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Downloading the Future 

The MP3 Revolution — the End of the Industry as We Know It

Wednesday, Mar 24 1999
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Illustration by Alex Munn

Chuck D, voice, lyricist and leader of the veteran rap group Public Enemy, has been in the game too long to let a little thing like a multinational cartel shake him up. At age 38, Chuck may photograph a bit older and beefier than 12 years ago, when Public Enemy first marked its territory as the world’s angriest and most intensely political rap band, but not much has changed otherwise — not his ever-present baseball cap nor the stentorian tones in which he belts out ultraconfrontational raps like "Louder Than a Bomb," "Rebel Without a Pause" and "Welcome to the Terrordome."

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Even now the voice is a tad intimidating, even via cell phone from his car, winding through the streets of Atlanta, as Chuck (a.k.a. Carlton Ridenhour) announces his plans to assault the latest power to fall into his sights: the $40-billion-per-annum global music industry.

"With Chuck D and Public Enemy, they know they have hell on their hands. Because now I’m a free agent, and I’m going to be rolling through that motherfucker like," he pauses, searching for the appropriate football analogy, "like Jack Tatum!" (That’s Jack Assassin" Tatum to NFL nostalgia buffs.)

In years past, the industry would have scoffed at Chuck, but no longer. Now, Chuck is wielding a not-so-secret weapon — a technological innovation known as mp3. Simply put, mp3 is a method for digital recording that crunches music into files small enough to be quickly uploaded and easily shot around the Internet. For the first time, grabbing high-quality music off the Net is Gen-X-attention-span-friendly.

Just months ago, that curious term "mp3" probably hadn’t passed the lips of any but the most dedicated Internet denizen. But a couple of months constitutes an entire epoch on the turbocharged time line of the Net. By now, "mp3" has become a code word for what amounts to a populist uprising.

The big music corporations can now thank the mp3 phenomenon for two big problems:

· With mp3, it’s an elementary matter for anyone to copy songs off CDs and offer them gratis to a potential audience of millions.

· The format allows bands to distribute their music directly to music buyers, without going through the labels.

At stake for the record labels, then, are the profits they make from selling their products — and the possibility that they may end up with no products to sell.

"All of a sudden, a kid in North Dakota or anyone in the world can take a song and put it up onto the Internet and have the same distribution power as the largest multinational, mega-conglomerate corporation in the world," says Jeff Price, general manager of spinART Records, an independent label that is the first to make its entire catalog available on the Net in mp3 format. "That is a big fucking deal. We have just chopped these fuckers off at the knees!"

"We’re going to float free safety through the music business," agrees Chuck, invoking another gridiron metaphor. "Releasing music, pushing more artists, pirating, bootlegging. You name it and Public Enemy is definitely going to push the envelope on changing the industry."

The first new, Internet-only Public Enemy release went online in January: "Swindlers Lust," a rap tirade against the record industry.

Will the recording industry ever accede to this radical transformation? Are we headed for a rock & roll heaven of free tunes just sitting on the Internet available for a mouse click? Or will the corporations that run the business find a way to put the once-untamable Internet in a figure-four leg lock?

Judging by how record labels and their highly active trade group — the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) — have responded, mp3 has the industry in terror. Small Web-site operators have been sued; a major Silicon Valley tech firm was slapped with a temporary injunction against selling its mp3 player; established artists like Public Enemy who post their own mp3 files have been forced to delete the songs from their Web sites; the RIAA’s official piracy policy warns that even copying a song to the hard drive of your own home computer is against the law.

The RIAA says the problem is "security" — preventing people from duplicating songs that they download off the Net. But how? Some of the methods they’re considering are encryption (scrambling the data, similar to how a pay cable channel scrambles its signal), "watermarking" (placing an invisible digital fingerprint in every file so that copies can be traced to their origin) or both. Or something else, like a blocking mechanism that simply stymies digital copying altogether. Not even the record labels know exactly what type of security they want. But they’re working on it.

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