Excerpt Published September 2006 in the 8th Edition of the Indie Bible
The CD was first introduced in 1982, but took several years to take a foothold in the music world. For the first time you could hear your music with unbelievable clarity, thanks to digital reproduction. Some would say this new clarity removed the soul from the music, but the new medium was easy to operate, didn’t need rewinding, or turning over half way through and allowed you to make a perfect copy onto tape. Making mix tapes from vinyl was a job that could take all night. Not that it was overly complex, but it was so easy to get distracted reading the sleeve notes. With CDs however, the end result was much better. You no longer got the crackle, hiss and bumps during each song. The musical revolution has begun.
Jump forward 12 years to 1994 and the Fraunhofer Society in Germany. An invention was made, that was going to change forever, the way we listen to and discover music, but like the CD before, it would take a few years for the MP3 to find it’s niche.
CD’s store music in a raw format, meaning that the music is represented on the disk byte for byte. The average song in it’s raw format takes up approximately 50 megabytes of disk space. While quite feasible to rip the CD to your computers hard disk, it wasn’t practical, as back then the average hard disk capacities were measured in megabytes, rather than the gigabytes and terabytes of today. This meant you could only store a few albums on a hard disc, that is if it was totally empty. MP3s began to gain acceptance as they compressed the data ripped from the CD. Instead of a 50mb per track, the average song was around 3 MB in it’s MP3 form, when compressed at 128kps. So how does the compression work and what do you lose. Yes, lose something you do, as the form of compression used, is commonly referred to as lossy compression, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Every song on a CD has lots of sound you hear, but also a lot you don’t. Think of dog whistles. Yes they make a noise, but only dogs can hear them. The lossy compression, basically eliminates all the sounds either inaudible, or deemed non essential, again based on the level of compression you choose. So that’s the potted history of the MP3, but where does it fit into the music scene today? Let me give you a clue. Napster!
In 1999 Shawn Fanning, an aspiring programmer decided to write an application that would allow his friends to share music and files across the Internet. Once the software got out into the wilds of the Internet, no one could have predicted it’s almost viral ability to spread and spread it did. There was however one tiny, little problem. 99 percent of the files and music transferred from user to user where copyrighted material, which meant that every person transferring the files, was in effect breaking the law. While piracy of this kind was not too uncommon, the scale of it was. It was usually tech savvy geeks and nerds that were guilty of this before, but with the inception of Napster, anyone with a computer and the Internet, could type in a keyword a phrase and find nearly anything they wanted from music, movies and retail software. Obviously the powers that be, were not happy about this turn of events, but the snowball had started and it was not going to stop there.
Napster spread like wildfire, it wasn’t long until the powers that be caught wind of this new phenomenon and tried to shut it down. However it wasn’t as simple as that. For all the measures that Napster was forced to implement, it wasn’t long before someone created a way round them. When Napster was breathing it’s dying breaths a new kind of peer to peer service was launched, which threw open the floodgates further, this was called Gnutella and it is this service, that many of the current peer to peer offerings are based, providing the information needed to connect the two computers. Peer to peer, basically means there is no centralized server to shut down, machines connect directly with nothing in between. Around the world there are many Gnutella nodes providing a high level of redundancy, so should one node be shut down, there are many more to take its place. I think upon the proliferation of Gnutella, many record companies realized they were facing an uphill battle. Although their forecast was doom and gloom, it wasn’t quite as doom laden for them as they wanted us all to believe, depending on which study you choose to believe.
With the arrival and eventual demise of Napster, bands and artists realized there was another way to distribute their music, which didn’t require hard to come by record deals. With just a web page and a Pay Pal account, bands and artists could press their own CDs and send them directly to fans who wanted them. However the future in music, lay very firmly in digital distribution and it wasn’t until January 2001, when Apple unveiled iTunes, which was initially a CD cataloging program and player. It wasn’t until April 28th 2003 that the music service launched. Then the general public suddenly had a simple way to obtain the latest bands and artists music, by just clicking on a buy button. While iTunes has done a lot to promote the digital delivery of music, it does have it’s opponents. The only reason that the large and many smaller record labels agreed to be included in the iTunes service is Apples use of “Digital Rights Management” or DRM. This enables downloaded music to be tied to the computer it was purchased on and an iPod. Many people find this very restrictive, especially when a computer dies and you find you’ve lost all your music. Napster relaunched in 2004 as a legitimate service, now also employing DRM technology, but it’s intended audience was Windows computers instead of Apples own Mac computer. Apple came out with a PC version of iTunes in October of 2003 and then on-line music sales really exploded. As of February 22 2006, over a billion songs have been downloaded. There are a few website offering music without DRM. Emusic is one service that mostly caters to a more mature audience. You won’t find the latest Jessica Simpson or Fall-Out Boy album, but there are many more established artists, allowing their music to be purchased in MP3 format with no digital rights protection. mp3Tunes is probably the biggest on-line music service, specializing in independent artists, but there is an abundance of talent and with album prices relatively inexpensive, with no restrictions it is great value.
In July of 2003 a new website launched which would further empower musicians to promote their own music. MySpace launched as a social networking site. People would post their profiles and would search for and be sought out by people with similar interests. Musicians were soon posting their profiles and a few sample tracks to listen to or download directly from their profile page. The MySpace service has givenindependent musicians another shot in the arm and again allowed musicians to reach out across the world to new and existing fans.
It’s arguably the last piece of the puzzle that really caused the next revolution in music. Podcasts. In their simplest form, podcasts are audio files created on a computer or portable media device that are subscribed to by people interested in the content of the Podcast. These audio files are then transported across the Internet to the users computer. This can be done automatically using one of a myriad of podcast aggregators like Juice, Doppler or WinPodder. Podcast comes from the amalgamation of two words, iPod and broadcast. This has led to the common misconception that an iPod is required to listen to them, this is not the case. You can listen to a podcast on any computer, MP3 player or CD player if the podcast has been written to an audio CD. The early genesis of podcasting is commonly attributed to Adam Curry and Dave Winer. With Adam’s drive to make it happen and Dave’s RSS (Really Simple Syndication) to act as the kind transport layer to get the podcast out to all subscribers. Talking of subscribers, another common misconception is that you need to pay for the podcasts you download, after all you are a subscriber. While there are a few paid for podcasts, the vast majority are totally free. Podcasts have grown at a phenomenal rate and their popularity was launched into the stratosphere, when Apple decided to jump on the podcast wagon and allow people to subscribe to podcasts through iTunes. Like music before it, suddenly podcasts were available to the regular person, without requiring complex knowledge of RSS feeds and aggregator software.
With podcasts coming into their own in the latter half of 2004, suddenly there was a medium that was inexpensive and could reach the world over. Creating a podcast can be relatively cheap, but once the bug catches hold, it’s not long before podcasters outgrow their modest hardware and strive for perfection with a new microphone and mixer. Another big issue for podcasters is bandwidth. Having a few dozen people download your podcast is fine, even though the average music podcast is around 20-30 megabytes, but just imagine what happens when you have thousands of people downloading. Many people find themselves with an expensive bill from their Internet provider. There are many services that alleviate this problem for a small fee and it’s these hidden costs that most people, especially listeners are not aware of.
Adam Curry had his own podcast called the Daily Source Code. At the beginning of each show and occasionally within, he would play music often referred to as mashups. This was the fusion of two or more different songs into one. This sometimes resulted in some great songs, but it was also in direct violation of copyright. While many didn’t think it to be a real problem, it wasn’t long before the powers that be came knocking on Mr Curry’s door and he was forced to stop. In the latter half of 2005 however an artist from NY, USA stepped into the breech and gave Adam full permission to play his song Summertime on the Daily Source Code. This artist was Brother Love and it was the beginning of something quite special. It wasn’t long after this, that bands began to see the potential of podcasts and either gave permission to podcasts to feature their music or to sometimes create podcasts themselves.
So fast forward to August 2006. There are now literally thousands of podcasts, featuring a multitude of new bands and artists. Bands are now finding new audiences from around the world. Hollow Horse, a band from Glasgow, Scotland are one of the many bands with positive things to say about podcasts. Kenny Little from the band says “If it wasn’t for the medium of podcasting we would probably have split up. As it is, we are now in the middle of recording our third album and, the strange sideline to all of this, is we now have friends and fans from all over the world”. After being first featured in a couple of podcasts, Kenny said “We have sold more copies of the album in America than we have in Scotland. How amazing is that”. Many bands now have no intention of seeking a record label, preferring to handle everything themselves. With Podcasts, MySpace and a Myriad of other services available in your arsenal, it’s now quite a feasible thing to do.