The Music Of

Arlo Leach

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(This gets pretty long; for a newer, shorter essay about MP3 techology, click here.)

Everybody's talking about MP3 these days, and many people ask me what I think of the situation. Well, I'll tell you! First, a little background:

MP3 is a file format that allows music to be compressed small enough to download over the web while still retaining an acceptable level of sound quality. There's nothing inherently different about MP3s compared to RealAudio, Liquid Audio, QuickTime, or other file formats on the web, other than a better quality/size ratio, and recently, a very high level of popularity. In fact, MP3s have finally broken the floodgates, as it were, and inspired all kinds of new music delivery and playback systems, like web sites that let you purchase and download entire albums (emusic.com), sites where independent musicians can post their own songs for all the world to hear (mp3.com), and devices that let you copy MP3 files off your computer and listen to them anywhere (riohome.com).

MP3 really hit the headlines, though, when a controversial web site called Napster started to gain popularity. This site allows any Internet user to search for all the MP3 files that other Internet users have made available, and copy them directly from each other's computers. Since no company or system regulates which files get copied, it's all too easy for users to compress their favorite commercial albums into MP3 format and post them for other users; and in fact, you can use Napster to search for just about any popular musician or band, and find their songs. Using this service, you'd never have to buy another album again! What a cool invention, right?

Well, there's a key principle in our society, which is built right into our constitution, called "intellectual property." It states that someone's creative work is owned by them, and that they have the sole right to decide how it gets copied, whether for sale or free distribution. If I copy someone else's album and upload it to the Internet, I'm violating their right to control the distribution of their work.

Unfortunately, MP3 has made it so convenient to copy and share music that many people are simply ignoring this principle. Even other musicians will argue with me that unrestricted distribution is a good thing. But I always get the sense that their arguments are just lame excuses for doing something that's clearly wrong. I'd like to address some of those excuses, and correct the myths that lie behind them; I hope that shows you why copyright infringements create big problems for both musicians and fans.

  1. So many people download MP3s that the additional exposure would outweigh the cost of lost CD sales
    In some cases, this might be true; nobody really knows yet. But weighing these kinds of pros and cons should be my choice as a musician, just like it's my choice whether to spend a lot of money on flyers, postcards, or other advertising. I might decide one day to give away 1000 free CDs as a special promotion, perhaps in conjunction with the release of a new album, and that's my right. But if someone came to my house, took 1000 CDs out of my closet, and gave them away ... uh ... that's basically what people are doing with MP3s.

  2. Musicians don't need the income from CD sales, because they make most of their money from performances
    This is true for some musicians and obviously false for others. The Beatles never played a concert after 1966, but in the following year, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band became one of the greatest rock albums of all time. If the Beatles had had to tour to make money, they'd still be out on the road playing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" might never have been written.

  3. Musicians are rich, and refusing to give their music away is pure greed
    During the years that I played music full time, my gross income averaged about $13,000, which is just above the poverty line. A few musicians make a decent living, and a tiny minority get rich, but even the latter category endure years of financial sacrifice while they shoot for the stars. If you cut the typical income down even further, we'll either have to starve to death or get different jobs, and then whose music are you going to listen to?

  4. Record labels are rich, and refusing to give their music away is pure greed
    This one is easier for people to buy into, but consider the implications of this logic. The Gap is a very wealthy corporation, so shouldn't you be able to walk into their stores and take what you want? BMW is rolling in dough, so why not hijack one of their factories and give their cars away? It might sound nice, but this is not a sustainable economic model. Anyway, it seems to me that people who want something for nothing are really the greedy ones.

  5. Distributing music on a hunk of plastic is unnecessary and outmoded
    I agree, but bypassing current distribution systems by illegally copying music will not help bring about a better system. In fact, I believe that renegade activity will only make the record labels more resistant to change, and more likely to obstruct new advances in technology.

  6. Eighteen dollars is too much for a CD, so it's okay to get the music for free if I can
    This argument displays an ignorance of a basic economic law called supply and demand. Consumers don't set prices; manufacturers or retailers don't really even set prices; in fact, the market sets prices. If $18 was truly too expensive, and people stopped buying CDs because they couldn't afford them, the prices would come down! Stealing, however, generally makes prices go up, just as it does in clothing or department stores with high rates of shoplifting.

  7. Most CDs only have one good song, so why should I have to pay for the whole album?
    The largest record labels tend to prefer albums which they believe contain one or two hits, even if the rest of the album is under par. But the majority of albums are released by people who have enough pride in their work to create a solid, consistent collection of songs. It's your job, as a consumer, to determine which albums are worth the money, just like it's your job to select a worthwhile movie, restaurant, or new car. Fortunately, you have music reviews, web sites, and the recommendations of friends to guide you. Good luck -- I know you can do it!

  8. Most music that gets released these days is crap, so why should I have to pay for it?
    I would answer that with another question, "So why do you want to download it?" Give me a break. How far would you get at Domino's saying, "Look, your pizza is crap, why don't you give me one free ... and can I have extra cheese on that?"

  9. Since MP3s have lower sound quality than CDs, people will still buy CDs anyway
    Imagine that I went out and bought the latest issue of Newsweek, made 100,000 photocopies, and started selling them. When I got sued by the magazine's owners, I told them, "Don't worry about me, my copies are clearly lower quality than the original." Do you think they'd let me off the hook?

  10. CD sales are growing all the time, so MP3s must be good for the music business
    This doesn't mean that MP3s are causing CD sales to grow; that would be difficult to prove. More likely, a growth in CD sales is the result of a strong economy in general, and might be even higher if it weren't for MP3 distribution.

  11. Distributing music freely over the Internet will increase the kinds of music available to fans
    Did you ever hear the stories about size 9 being the only size of shoe available in the Soviet Union? That's because the government kept the price of shoes so low that the factories could only afford to make the most popular kind. Meanwhile, in the U.S.A., you can get shoes of any color, size, or shape, because the manufacturers are able to earn back their design and production costs. Choices only increase in industries that are profitable.

  12. I'm not charging anyone to copy my MP3 files, so I'm not doing anything illegal
    Sorry, but it's the copying that's illegal, not the selling. That's why it's called a copyright, not a sellright! If I steal your hubcaps and sell them, that's wrong. If I steal your hubcaps and give them away, that's also wrong. Get it?

Now, I'm all for digital distribution of music, convergence of media technology, and more direct links between musicians and fans. I like listening to songs on my laptop while I'm traveling, and I look forward to the day when I can release an album solely over the Internet. But I respect the implications of intellectual property, and I respect the musicians who put their heart and soul into their work, so I only use MP3 files that are authorized by the copyright owners.

If you go to the Barenaked Ladies web site and find a new release in MP3 format, you can bet that the band wants you to have that file, and I hope you download it. But when you see two dozen BNL songs on Napster, I'm pretty sure that the band didn't put them there, and would prefer that you buy the album so they can afford to make another album after that. Please don't copy music illegally. You won't be doing anybody a favor.


Digital blue jeans

I was chatting with some friends the other day about digitizing sound and pictures, and we decided that the next great discovery would be figuring out how to digitize physical matter. Among the many practical applications for this technology, we imagined that you could buy a pair of jeans online, download a data file describing the product, and then "print out" your new jeans on your computer's matter converter. Finally, one of the guys said bitterly, "Oh, yeah, but I suppose they'd still want to charge you for the jeans."

At that point, I understood why so many people are confused about digital music distribution. When you buy a pair of jeans, you're not just paying for a half pound of cotton and a few fasteners. You're paying for the research, prototyping, and testing that when into designing that pair of jeans, and the cost of the "digital" jeans should still reflect that.

Similarly, if you buy a book, you're not really interested in the ink and paper. You're interested in the ideas contained inside, ideas that took the author considerable time and trouble to work out. The cost of the ink and paper is negligible, but the book's cost reflects the author's hard work.

Now consider music. In "the old days" of vinyl records or compact discs, you weren't just spending your entertainment allowance on round pieces of plastic. You were paying for the writing, rehearsing, and studio costs that went into making that recording. In the last few years, computers and MP3 files might have eliminated the negligible cost of the plastic disc, but the more substantial production costs haven't changed. And that's why you should still expect to pay for products you use -- be they jeans or music -- even if you're downloading them from the Internet.