DOWN WITH DOWNLOADING
HOW THE MP3 REVOLUTION HAS CHANGED OUR LOCAL MUSIC LIFE
by Franklin Soults
The only light in the basement apartment comes from the glow of a computer screen. Outside it's getting dark, but the makeshift curtains covering the street-level windows look like they're perpetually drawn. It would make sense, given that this cinder-block two-bedroom apartment in a nondescript working-class complex is packed with expensive electronic music gear. A rectangular fortress of keyboards, amps and assorted heavy black gizmos clutter a full quarter of the room, butting right up against the glowing monitor, which might easily be taken as part of the music-making equipment, too.
In fact, it is. This is the Kent home and working studio space of Greg Malcolm and Chad Mossholder, partners in the electronic duo Twine. The pair have kindly invited me over after their day jobs to demonstrate the workings of the not-so-new MP3 technology. As has often been reported, "MP" is short for MPEG, the abbreviation of Italy's Moving Pictures Expert Group, which has been at work figuring out ways to effectively put movies on computers since the late '80s. In 1992, they came up with part of the answer in the Audio Layer 3 technology (the successor -- duh -- to Layers 1 and 2). Basically, it reduces unmanageable audio files by a ratio of 12 to 1, turning digital music from CDs into files that can be easily stored on a computer hard drive and transmitted via the Internet.
For a long time, no one aside from tech-heads much cared. In the six years between MP3's invention and the summer of '98, The New York Times ran exactly four mentions of the technology. But with the explosion of the Internet and the advent of high-speed modems, MP3 reached a cultural and technological critical mass, suddenly becoming a crucial component for countless pop music fans, not to mention every single record industry employee on the globe.
Sitting before his glowing computer, Greg Malcolm takes only a few minutes to show me why. He first visits www.MP3.com, a site devoted primarily to the legal distribution of thousands upon thousands of songs in MP3 format, most of them made available by small, often unsigned acts who are just trying to get their music heard outside their immediate circle of friends and family. With some fleet strokes, Malcolm finds and downloads the track "Killing Game" by one of the most obscure electronic artists he and Mossholder can think of, Autechre. Thirty seconds to a minute later, their screeching, bleating re-mix of this Skinny Puppy song is blaring over the stereo speakers hooked up to the computer.
Next, we go to the opposite end of the MP3 universe at www.Napster.com, a 6-month-old site which acts as a mutual transmission device between visitors. When hooked up to it, participants can browse each other's MP3 files -- literally allowing one desktop computer to grope the hard drive of another-- and copy whatever music the searcher finds. The warning on the free site demands that participants only share uncopyrighted material -- that is, songs that were never meant to be sold -- but that's not why anybody visits.
With a couple more keystrokes, Malcolm manages to find some Napster users currently online who have tastes as esoteric as his own, proving how large a population regularly visits the site. But he also shows me how easy it would be to find and download the most popular songs and albums in electronica -- entire discs by Moby, Chemical Brothers, you name it -- all of which would potentially violate those artists' copyrights. It's not just electronica that's available, either. Whatever your taste, the rule is "seek and ye will most likely find."
It doesn't take much thought to realize the potential ramifications of this insane buffet: Imagine having all you can eat, all the time, from every dish ever concocted on the planet, for the low, low price of zero dollars and no cents. If music is totally free to anybody who has the technology to grab it, the livelihood of everyone who makes money selling CDs is threatened. That includes not only giant greedy corporations, but the dewy-eyed youngsters hawking their music after a set at your local brewhouse this evening. On the other hand, as Mossholder and Malcolm are eager to demonstrate, the dissemination of free music is also a powerful tool for up-and-coming artists to make connections that might help their careers.
"At this point, Twine is 90 percent virtual," says Malcolm. "We're defined mostly by our presence on the Web, our ability to Network, things like that. Without the Net, we couldn't do nearly what we're able to do now. The old way of Networking before computers and the Internet -- and that really was just a few years ago -- was that you had to find people to send your stuff to, then you had to record it on your little four-track, then you had to make tapes and send your stuff out through snail mail. Now, you're in a place where just about anyone anywhere can see you instantly."
"Just for example," continues Chad Mossholder, "we've recently had interest from music festivals in Australia, Canada and New York."
"And we also have people DJing our stuff in Berlin, Brazil, Japan, just by pulling it off either MP3.com or from visiting our website, where we also make MP3s available," Malcolm says.
But if MP3s are in part one more device to heighten the Networking opportunities for which the Net has long been so extravagantly lauded, Mossholder and Malcolm also realize there's a crucial twist. In their eagerness to get heard, groups like Twine willingly trample past the notion that their music is an end product, that it's the craft by which they make a living. Instead, their entire output -- available on MP3.com and Twine's website for free as soon as they record it -- becomes a promotional device for something more valuable than cash: pure recognition. For a struggling fringe musician, that is perhaps something more reachable and, ultimately, more profitable than the puny income derived from modest CD sales.
"When you're very small, you look at it more as a tool for networking and reaching out," says Malcolm. "I think by the time that you've grown large, then you may see it as a threat -- you know, they're siphoning profits off of you. But when you're not making that much money, anyway ... "
"You do it in hopes of getting noticed," Mossholder finishes. "I think it's no different than mix tapes. You make mix tapes for people, you're giving away people's music, but it promotes them."
Still, if the MP3 ruckus is like the cassette battle of the 1980s -- in which the music industry lost the fight to impose a levy on blank tapes -- this time the industry paranoia seems far more defensible. The ramifications have music industry bigwigs so wigged out that entities as diverse as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the heavy metal band Metallica and rap mogul Dr. Dre have slapped multimillion-dollar lawsuits on Napster and MP3.com. And despite the pooh-poohing of pundits who argue that the sites are protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1988, a Manhattan Federal judge ruled last week in favor of the RIAA, deciding that www.MP3.com had violated copyright laws. To the untrained eye, the site is far less egregious in its apparent violations than Napster, whose day in court is still pending. If MP3.com could be found unlawful, then any music company whose flowing Newspeak moniker is followed by a dot-com hiccup seems vulnerable to the wrath.
That's not to say, however, that the final result of the court cases will decide the final fate of downloadable music. As most everyone agrees, the courts may shut down Napster or even www.MP3.com, but they can't take back the intrinsic shareability of MP3s themselves. In fact, the technology is already bringing about important changes in the ways musicians, fans and bizzers conceive of music, creating realignments of local interests buzzing beneath the national hoopla.
Twine's high-tech/low-rent ethic embodies some of that. It's no accident that this computer-savvy duo make electronic music, a genre that favors the kind of techies who would gladly downgrade their lifestyles to upgrade the latest megabyte doodad -- all of which is necessary to take real advantage of the downloadable revolution. I went to visit Mossholder and Malcolm, after all, because my ancient Mac (a whopping three years old) simply couldn't handle all the programs and plug-ins necessary to run MP3s effectively.
These technical limitations also partly explain why a site like Napster is the rage at certain types of liberal arts colleges and not others. Lakewood native Nick Longauer, a 21-year-old junior at Ohio University, estimates that he and his roommates have freely downloaded between 300 and 600 albums from various MP3 sites, many of them before the albums were even officially released. "Here at school, anyone that's in the dorm gets a computer with a high-speed Internet connection. So a lot of people in the dorms have equally huge collections ... It's phenomenal the access that you have, and the exposure to so many different bands."
It's a different story, however, at a commuter school like Cleveland State. Peter Phillips, director of Information Services and Technology, explains that the low-speed modems which most students have at their homes "just aren't highly productive."
If Cleveland State falls below the threshold for downloadable usage, Case Western University may actually rise above it. CWRUnet Services director Dell Kilingen-Smith has a simple theory for his school's lack of a problem with Napster: Case students aren't impressed by the technology. By his estimation, up to 60 percent of new students may already have high-speed cable modems in their homes, so "they're not freaked out." Kilingen-Smith explains: "It's just not a big deal to them. People may want to try it, and they may have tried it on their own prior to matriculating, but the bottom line is, they primarily use [their computers] for education here."
If these variations suggest divisions of class above all else, the most obvious dividing factor outside the colleges seems to be age. Though some older, established Cleveland bands like Mushroomhead and Rosavelt have offered MP3s on their own websites or places like www.MP3.com, they often don't see, in the words of "Dinner," a Mushroomhead guitarist, "that much tangible benefit."
Chris Allen of Rosavelt agrees: "I'm hoping it'll become more and more of a factor, hopefully before I turn 40. I know if I'm not listening to music through the Web, as big a music fan as I am, how many people really are?"
Nineteen-year-old Pat Ols could tell him. Bassist and vocalist for the heavy metal act Delusive Dream, (pictured at left) Ols has only owned a computer since August, yet his discovery of the Net and www.MP3.com has already "helped make a big difference for the band: the advertising, meeting other bands, meeting labels. Two years ago, we just printed some flyers and did it all word-of-mouth. But now you go on line, you hear other groups, you talk directly to people who might be interested in you ... It's great for promoting the band. We don't mind giving away our CD for free."
Obviously, area businesses dependent on music sales might have a different take on that, but again, they offer no uniform response. Mike McDowell, manager of CD Warehouse, based in Mayfield Heights, has noticed a flattening of sales everywhere in his multi-state range the past few months, coupled with a precipitous drop in sales at his furthest-flung store in Austin, where the huge University of Texas has grappled with Napster usage. He also sees no way to beat it. "You can't outsell something that's free," he bemoans.
And yet, some other area businesses find themselves somewhat protected from the downloadable craze. Rob Saslow, director of marketing of the Cleveland-based jazz and blues label Telarc, knows how lucky his niche makes him. "I think that it doesn't pose quite as much of a threat to us because we're dealing in genres that have a much older audience ... I will say that if I were working for someone that sold to 16-to-24 year olds, I'd be probably a lot more concerned than I am sitting here."
Jon Cellura, owner of the cutting-edge West Side independent record store Bent Crayon, doesn't even see that demographic as necessarily a problem. "It's different for electronic or even indie-rock artists," he explains. "I think people who buy that stuff are into actually owning it, and are more sincere about honoring the labels and the artists instead of just ripping them off. I mean, considering that labels like Sony have been ripping people off for years, charging a list price of, like, $17.99 a CD, it's just stupid. I mean, for all I care, they deserve it. They can just go down in flames."
It's not an uncommon (nor an unjustified) sentiment, expressed by several artists, fans and small businessmen interviewed for this article. Yet the contradiction looming over the download free-for-all is also not that hard to realize. No matter how much Napster users defend their habit as a means to greater music exposure (and thus consumption), no matter how often they swear they buy the CDs of their favorite finds, and no matter how helpful MP3s are to struggling artists, the technology has the potential to engulf current practices of music production and consumption in a bonfire. Watch this space for falling embers.