The problem with music and mp3s today
I was introduced to the format in spring of 1997, when my then domain host sent a mass mail to all users saying that .mp3 files were banned and sites serving files would be shut down without notice. I hadn't even heard of them, and had to dig search engines for half an hour to find anything I could understand. I eventually got that it was a compression specification, but the real impact didn't come until six months later when a friend said I could have a copy of a new CD from his mp3 files.
Five years have passed since then, and in that time Apple has fully embraced the format, putting playback, ripping, and recording features deep into their digital hub as lifestyle philosophy. Along with iPods, Rios and Nomads adorn the hips of many geeks. PDAs and even cell phones tout mp3 playback as features. Everyone with a computer I know uses them, rips them from their CDs, and shares them with others. Napster (and later on, Kazaa) built massive worldwide networks based on the sharing of these files, spreading terabytes of files to millions of users. And yet, you can't walk into a store anywhere in America and buy a physical form of media embedded with mp3s.
Imagine if DVD players worked on the same philosophy. Imagine if you couldn't ever buy a DVD movie on disc, and the only way to get content was to use cumbersome software tools in your PC, with an attached VCR as input. Now where would DVDs be if that were the only way to get new content? Looking at the world of mp3s, you see that even despite that daunting hurdle, they are everywhere. A whole industry has blossomed to sell players for your pocket, your car, and your home. Computer companies have embraced it, Apple the most unapologetically, with many an iBook destined for music ripping, playing, and burning.
Five years of the record industry ignoring the problem, then trying to stifle and silence it, and it is easily the most popular method of listening to music on a computer. Five years of combating piracy by the RIAA and the "virus" has spread to everyone and everything. Even as the recording industry admits defeat and tries their own approach, they continue to stick it to artists and do everything wrong.
When dealing with the internet and mp3s, the RIAA has always seemed to operate based on fear. Fear that they'd lose their stranglehold on musicians and artists, that they'd lose their precious controls on distribution of product, and fear that their carefully crafted marketing campaigns wouldn't have the same impact in a world where consumers don't respond to the same old broadcast methods.
Given the ubiquity of mp3s among consumers, the continued rise in popularity of the format despite anything that's been put in place to stop them, and the millions of dollars being spent on mp3 encoding/decoding software and hardware, I no longer think the RIAA operates solely on fear. At this point, they're simply running on stupidity.
The solution to the problem is a simple one, but would require an ambitious person (or persons) to take some gigantic risks. Just like Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, someone is going to have to stand up to the RIAA, at the risk of killing any chances of ever getting signed themselves. The Recording Industry thrives off its hyper-controlled means of production and distribution, but in the internet age none of that matters. Smart musicians have always understood the means of production and distribution and the business savvy among them have started their own labels, done their own packaging and pressing, and even done their own distribution. Artists like Aimee Mann that have decided to go it all alone had to face stiff opposition, but thanks to some luck and plenty of well-timed publicity, she was allowed to enter her material into the traditional channels. You can buy her CDs at your local record store, but it wasn't without a fight.
An ambitious and courageous band or artist could single handedly bring the whole system crashing down by going internet-only, and selling mp3-only, at a reasonable price. They would have to do a few things to accomplish this, and each step would entail great risk. Given the potential benefit, it's only a matter of time before someone successfully goes through with it.
If an unsigned band were to take this on, they'd need to have a huge underground following. This could happen easily if it were a new music genre, one where there is demand, but few available records. If an established artist were to do this, there is a strong potential that they'd be kissing their conventional careers goodbye, so it would probably have to be someone who is so sick of the system they're open to that risk.
The band or artist taking this risk would release their music via the internet only, at a reasonable price. The means of production used to dictate that a CD cost $15 to create, market, and deliver to the consumer. As the price of blank media went down to almost nothing, the price of CDs did not, as record companies enjoyed larger profits. For an internet only, mp3 release there are comparatively little costs for distribution, and once a song is produced, a million digital copies could be made, sold, and distributed at about the same cost of producing, selling, and distributing one copy. An infinitely popular song could create an incredible profit margin, without the problems that physical media presents.
The price would have to be reasonable. The mp3 format is a notoriously pirated format, but most people aren't going to go through the trouble of locating, downloading, and organizing pirated tracks if they could get them all in one place, legally, for a small fee. A band selling unencrypted mp3s at a low enough price wouldn't have to worry about piracy. In a sense, it would be like "legalizing" the mp3 format, if cheap and convenient, there'd be no reason to "black market" the music via the pirate networks. Unbound by the needs of record store shelves, trucks to ship units, and record companies, a band could charge a fee of say, $0.50 per track, so an "album" of music would run about $5-6. Of the few attempts by record companies to offer downloadable or streaming electronic versions of popular music, they've often set prices as high as $3 per song (scroll down to "digital downloads" and compare to the CD price), making an album cost two to three times the cost of a conventional CD, allowing companies to write them off as failures and say there is no market for electronically distributed music.
As a consumer, if I had the option to search morpheus/kazaa/napster/hotline for tracks from an artist I'm interested in hearing, or just paying 50 cents for a perfect 192kbps or higher recording I can have now, I'm most likely going to pay the money to save time, and feel better about supporting the artist. An artist making five to six dollars from a single album may not sound like much, but it's higher than most music contracts would ever allow. In terms of sales, selling just a few thousand songs would be enough for small artists to be fairly adequately paid, and if sales continued or grew, they could stand to make quite a bit of money.
If someone made the choice, took the risks, set their prices, and began selling big, there would surely be more to follow. Once a few become a handful, there is no turning back, and an entire industry could be born.
Here's the deal: I own a Rio mp3 player. I listen to all my music in mp3 format, and whenever I buy a CD from a store, I typically come home, rip it onto my home computer, send the files to my laptop and Rio, and set the CD aside. I currently only touch CDs if I want to hear them in my car, but soon I'll buy a mp3-encoded CDR reading stereo and be done with conventional CD media altogether. I'm not much of a media maven, though I may be a slight gadget freak, but I'm by no means alone. There are millions of people out there using mp3s everyday, on thousands of devices, but not a single artist is willing to sell them the media format they currently enjoy.
The market is out there, just waiting for an ambitious artist to take the risks and reap the rewards. In so doing, we could bring an end to an archaic, controlled distribution system known as the RIAA. Musicians could be free of their contractual shackles, supporting themselves and controlling their own destiny. Consumers would be completely free to pick and choose from any type of music they like, and support the artists directly.
You know what the best part is? You might never hear a boy band ever again.
(update: consider this a first draft to something bigger. I clumisly made a lot of points and there are more points to make. Keep on the lookout for something more fully fleshed out soon)