By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
One day, in computer-science class, Patterson consulted a fellow student, Rob Lord, who suggested that they sink $100 into the software required to digitize a song in MPEG layer 2 format and distribute it on Usenet, a network of discussion groups that was then the most heavily trafficked branch of the Internet. This was not the Internet we know today, what with its swarms of MP3s and disruptive file-sharing applications that have Metallica's Lars Ulrich in night sweats and the Recording Industry Association of America maneuvering its members into lock-down like anarchists at a WTO meeting. When Lord and Patterson posted "Tower of Babble" to the Usenet newsgroup alt.binaries.multimedia, they did it in 26 encoded parts. "We'd get messages like, 'Uh, could you repost part 24 please? It seems to have dropped out.'" The response overwhelmed them: "We got 30 or 40 e-mails from all over the world," Patterson remembers. "We thought, 'Jeez, there's some guy in Turkey wanting American music!'"
Patterson and Lord may or may not have been the first ever to upload a song on the Internet, but they were the first to share their tools with other musicians and launch a business based on the potential for distributing music with this new technology. Within months of that first Usenet posting, the pair began uploading their friends' bands' music and fielding requests from musicians around the world who wanted to mimic their strategy. With songs pouring into their vaults, they set up an FTP site where they could store the files whole and unencoded, and called it the Internet Underground Music Archive, or IUMA. Each band was asked for a donation of $10 to $20. "But to our surprise," Patterson recalls, "there was so much enthusiasm that everyone sent in $20."
If IUMA was meant to be a means of showcasing songs in the hope of getting a label's attention, it evolved into a place where a musician who was dropped from a label or never signed a contract at all could build a fan base without spending thousands of dollars on marketing. Where once only the privileged artist of cult fame -- Zappa, for example, or the Grateful Dead -- could disdain a record company's support or reject it altogether, IUMA was creating a model by which obscure musicians could dream of making good without a label's largess. By 1995, IUMA was a full-time operation with a staff. And Patterson made a prediction: "By the year 2000," he declared, "anyone with a sound card should be able to listen to a complete online [music] library." Unlike so many early predictions about Internet technology, this one came true.
In the year 2001, online music libraries are dominating entertainment law, dinner-party discussion, trade-magazine articles, and even content on gearhead Web sites once dedicated to cryptography and code writing. MPEG layer 3 audio compression, more commonly known as MP3, has been widely available since 1996, making it possible to reduce the size of an audio file by a factor of 12 while still preserving most of its fidelity. Broadband services running into ever more households have reduced the time it takes to download those files. Most of all, peer-to-peer file-sharing services such as Napster have promoted the idea that the Internet is a place to find music.
Since the phenomenon of Internet music became impossible to ignore in the late 1990s, the RIAA has positioned itself as its victim, characterizing online music traders as hacker pirates and describing the circulation of digitized tunes as music-business losses. Yet networked computers merely stepped into a widening void, created in large part by the industry's own profit-obsessed impatience with anything but the most generic of artists. MP3.com and Napster gained recognition not just by offering free music but by catering to individual desires in an increasingly homogenized market controlled by five multinational corporations with their souls in the international stock market: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, BMG Entertainment, AOL/Time Warner and EMI/Capitol.
MP3.com's new parent, UMG, owns 16 labels, including A&M, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Geffen, Interscope, Island Def Jam, Jimmy and Doug's Farmclub.com, MCA Nashville, MCA Records, Mercury, Motown, Philips, Polydor, Universal and Verve Music Group, "as well as a multitude of record labels owned or distributed by its record-company subsidiaries around the world," according to its own press release. To make matters worse, commercial radio has been eviscerated and left for dead by the rise of Clear Channel Communications in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which lifted media-ownership restrictions.
But the Internet, to paraphrase cypherpunk John Gilmore, interprets corporate interference as damage and routes around it; the eccentric and marginal find a perpetual audience online. The Big Five might still know how to engineer a hit; what they've forgotten is how labels like Elektra or Warner, before the buyouts, roped in fringe audiences by supplementing their pop rosters with idiosyncratic acts of genuine artistic merit. Those audiences are now being forced to follow their artists to Web sites.
AFTER JUDGE MARILYN PATEL OF THE FEDeral District Court required Napster to filter out copyrighted material being exchanged on its distributed network of servers, the record companies rushed to create their own downloadable music portals. AOL/Time Warner, Bertelsmann AG, EMI Group and RealNetworks have concocted a plan to license songs to subscription services via a venture called MusicNet, which recently inked a licensing agreement with Napster. MP3.com's technology and community will augment Duet, a service concocted by Vivendi Universal, Sony and Yahoo. MTV plans to sell downloadable singles and CDs through RioPort. IUMA is a brand now, acquired by the online subscription service Emusic in 1999, dropped when Emusic ran short of cash, re-acquired by Italian-based music portal Vitaminic the same week Emusic was bought, for $25 million, by UMG.