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I Wanna be a Pundit
by Shawn FitzGerald

There has been a recent flurry of Pundit Commentary about MP3's. I will tell you that I am not a pundit, though some day I would like to be. This does not preclude me from making grand pronouncements and predictions about what I see going on in the music biz.

Look through any copy of Wired these days, or read any web zine, and you're likely to find something about MP3's. We, at Mindjack, would be remiss if we didn't hop on this particular bandwagon. I thus offer you, Seeker of Knowledge, my non-pundit's intellectual meandering.

You may have been living in a hole, and have no idea what an "MP3" is. Or, you may have read something about them and did an AltaVista search on "MP3". If you are the later, you would have been so overwhelmed by the number of hits that it is only by sheer cosmic luck that you clicked on the link that brought you here. I welcome you, and encourage you to stay, because I will briefly describe what an MP3 is, and then tell you where to find them!

Nullsoft's WinAMP MP3 is a shorthand way of saying, "MPEG-1, Layer III." It's pretty much a way of compressing a sound file. Your compressed programs probably are .zip or .sit, and your dirty pictures are probably .jpg. It's all more or less the same thing, just a way of squeezing more data in a smaller place.

MP3's are really small. The average MP3, with decent quality, takes up just about 1 MB of disk space per minute of music. Whereas you can fit 74 minutes of music on a standard audio CD, a CD full of MP3s would play for around 640 minutes. This is great, but it's giving the music industry fits, because these days it isn't unheard of to have a spare 6GB hard drive that you can fill with music. That would be about 6000 minutes of music, by the way, or about 81 audio CDs. And, with everyone's connection speed to the Internet getting faster all the time, downloading 100MB of MP3 music in an afternoon is no complicated task.

The record companies don't like this, because of course it makes trading and piracy extremely easy. You can copy a whole album from a friend in under 5 minutes if you have a Zip Drive. Since it's all digital, there is no loss of quality between copies, unlike all those tapes you copied from your friends in high school.

Now on with the punditesque pronouncements and predictions.

Pronouncement Number One:

MP3's and other digital music compression technology will destroy the record industry as we now know it. More and more recording artists will realize that they're getting screwed. Well, they probably know they're getting screwed now, but eventually they'll figure out that they can eliminate the middle-man and deal with their fans directly. If you go to a record store and buy a CD for $16, the people who wrote and performed the music on that CD see less than a dollar of every sale. Most bands make more money from concert gigs and touring than they ever see from record sales. And, if you're the poor drummer that has no publishing rights to the music, you don't see a dime of the record sale cash.

Artists will begin to release songs on the Net as soon as they're recorded, for free. The process of recording, getting a contract, recording again, then waiting a year for the disk to get pressed will be dead. Few bands will even bother releasing their music on disk. Or, if you're an artist and you abhor not seeing some cash for your work, go at it like Todd Rundgren is doing. Charge something like $25 a year for access to your web site, which will be the seeding ground for all your music. The hard-core fans will flock to your site to get your latest tracks as soon as you release them. You'll at least recoup enough money off subscriptions to pay your web host for the service. You, as the serious artist type, can then spend more time writing and touring, and making the Big Bucks.

Pronouncement Number Two:

The current piracy of music via MP3 is a good thing. Don't try to be high and mighty about stealing, and piracy driving up prices for legitimate consumers who are paying. This is crap, because the piracy going on now is paving the way for better times for both performers and listeners. Don't tell me you never copied a friend's CD to tape, or recorded a song you like off the radio. This kind of piracy is good for the listener, because the music is free (Duh). It is good for the artist because it results in more exposure. I hesitate to spend $16 on music I've never heard of, but I'll sure as hell spend 5 minutes of my day downloading something just to check it out. If I really like it, maybe I take the $16 I saved not buying the CD and I buy a concert ticket to the artist's next gig. Who looses in this situation? The record company...fer sure.

Pronouncement Number Three:

The death of Big Music as a business will force music retailers to reinvent themselves. It would certainly be a crime if you, as a consumer of music, were no longer able to go into a record store and browse through the wares. This is, for many people, as much fun as spending a few hours wandering through a book store. But what will you do if nobody is releasing hard copies of music anymore? Not to worry. When the rampant piracy going on now forces artists to wake up, they'll release music in a similar way to Open Source software. Anyone can make a copy of it, as long as they don't change anything. A record store can be a massive MP3 download center. The store will collect everything it can get its hands on and burn its own CDs. If a customer comes in and doesn't have access to the kind of equipment required to play an MP3, the store can make a copy on whatever medium the customer desires. Do I hear the whisperings of a resurgence of 8-Track?

Now, as promised, I will assist you in your effort to aid the revolution. A man I work with asked me if I'd ever heard of MacAmp, the Macintosh MP3 player. I said, "Ummm, just a sec...there's a copy of it in your network folder right now." A week went by and I called him and asked him how he was liking his new role in destroying Big Music. He told me that he hadn't actually tried it yet, because he couldn't find anything. This may have been simple laziness on his part, but I'm pretty sure he just didn't know where people were getting the stuff. You probably don't either, because trading MP3s is, like trading software, basically illegal. You won't find banner ads for MP3 download sites on Yahoo any time real soon.

There are plenty of places on the Net where unscrupulous people shamelessly pass music tracks back and forth like candy. You just need to know where to find them. This is the strange thing about the MP3 hooplah. Wired will do a three column article talking about how great this stuff is, but say nothing about where it's happening. I guess they don't want to be viewed as contributing to something that is illegal, but I'd tell Wired and the other GeekMedia to get some balls. What will get you in more trouble: downloading a Madonna track or growing marijuana in your basement? And yet you can go into any head shop and pick up a copy of High Times that will tell you where to find the best pot seeds.

The cone of silence is now cracked, and I point the seeker here!

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b i o
Shawn FitzGerald spends his spare time in front of his Mac trying to do constructive things, but usually ends up screwing around.

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