Brand-New Lag

Late as usual, labels learn that downloading is their friend

The music business is finally figuring out how to profit from the previous generation of peer-to-peer technology. Companies like Webspins and BigChampagne monitor the most-traded songs on file-sharing networks (last week's No. 1 was Hoobastank's "The Reason"), and record labels have noticed that unauthorized MP3 traffic is a pretty good sign of what people want to hear. Billboard recently reported how, for instance, Maverick Records parlayed the heavy trading of Story of the Year's "Until the Day I Die" into airplay and, eventually, a gold album.

Not that the Recording Industry Association of America is grateful. On March 23, it sued another 532 uploaders, 89 of them college students; a week later, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry took legal action against 247 more swappers in Canada, Denmark, Germany, and Italy. On top of that, the RIAA has abruptly shut down its "Clean Slate" amnesty program, in which file traders could turn themselves in, delete their unauthorized files, agree not to do it again, sign an affidavit, and open themselves up to potential lawsuits from everyone else. No great loss—only 1,108 people had ever signed up for it anyway.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department formed an intellectual-property task force at the end of March. On April 21 and 22, the DOJ and FBI's "Operation Fastlink," in collaboration with law enforcement groups from 10 other countries, seized upwards of 200 computers involved with what John Ashcroft called "the international online piracy world." By that, he didn't mean college students trading String Cheese Incident MP3s, but "warez" groups, who specialize in cracked software, games, and movies.

Music geeks have been moving past old-fashioned peer-to-peer MP3 trading anyway. Audioblogs like Soul Sides and Said the Gramophone have proliferated over the last couple of months. They're just like regular weblogs, except that every day they present a special MP3 or two (often not-yet-released or out-of-print treats), usually with extensive explanatory comments. Most audioblogs only make songs available for a week or so; few, if any, have experienced legal hassles so far, although they occasionally get asked to remove a song.

The music business may have more reason to fear two other developments that have been around for a few years but are reaching critical mass. The first is FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec—a way of making sound files smaller without compromising sound quality. (Metallica are selling FLAC as well as MP3 downloads of every show on their current tour; by comparison, Prince's online store, which sells only Windows Media files, seems positively Stone Age.)

The second is Bram Cohen's program BitTorrent. It's a tool for "swarming downloads": a way to quickly mass-distribute very large, popular files without using too much bandwidth from a single host. Initially spread by sites like the jam-band tapers' mecca etree.org it's become the program of choice for trading TV shows, movies, and concerts. Cohen has noted that using BitTorrent for illegal trading is "patently stupid," because users can't hide their IP addresses. (Evidently, there's a lot of stupidity out there.)

Let's say you want to get a copy of the Pixies' first reunion show, the Minneapolis gig from April 13—it's in demand right now, and therefore a likely candidate for BitTorrent. Once you've located a "torrent" file for it (which tells the program what it's looking for, and is usually a few dozen kilobytes), the program seeks out a bunch of other users who have the concert on their hard drives and downloads little pieces of it from each of them simultaneously. Before too long, you've got the whole 27-song set as CD-quality FLAC files, and in the meantime you're passing bits of it on to other Pixies buffs.

BitTorrent has legitimate uses for sure: A few weeks ago, Blizzard Entertainment used it to distribute a new 2-gigabyte game. But it also means that full-length, full-quality albums, with graphics, are now almost as easy to replicate over the Internet as MP3s. If the major labels are smart, they'll figure out a way to make money from swarming-download technology—but they don't have long.

 
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