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.
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
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
Something A Little Different
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
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."
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.
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