The FezGuys
The Dawning of Online Commerce
or Ducats For Downloads?
[ No. 11 - September 1997 ]

Things That Are New

Headspace Audio has released Beatnik version 1.1. Also, Microsoft made another step in their quick entry into audio and video streaming announcing a deal (that included some money!) for a minor financial stake in Progressive Networks.

Related URLs:
Headspace - <>
Microsoft - <>
Progressive Networks - <>

These are the times that try one's soul. Many different groups are creating many different methods to use (and abuse) the new territory of electronic distribution of music.

People have been saying for a long time that it's going to happen. Everyone now agrees it's happening. But there is, as yet, no agreement on what the time frame is and what standards to adopt. Very few of the large players want to sit down and commit time and resources. They prefer to wait and see how the mavericks will stir up the pot. They can then can jump in with a large legal spoon to form the as-yet-unwritten laws. The mavericks are in there messing around, and a number of them are likely to get the proverbial arrows in the back. One example of a maverick might be a small website served from an office in a suburb, assuming - mistakenly, it turns out - that they've got the rights to distribute some unreleased Jimi Hendrix material. Another might be someone with a server in a college dorm, placing enormous amounts of copyrighted music on the Web (in glorious MPEG Layer III - because it sounds better). Both of these parties exist and have been notified by large organizations that the way they are going about distributing these files is legally wrong. Someone who has a contract with someone else is not getting paid.

Well and good. The accepted legal standards of financial obligation must be obliged or we have no society, or at least an environment where musicians aren't making a living. But we are working within a playground of untried possibilities. At this exploratory period in the history of audio on the Internet some have found it easier to get forgiveness than ask permission.

Things That Are Cool

A couple columns ago we told you about 9-Up, which broadcasts San Francisco bands from a rehearsal space. On the flip side of live music, also served from San Francisco, is a little place that's finally getting some attention - The Beta Lounge. Under the HotWired umbrella, The Beta Lounge has been running for some time now (though only recently got some front page exposure from HotWired). Features include weekly audio and video streams of sharp DJs cutting live to their web page. As you'd expect, archives of past performances make it all available all the time. Check it out at <>.

Historically, a CD sells through a retail outlet and everybody gets their cut. This is pretty straightforward. Full retail of, say, $15.98 means that everybody gets something tangible, even if it's just a couple of cents (usually only the artist gets that). But distributing digital media through an electronic network of computers requires a more delicate and subtle hand. Individual songs, instead of the whole album, can be purchased. (Does this indicate a classic historical reverse: the death of the album at the hands of the single?) And the meat of the matter: payment. Who gets what and how much? Experiments are being made in which downloading one piece of music will cost you, the consumer, twenty-five cents. That quarter is split evenly between the digital distribution company and the artist. But what about the label or the collection society (if, indeed, they are necessary)? Starting with a pie two-bits wide makes for some pretty small pieces to be handed around. It will require a lot of downloads to make digital distribution of recorded musical product a serious contender in the record industry's eyes.

It's clear the use of the Internet to distribute copyrighted media is changing the self-image of the music business. The important thing to remember is that purchasing music is exactly that, just the music, not the piece of plastic containing it.

Let's make some observations on a couple of groups who are attempting it right now, by whatever means available. Who died and made us The Judge? Yikes, it's another "proactive" FezGuys critique!

The Existing Paradigm Folded Into The Web

We visit, first, the website of J-Bird Records (<>). We see a pretty simple startup page. This is good. It sucks when websites are a chaotic jumble of imagery and aggresive plugins that automatically begin screeching as soon as your presence is detected. A click away we see a simple (though rather hefty) image of a (surprise!) office in a record company. In this office there is a skinny blond female figure wearing a sleeveless green top sitting behind a monitor screen and not looking at you. A large message informs us that we have arrived at the location of the "First WWW Record Label." Of course we know this is false. But it's only marketing and marketing is never intended to express (or be accepted as) truth. "Where Users Make the Hits," suggests another adline, elsewhere on the page.

A "Get Signed" button attracts our attention. We figure it may be an online form for submitting your music for consideration, but what we get is a photograph of the J-Bird CEO, a man sitting on the grass with two dogs, in front of a large American motorcycle. He tells us a little about himself. He used to work for two record companies: Polygram and Angel. We eventually arrive at a form. Apparently, if we, as artists, are interested in "getting signed" with J-Bird Records we must fill this form out and J-Bird Records will use the United States Postal System to mail us a package. Here is a fine opportunity for J-Bird to take advantage of the benefits of the World Wide Web (instead of snail-mail) for more direct and efficient communication - we hope they come around to this realization soon...

Continuing our drift the the J-Bird website, we are drawn to an area called: "The Lounge." A variety of images collide with each other and fight for our attention. Several cheesy 3D renderings make the links on this page rather difficult to find. A contest link finds us in another form in which we are promised a chance to win our choice of five CD's from the catalog of this label if we add our name to a regular mailing list. Way in the back of the "Lounge" image, nestled between clipart F-16s and odd, flowy line drawings is a "Jukebox." An alphabetical (by first name) listing of artists with RealAudio and ShockWave clips is provided. None of the Shockwave clips work. The first clip we try (in RealAudio) has no fade. There are no links to, or any information about, the artists and no explanation of how to acquire the music.

We visit the "Store." Here is another polygon-ish 3D rendering of a typical "record store," with signs such as classical, alternative, jazz, etc. Some are empty. If we want to purchase music we are asked to submit our request for a physical CD to be (once again) snail-mailed to us using an un-encrypted order form containing our credit card information. There is a 30 day, money back guarantee. We locate some skimpy biographical information about the artists beneath the "Store" page.

There is a little "Radio" icon that, if clicked on, provides a stream of unlabeled music. On the playback window there is no mention of the title, the author or how we can acquire it. The audio quality is RealAudio 3.0. That means you can hear it but you wouldn't want to pay money for a download with that particular quality of sound.

It's pretty clear that this website is not about the electronic distribution of digital media. It is a promotional tool fronting a mail-order house. Not much new ground is being broken here. There are many questions, too, that an artist may ask. What is the nature of the legal agreements? Why is this record company any better then any other? Is it really different at all?

Some of the press on the site tells more about J-Bird then the site itself. A Billboard article (no date) describes the label's CEO as "promoting" bands on the Internet. How is this being done? Just because a website exists doesn't mean us whiny mosquitos will hover around it seeking warm yummy blood. Another news article, from October 1996, reports on the website's "individual band web pages" (there are none) and "chat rooms" (where are they?). With a conservative estimate of over 65,000 music-based web sites to get your downloads, it's intelligent to deliver on your promises.

The model for this self-described "First WWW Record Label" is: listen to some "below AM-Radio quality" audio clips and buy a CD by mailorder.

Something A Little Different

At <> we find Nordic Entertainment Worldwide; a company that claims to be the "First Record Label Of Its Kind." That statement is a safer bet. This site has advertising, suggesting there is capital flowing through. The ads don't link to anything, though, and that doesn't inspire confidence in the site's physical infrastructure. There is a lot of information on this first page and it's a little overwhelming, but its matter-of-fact style is refreshing. We are told that Nordic Entertainment is selling "digital copies" of music using either of two online payment systems (Cybercash or Cybercoin). Links to these payment systems are provided. These are encrypted and assure reasonable security. A user must have a credit card.

Surprisingly, in the list of band sites there are no music files. Those files turn up on a page called: "downloadable music", encoded with MPEG Layer III (whose audio quality is as good as it gets right now.) Several of the files are named incorrectly. When we click on a preview MPEG audio clip the mime type is listed as MPEG video. This means the file will attempt to launch your MPEG video player, which doesn't play MPEG III audio files.

This site offers downloads of individual songs using an encrypted credit card billing system and costs cents per song. There is no mention of watermarking the individual files for copyright protection.

The artist receives quarterly statements about number of downloads and (hopefully) a check (in the mail) for their share. Nordic receives their expenses and percentage. Everybody is happy. There is no information about this arrangement on the site. The company emailed us promptly, though, upon our request for more info.

There is a mention of vinyl manufacturing resources being available. In an electronic distribution medium this feels amusing, whimsical and comforting all at once.

This site is trying to be all things to all people. They can manufacture physical product for the artist, as well as distribute music online. There are quite a lot of separate areas to access in order to gather all of the necessary information about how the site works. Nordic Entertainment Worldwide is an actual working example of a digital distribution system using the Internet as a tool for the commerce of music. Whether or not that makes them a label or a distributor or some amalgamation of both remains to be seen. We're not convinced the site understands what it is, either.

Out of 65,000 individual groups, these are only two attempting to find a system that works for the business of music distribution (and sales) using the Internet. Since there is no precedent everyone is cooking up a system with a slightly different style. Standards are simultaneously delicately considered and rushed into headlong. Hopefully these same standards will simultaneously make sense by equitably benefitting the artist and making it simple for the user. Among the bewildering smorgasboard of Internet audio entrees are many tasty and nutritious treats. You - the music lover/producer/ artist/business pro - make the difference by piling your plate with audio entrees that work in real-world applications and sound good. As the quick-tongued waiter once said: "Pace is the secret to a good buffet."

Letters To The FezGuys

Dear FezGuys...Thanks so much for your clear explanation on creating sound files on the web! As a musician and Internet geek, I knew the value of being able to create sound files and put them on my bands' page, but I was unsure where to begin. Your articles made the difference! Within an hour of reading your first article, my bands' first .MPEG file was on the Internet. Since then, I've created 4 more of them! Thanks again... May the Fez be with you... Mike

Dear Mike, Kudos to you for taking the ball and running with us, and thanks for reporting back on how we've helped. The FezGuys

May the Fez be with you!

The FezGuys encourage participation in the Internet audio community. Please stop by: <>



About the authors:

Jon Luini is a working technophile, a musician (bass player/singer) with full-blown facility and extensive experience on the Web and no free time. He is a co-founder of IUMA and MediaCast, co-creator of Addicted To Noise, and runs an Internet and music consulting and technology company, Chime Interactive (formerly Evolve Internet Solutions). <>

Allen Whitman is a working musician (bass player/singer/producer) with a keen, real-world interest in the practical use of the Web. Music credits include: The Mermen, "Brine-The Antisurf Soundtrack, biL, Deep Field South, Doormouse, Delectric and Drizzoletto. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Wired, EQ, Revolution, Yahoo Internet Life, Prosound News, Surround Professional, Replication News and others. <>

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