photo My Point Of View
Paul Stark
co-founder of Twin/Tone Records

(17 February 1999)

There's a lot of talk these days about MP3 sound files...and how it is either the end of the world as we know it...or the next best thing....

Just what is MP3?

As you well know (or should know), sound files in full digital format take up a lot of space. One minute of stereo music takes aprox. 10 megs of space. If you have to download a three minute song... you could spend hours with even a reasonable modem connection. To get around this long download time we use compression. Just as the photos on the Web are compressed as gif or jpeg files, we use algorithms which reduce sound files to about 1/10 or less of their original size.

As with photo compression, as you turn up the amount of compression, the more information you loose. With photos you get less and less definition as you increase the compression, with music you get less dynamic and frequency range as you make the file smaller and smaller, unless, you figure a way to take some of the sound out, the part that is hidden behind the louder portions of the track.

With soundtracks for movies going digital and multi channel the movie industry needed a way to get more "sound" on the film, lower dynamic and frequency range were not options... Enter MP3 (and other similar methods) of sound compression. Much research has gone into making these new compression routines sound smooth and sound as close to CD quality while at the same time reducing the size of the file as much as possible. Some companies license these routines. Dolby Labs came up with AC3 a few years back and it found it's way into many products used on the Web. MP3 is different in that it is free to use, there is no license fee to pay in order to use it. Some companies bundle the compression with a screen interface and charge a modest fee, but the compression itself is free. This is why MP3 has gained a great deal of popularity.

MP3 is actually, by today's standards, an older standard (being a few years old) and just reaching it's peak popularity now. The newer "AAC" compression is the current king of quality and file size reduction. AAC was developed by a company which charges for it's use, thus you don't find it out there other than in the products from the "big boys" (Real Networks, Liquid Audio, etc.) There will be another one even better in the next few months, and then another after that...

Why do record labels hate MP3?

To be honest, they don't...What they hate is what MP3 represents... A change in the way we purchase music. Nothing to do with the Internet and download revolution, MP3 symbolizes the return to singles rather than multi-song projects. If you were, let's say, Sony and you had a project with one song on it that everyone wanted, would you rather make everyone purchase the full CD for $17.00 or just the song for $2.00... (does the Titanic soundtrack come to mind?)

Meanwhile...(pull out some industry smoke screens)... It is written that: MP3 means; free music, bootleg music, the end of control, that people will stop buying the real recordings...

  • MP3 means free music.... nonsense, CD's have been free music for years...anyone could at any time in the past 15 years taken a CD and made illegal copies of it . It is easier now to make high quality copies because the cost to duplicate digitally is so much lower The costs of hard disk space, CD burners and faster computers are almost 1/2 of what they were just a year ago.

  • MP3 means bootleg music...nonsense, no more than any other format...with Shockwave and Real Player offering ways of placing music on the net as well MP3 is not alone (it is just one of the easiest and most cost effective)

  • MP3 means the end of control... That record companies and artists will loose control over their own material...when did they/we ever have it? I have never been able to stop someone from making a cassette of a CD and giving it to a friend next door. The only thing the web adds to this scenario is that "next door" turns into the entire world neighborhood. There have always been copyright laws, those aren't going away. If you bootleg, steel, or otherwise use copyrighted material in a manner against the law, you can be fined or even imprisoned.

  • People will stop buying the "authorized" recordings....I don't know of any research showing this to be true....I would argue that those who download illegal MP3 songs in great quantity wouldn't be buying those CD's anyway.... those who make up the rest of us, if anything, after downloading a song and listening to it a few times, we might be more prone to purchase the CD.

So MP3 is okay?

as always... Yes and No...

MP3 as a "movement" is fine, as an actual method of downloading music it needs some additions.

I would argue that all songs should contain a watermark which "hides" in the background of the music and contains all the copyright and ownership information. CD's should contain this information, downloads should contain this information as a minimum. With digital downloads each file is transmitted individually, thus each file could contain it's own unique watermark containing additional information.

As of this month there is much being worked on... Liquid Audio has just announced that they will start working with the MP3 format (as well as AC3 and AAC). They will continue to lead the pack in watermarking and tools that make it easy to do commerce on the net. A2B for AT&T continues to offer free samples using their system. (They have not rolled out their commerce system yet). IBM is testing their "Madison Project" in San Diego. A program that allows people to download full Cds and burn them at home making use of a cable modem. Goodnoise and many of the other MP3 oriented companies have announced that they will start watermarking their files.

Is MP3 for me??

If you want people to hear your songs and are not interested in selling them the songs... Real Networks and MP3 are a good route to go. Both can be played via Netscape or Explorer without additional plug-ins. For a single band or artist, Real Networks offers free programs to encode. For larger operations MP3's free price is hard to beat.

I am most interested in protecting the copyrights of my artists and keeping actuate statistics on all my downloads, I also want a solution for selling my sound files which allows for easy and accurate reporting for royalties. I may use MP3 for samples in the future, but at this point I like the smaller size and the better quality of AAC and will continue to use it via the solution Liquid Audio provides.

In review, there are many questions and few answers...

  • MP3 offers an easy way to compress and playback sound files on a variety of different computer platforms.

  • Many companies are developing products which will use MP3 files (as well as other compression routines)

  • MP3 does not offer a solution for security and copyright is just compression

  • MP3 is easy to use, but it's not the best compression out there. (But it is free)

  • There are no standards for watermarking and copyright protection at this point

  • Watermarking and other security features need to be "burned in" when you compress, thus any files you do today in MP3 will need to be re-done later when you do want to include them.

As you have learned from my other diatribes...I believe the future of the entertainment business is in electronic transmission...downloads for the near future, streaming in the distant future. MP3 is a tool among many others to be used in bringing music via the web into our homes. It is a major step forward but it's not the "end all". We will see many changes and modifications

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