If music fans stop paying, the musicians will eventually stop playing.
'Net users should keep this in mind while considering the music industry's sluggish steps toward distributing music online. The Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group that represents record labels, won't endorse the sale of songs on the 'Net until a new, copyright-friendly format is created by a high-tech consortium called the Secure Digital Music Initiative.
That plan might sound silly to Internet users who already listen to music distributed online in a format called MP3. Why reinvent the wheel, they ask, when millions of people are already using a perfectly good format?
As wheels go, though, MP3 is more than a little leaky. And that hissing sound you hear isn't air it's cash. The recording industry is wise to wait for a secure, open standard before peddling its wares online. Otherwise, the 'Net's merry band of MP3 pirates would be more than happy to run the world's most popular performers right out of business.
Most players in the music business including artists, fans and the companies lined up between them say they want to distribute music online. Artists could release more work in less time while their labels saved millions in overhead. Fans could pay to download only their favorite singles or purchase albums complete with video and detailed liner notes. And record stores well, they could focus on their often-ignored T-shirt business.
But the music industry has shied away from this inevitable future. Why? Record executives are afraid that paying customers would make copies of the digital songs they download and distribute them for free on the 'Net.
If anyone doubts that would happen, the success of MP3 should set them straight. MP3 is a compression standard that can squeeze a three-minute song into a 3-megabyte file with just a small loss of quality. This allows music fans to make compact digital copies of their favorite songs and distribute them online.
Some little-known artists have released MP3 albums in hopes of finding fans. But most listeners' collections are stocked with pirated music from popular performers like Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and the Barenaked Ladies bands that aren't earning a dime from these copies of their work.
The MP3 users I've interviewed contend their copies don't cost the recording industry much money. Besides, they say, the industry has managed to survive even though many people give their friends taped copies of their CDs and records.
But the industry has never faced anything quite so daunting as the combination of digital music and the 'Net. Instead of handing a fuzzy mix tape to a few friends, music fans can now make near-perfect copies of their favorite songs and share them with the entire world.
Selling music in this environment is sort of like setting up an honor box next to a sidewalk display of Rolex watches and walking away. A few honest souls might pay, but the rest of us would take our free watch and mutter something about how they should have been more careful if they didn't want people to steal.
Well, the recording industry is trying to be careful. The RIAA is working with high-tech companies to create a compression standard that protects their copyrights. Like MP3, the standard will be open and available for unlimited, royalty-free use. It's supposed to be available March 2000, so lets hope it's also Y2K compliant.
By that time, MP3 will have gained an even stronger foothold among 'Net users who enjoy the prospect of finding their favorite songs online for free. And while the recording industry will continue to crack down on Web sites that post MP3 files, it isn't likely to stop an underground following from flourishing even after it releases its own standard.
Even now, however, most people have never heard an MP3 file, and that won't change before the end of the year. While the format has a dedicated following of a few million tech-savvy fans, the recording industry is more interested in the 150 million Net users who don't listen to MP3s not to mention the billion or so people who will log on for the first time in the next decade or so.
If those people stop paying for their favorite music, their favorite musicians will have to start looking for real jobs. But if the industry can come up with an effective, open format that protects performers' profits, they can expect to win over the majority of 'Net users and spark a flourishing online music trade.
Survival of the fittest
Evolution isn't usually the sort of thing you can sit back and watch.
There is one place, though, where evolution happens at a pace quick enough to entertain anyone: the 'Net. To truly understand the power of evolution, pull out your virtual microscope and focus on the lowest form of online life: the spammer.
The first spam was sent by a couple of lawyers, which should surprise no one. They hoped to find new clients, but they made a mistake their descendants would learn to avoid: They included their real e-mail address in their message. As you might expect, their e-mail account was bombarded with angry messages from people upset to find advertising in their electronic "in" baskets.
Spammers quickly learned to hide their identities by forging message headers and routing their mailings through other people's servers. While spammers themselves quickly became hard to find, their messages used to be easy to spot. They arrived with high-voltage titles like "Make $$$ Fast!" "Hot Porn Goddesses!" or "Make $$$ Fast as a Hot Porn Goddess!" While the messages were annoying, 'Net users could easily delete them without reading them.
But spammers evolved again, choosing to top their messages with casual, misleading titles like "Thanks for the note" or "Re: your question." But these methods didn't elicit many responses, which became something of a problem for spammers. Many of the e-mail addresses they cull from Web pages, newsgroups and mailing lists are out of date, and the only way they can be sure an address is valid is if someone uses it to respond to a mailing.
So people began sending out spam that invited users to send a note to a particular e-mail address if they didn't want to receive any more spam. The trick, of course, is that people who responded were actually added to a valuable list of active e-mail addresses that was then used to send out you guessed it more spam!
Since then, spammers have tweaked this technique somewhat by asking people to e-mail them for other misleading reasons. One recent spam, for example, invited people to respond if they wanted to learn how to "find out almost any kind of information on the Web about anyone!" Like, oh, their e-mail address.
As future generations of Net users grow wise to their latest disguise, you can bet spammers will manage to evolve even more.
Who knows? Maybe someday, they'll evolve enough to be considered human.
To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at email@example.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services. Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.
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