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Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

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The first 12-inch vinyl record album I ever bought with my own money was "The Crazy World of Arthur Brown". The time was 1968 and I was 15 years old.

Over the course of the next couple of decades, I bought somewhere around 1,200 other vinyl albums. Then, in the late 1980's, I switched to buying CDs. I've got more than 500 of those and I add to my collection all the time.

In the meantime, I've recorded dozens of cassette tapes of music from those records and CDs. After all, I need something to which I can listen as I sit on Interstate 80 along with what seems like the rest of the Earth's population, waiting my turn to cross the Emperor Norton Bridge from the Emeryville mudflats to San Francisco (where most of my clients are based).

In the eyes of the Recording Industry Association of America, (sorry, no URL--it points to a corporate server for Verio's East Region,) I am a sinner. Unfortunately (for the RIAA, that is) I'm not an actual criminal, because, despite RIAA's very best efforts, Congress has not yet yielded to industry pressure to declare making cassette tapes from your own collection of albums and CDs a crime.

Over the years, the recording industry as a whole has forged an ethical and moral leadership claim second only to that of the Cosa Nostra. For instance, you may not be aware that the actual production cost of a Top Ten CD, including all packaging, is on the order of $1.25 per item. By comparison, vinyl albums run around $2.50 per unit (depending on the number of colors in the jacket art and the spot price of vinyl, among other things).

Now, the most I ever paid for a vinyl record album was on the order of $7 per disc. Then CDs came along and the standard price of a dose of music jumped from $7 to $13 or so per disc. Think that price increase was passed along to the artists whose work those discs represent?

Think again.

No, the recording industry doubled the cost of music, obsoleted the vinyl format (forcing most people to repurchase the same music in CD format) and cheerfully pocketed the difference.

In case you were wondering, that's called greed. Drooling, slobbering, hairy-palmed avarice, disguised as technical progress.

You also may not recall that at one time, back in the early 1990's, RIAA launched a campaign to get Congress to declare sales of used CDs illegal. As usual, they pretended their slimy little crusade was in reality an effort to protect the interests of the artists whose talent and work they parasitize. In fact, RIAA managed to persuade Garth Brooks--better known for synthesizing rock theatrics with Nashville twang--to act as their beard in the effort to convince Congress that it was only right and natural that Americans give up any right to re-sell CDs they'd purchased.

RIAA's scheme failed. Miserably. And Darth backed away from the "selling your used CDs is tantamount to stealing bread from the very mouths of your favorite multi-zillionaire musicians" party line so fast, snickering witnesses swore he'd exceeded light speed.

See, unlike vinyl albums, when treated with respect, the sound quality of CD recordings doesn't deteriorate regardless of how many times they're played. First time, ten-thousandth time, it makes no difference--CDs sound the same every time. So a used CD is a much more valuable commodity than is a used vinyl album.

From RIAA's perspective, the problem is that they--the record companies--make zero profit on the sales of used CDs. Likewise, musicians make zero royalties on sales of used CDs. And RIAA hates that. Never mind that the record company AND the artist have each already earned a percentage of the original, heavily-inflated sales price. It just gravels the gold-chain-and-coke-spoon crowd no end that none of the profit from the second sale sticks to their grubby mitts.

Now they're at it again--and this time, their target is on your turf and mine.

Listen to the Music

In 1988, the Joint Technical Committee on Information Technology of the International Standards Organization and the International Electrotechnical Commission established Working Group number 11 under the chairmanship of Leonardo Chiariglione. That body, more colloquially known as the Moving Picture Experts Group, was charged with the development of international standards for digital compression, decompression, processing, and coded representation of moving pictures and audio.

The MPEG Working Group is a big, diverse body. Its more than 300 representatives typically meet three times a year--the next meeting will be in Seoul, South Korea, March 15-19, if you're interested in attending. In 1992, its efforts produced the MPEG-1 standard--which was adopted in 1993 as ISO/IEC 11172, parts 1 through 5--for coding video and audio data at stream rates of up to 1.5 Mbits/sec.

ISO/IEC 11172-3 got the attention of Internet-savvy musicians right away. In remarkably short order a plethora of mostly free or shareware tools to produce, convert and play MPEG-1 Part 3 audio proliferated across the 'net. The reasons for this mass adoption were straightforward:

MPEG is an international open standard. You don't have to pay anyone to use the technology. That became a key consideration after Unisys launched its claim to royalty rights from anyone who created software that made use of Lempel-Ziv compression algorithms--algorithms that are part and parcel of the GIF image format. MPEG comes with no such constraints.

And MPEG can compress the heck out of CD-quality (i.e.--44.1 kHz stereo sampled) audio without adding unbearable amounts of noise or unduly impacting its dynamic or tonal quality. A 2 minute CD-quality stereo WAV file is about 7.5 megabytes in size. That WAV can be converted to a 128-bit/sec MPEG file a fifth its size--an important, maybe even critical, consideration in a networked environment where most end nodes are connected by analog modems.

So the Internet's musical community--not the RIAA thugs, but the mass of independent bands and artists and their hacker fans and supporters--ran off in all directions with MPEG-1, Part 3. They cooked up a bunch of MPEG players, file converters and associated utilities including the more-or-less industry standard for the Windows 9x/NT platform, Justin Frankel's WinAmp and began churning out myriad original recordings that anyone with an interest and an Internet account could download and enjoy to their heart's content.

Pigs on the Wing

The Compact Digital Audio Standard (also known as the "red book") spec for audio CDs was originally released in 1980. Back then, personal computers were still strictly a hobbist passion and the prospect of sub-$500 CD writers wasn't even a pinpoint on the horizon, so no one thought to incorporate any kind of copy protection into the standard.

MPEG-1 has no provision for copy protection, either--and chances are good that it would never have become the indy fave format that it's turned into if it had.

If you're the RIAA, that's a bad thing.

It's a bad thing because--horrors!--there's no way to keep people from making unauthorized MPEG copies of CDs. Anyone with a little MPEG freeware and a CDROM drive can rip tracks off an audio CD and convert them to MPEGs with less effort than it takes to cobble together a web page--and ANYONE can do that.

So, naturally, some people do just that.

They don't charge for the service and they don't make any money at it, but that doesn't matter to RIAA. Nosirreebub. From RIAA's perspective, it's piracy, plain and simple and they don't like it one teeny bit.

Now the fact is that, although a good bit of audio piracy goes on all the time, it's emphatically NOT a major drain on the income of the RIAA. Most of the folks who "pirate" tracks own legitimate editions of the recordings they copy. Most of those who download and listen to that "pirated" music are either too poor to afford to buy a "legit" copy (i.e.--they're students) or are likely to go buy their own retail copy if they like what they hear.

So most "pirate" listeners are either future RIAA consumers or they're tire kickers, out doing a little comparison shopping for their next musical purchase.

Dear Mr. Fantasy

On September 14, 1998, the folks at Diamond Multimedia announced that they would begin taking orders for their new Rio PMP300 Portable Music Player--a cassette-sized device into which users could load up to 30 minutes (45 minutes with an expansion card) of CD-quality MPEG audio. In essence, the Rio would be an MPEG Walkthing.

RIAA immediately filed suit against Diamond, seeking to strangle the Rio in its cradle. As a result, on October 16, 1998, Judge Audrey Collins of the Los Angeles Central District Court, issued a Temporary Restraining Order against the release of the Rio--an order she dropped ten days later, at the same time she refused to honor RIAA's request that she issue a Preliminary Injunction against release of the Rio.

On November 23, 1998, Diamond began shipping the Rio to its pre-order customers and retailers.

In my mind, that's a Good Thing.

I've been playing guitar since 1970. I hold or co-hold copyrights on over 3 dozen songs. In the early 1980's, I led a series of original rock bands in the San Francisco Bay Area--none of which ever managed to win a recording contract--and, as a result, I know quite a bit more about how the music industry works than does your average bear.

And I know one thing for sure--real musicians, real songwriters are primarily interested in making their art available to the widest possible audience. Sure, getting rich is a desirable thing--heck, for that matter, so is partying 'til dawn and raising hell in general. But it's not the central thing--it's not the reason you practice until your fingers bleed and it's not what keeps you showing up for rehearsals and honing your craft while you split your attention between your day job and the labor you love.

No, the point is to get people to listen to you--more than that, to take command of their emotions and make them feel the way you want them to feel, regardless of what they want.

Same deal with getting a recording contract.

Yeah, I'd like to be able to afford to buy one of Hendrix's guitars or to build my own recording studio--but what drove me then (and drives me still, because I never have given up entirely on music) is the prospect of turning on the radio and hearing MY music come pouring out of the speakers; of walking down the street and hearing passersby humming MY songs. Of climbing onto a stage and hearing the crowd roar with anticipation of hearing ME play and sing for them.

And, Darth Brooks aside, the same is true of virtually every musician I've ever met or with whom I've played.

And that's what really gravels me about the RIAA's clumsy efforts to smother the Rio. It's not about the music--it's about their money. (Not the artists' money, mind you--on average, they get less than a dollar in total royalties from every CD sold.) It's about trying to stifle competition--hey, when every indie band on the planet has unfettered access to a virtually cost-free distribution mechanism for its art, why should they let the RIAA's goons steal twelve-thirteenths of every dollar that art brings in?

It's about standing up to a bully.

And I hate bullies.

(Copyright© 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)