By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
In the meantime, the RIAA has vigorously pursued Internet sites that offer unauthorized mp3 files for free. No one was making any money off the piracy, but they still felt the wrath of the RIAA.
"An infringement is an infringement, but we have not gone after consumers who are illegally downloading copies," says RIAA senior executive vice president and general counsel Cary Sherman. "We have felt no compunction about going after the operator of the illegal site, though that person may not be doing it for profit."
On May 5, 1998, the RIAA sued a Phoenix, Arizona, Internet-service provider for featuring an mp3 "song of the week." The provider offered a total of just 50 songs. The same day, the RIAA also sued a Washington-state-based site, operated by "a married couple in their 30s," that had 1,100 illegal mp3 songs in its downloadable archives.
Those suits are still unresolved, but earlier, in January of last year, the RIAA settled three suits against mp3 sites, forcing the sites to close down and winning damages of over $1 million against each. Magnanimously, the RIAA agreed not to collect the cash unless the site operators resumed their wicked ways.
"The message was received," says Sherman. "We did this for publicity, and we got a lot of publicity for it."
Even as the industry moguls move to head off the sudden threat posed by mp3, three distinct types of mp3-based online music distribution have emerged without the mega-corporate seal of approval.Free and legal. Led by the San Diego–based Web site MP3.com (http://www.mp3.com), dozens of sites now offer free mp3-format songs with the permission of the bands. Most of the bands on these sites are unsigned or obscure. Paid and legal. GoodNoise (http://www.goodnoise.com) is the best-known of these sites, which allow downloading of songs by better-known (though not upper-tier) artists for a price. Ninety-nine cents per song is standard. The GoodNoise catalog includes Frank Zappa, They Might Be Giants, Bruce Cockburn and many others. New York–based independent spinART sells downloadable versions of its CD releases, via a deal with GoodNoise. SpinART was the first label to offer its entire catalog in mp3 format (as well as on "physical" CDs). Free and definitely not legal. Better known as "piracy," this method of distribution involves ordinary folks copying tracks off CDs, converting them to mp3 form (a near-effortless process) and uploading them to the Net, where anyone in the world can grab them.
Already, thousands of commercial songs sit on the Net for the taking, in mp3 form. They’ve been put there by college kids, high school computer brats, hackers and anyone with the minimal ingenuity required to operate a few simple pieces of cheap (often free) software.
While piracy is the designated bÃªte noire in the record industry’s struggle over mp3, an equal threat to the recording oligopoly is the defection of the artists who provide the lifeblood of the industry, and the rise of independents that can undercut the major labels. Independents and unsigned bands are leaping into mp3-format distribution.
MP3.com went online just over a year ago and now claims a million visitors per month. CEO Michael Robertson has become something of a spokesman for the mp3 movement. His site, in January, received a boost in the form of $11 million from a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm. Thousands of bands post their music on MP3.com. Robertson says that in one day as many as 148 bands have signed up for his service — which is free to bands as well as listeners.
Last month, the Seattle-based Sub Pop label (best known for launching Nirvana) began posting mp3 songs by Combustible Edison, Saint Etienne and several other acts on the label. Sub Pop partnered with Robertson’s MP3.com to make the tracks available for free. And starting in April, Platinum Entertainment (parent company of several midsize labels) will hook up with the site MusicMaker.Com (which specializes in made-to-order CD compilations) to create the Web’s largest commercial mp3 site, peddling a reported 200,000 downloadable tracks from hundreds of artists ranging from Dionne Warwick to the Ramones.
Some bands are setting out on their own, and the implications for the bottom line are inescapable. For example, the band Soul Coughing, which records for the Warner subsidiary Slash Records, has been posting an "mp3 of the week" on its official site (http://www.soulcoughing.com) for several months. None of the tracks posted for free online is offered anywhere else — they’re mostly live cuts and other unreleased recordings.
"Warner probably doesn’t even know anyway, and if they offered a serious challenge I would throw a hissy fit and not tour," declares the band’s keyboardist, Mark De Gli Antoni. "Eventually, the album as a physical commodity will disappear," adds lead singer Michael Doughty. "All music will be downloaded, or at least uploaded from software into the hard drive you keep your music collection in. No question. Done deal."
"It just helps in terms of publicity, letting people know you have a record coming out," says Richard Valentin, lead vocalist for the punk-pop band Poster Children, who record for spinART. Their latest album, New World Record, was released in both CD and online mp3 formats. GoodNoise sells the online version. But in advance of the release, the band posted one free song in mp3 on the GoodNoise site and saw it downloaded 3,000 times in the first week.