online looking for some music and found a site with more than 100 complete albums. Ranging from the “Star Wars” soundtrack to Squirrel Nut Zippers to Dink to everything They Might Be Giants ever released on compact disc, the site can satisfy nearly any college student’s musical appetite free of charge. The site’s administrator says, “It’s just like loaning someone a CD. If the record industry is losing money, they deserve it. We’re sticking it to the man.” The recording industry’s concerns are firmly grounded.
Yet in the last month, several major recording artists have actively backed the MP3 revolution. Public Enemy’s first full studio release in five years is currently available only online. The MP3 files were posted several weeks ago. Those wanting the physical compact disc were able to order it from one of several Internet sites starting Tuesday. Similarly, deals have been struck between the leading MP3 Web site, MP3.com, and artists like Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos and countless lesser-known artists seeking the broad exposure available in cyberspace.
For too long the record industry has exploited artists to fill its own pockets. It has succeeded by controlling the means of distribution. Because any artist can put an MP3 recording online with minimal cost, the major labels are anachronisms left over from the pre-digital age, no longer able to control the music industry. No matter what type of copy protection industry leaders create, some enterprising hackers will crack it and the music will continue to spread beyond the reach of the labels.
Moreover, MP3 is good news for consumers. Not only will cheaper digital distribution mean lower prices and the ability to purchase single tracks rather than wasting $18 on an entire album, the ease of making and posting an MP3 file will bring more music choices. Without record labels deciding what music is good and deserves public release, listeners will be able to make up their own minds. A small unknown band from Cleveland like Repulsion can garner as much attention as Alice in Chains.
The recording association has two choices. It can either fight for a lost cause, attempting to maintain strict control of the industry, or it can reshape itself for cyberspace. Unfortunately, it chose the former. Rather than resist the Internet juggernaut that will shape commerce into the next century, recording labels should work with artists and sites like MP3.com, taking on a new role, representing and promoting artists. There is still plenty of money for everyone to make, but the industry is turning a win-win situation into one in which it will be the only loser.