About one hour after we arrived home from the record store with the new Alanis Morissette album, we believed we had been ripped off. For all the hype and hoopla, we think Alanis' new album has none of the energy or originality of her first one. On the whole CD there may be two tracks we would want to hear again.
So we've shelled out $18 for two halfway decent songs. That's a depressingly familiar pattern in the record industry. Those of us who want to keep up with the newest releases have no defense against it. But soon we will.
The Internet is going to give music fans a way to fight back against the record industry. Music companies are no longer going to get away with putting two decent songs on a long-play CD and then padding it out with 50 minutes of junk.
The technology that will empower music consumers is something we've mentioned in this space before: MP3, which is an abbreviation for the "Layer 3 Compression Format of the Motion Picture Experts Group." This software breakthrough makes it possible to compress complete musical selections into a digital form compact enough to be stored in the memory of a normal home computer.
MP3 is alive and thriving right now on the Internet. There are hundreds of sites offering free, or cheap, downloads of songs in MP3 format; a few examples are mp3.com, musicmatch.com, and goodnoise.com. You can play a song immediately (you'll need an audio player "plug-in" program, downloadable from any MP3 site), or store it in memory. In MP3 form, a five-minute rock song takes only about 5 megabytes of RAM space.
Since we last mentioned this technology, a significant new tool has come along to make MP3 easier than ever to use. The Rio PMP300 from Diamond Multimedia (diamondmm.com) is a pocket-sized, $200 gizmo that will hold up to 60 minutes of music in MP3 format. It's smaller and lighter than a portable CD player, but offers the same quality of sound. And you don't have to buy the music for it; you just download MP3 songs into it from the Web.
Our guess is that this is just the first of many MP3 devices that will come to market. And they can't come too soon.
The record industry tried, and failed, to get a judge to stop distribution of the Rio. The argument was that the tool would encourage music piracy.
We will concede that there's something to this concern. Some people will take a new album, upload two or three songs to the Web in MP3 format, and let everybody else get the music for free. This is theft, and none of us should be a party to it.
But the record companies lost their legal action, because almost all MP3 offerings are in fact legitimate. Pirated tracks comprise a tiny fraction of the MP3 market. More and more musicians are actively choosing to produce their music in MP3 format, and more and more fans are acquiring new records that way.
The real fear for the record industry is that MP3 is going to spawn new distribution patterns for music.
There are already early versions of a "digital jukebox," where Internet surfers pay individually for each song they download. (See peopletree.com, for example). There could be an MP3 subscription service, where you pay a monthly charge for the right to download anything. There could be an MP3-of-the-Month club, where you pick from a list of new songs or albums each month. And there will of course be advertiser-supported MP3, where the music is free but you have to click through a few on-screen ads to get to it.
All this will free us from the tyranny of the record companies. If we want only two tracks from the new Alanis CD, we'll have the flexibility to buy just those two. If we want an album that is free of the filthy, violent lyrics that the record industry so vigorously pushes on our teen-age children, we can download our own selection of songs with a few clicks of the mouse.
The record industry is having a bad time these days. Overall sales are flat despite the booming economy; labels are closing. More and more music is emigrating away from the old formats and onto the Internet. The Rio is just the thin edge of a wedge that is going to change the way music is sold and purchased. It's going to be a change for the better.
T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at email@example.com and Brit Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.