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1 July 2002

Swan-song of an Industry

Music compression technologies (MP3) and "underground networks" are revolutionising the face of the music distribution industry. At a point when record labels are employing a panoply of tactics to try to check the flow of information, a little perspective is required.

Throughout history, old technologies have given way to newer, more efficient techniques. Most often these changes are met with resistance, violent opposition from those who, dearly attached to the old way, are held back by fear.

Examples characteristic of reactionary behaviour spring readily to mind and often into our hearts. Inquisitions, wars and crucifixions. Caltrops forged of fear, thrown anxiously in the path of progress.

Listing the hindrances in our journey of thouands of miles would be futile, but a few significant steps bear mention.


The first possible recorded example lies at the start of recorded examples: The advent of writing.

Surely none were short-sighted enough to mistrust the written word? Yet the resistance to this most fundamental step is evidenced in superstitions that still live on today. A prime example is the belief that merely scribing runes (letters of writing) manifests magical powers and sways men's destinies, exerting control in this world and beyond.

Such superstitions, unfounded except in the fearful domains of people's minds, carry down to us; reminders of the violent resistance to change exhibited throughout the ages.

The internet?

The internet has brought to us such changes and with them a host of fears from those clinging desperately to the doorjambs of their staid havens. Again people will argue that the internet brought many evils and challenged the structure of society. Here the only required rejoinder is that the internet has played the role of a catalyst.

A worldwide network, connecting the world's community at light speed without the shackles of regulation would be hard-pressed not to accelerate social development. Is it such an ill that we are now partway down the road to addressing issues that would otherwise have remained swept under the carpets of denial?

In this fashion, throughout recorded history, people have violently resisted change. Change in world view, or merely change of address. Each time people have been held back from embracing the new development by fear - fear of financial insecurity, or supernatural influences or whatever else their mind could conceive to keep them in their illusory safe haven.

Distribution media

It is from this standpoint that we now turn our gaze to the plight of the distribution medium. Evolving through word of mouth; hand delivered written messages; the advent of the postage stamp; the first transatlantic telegram, shortly followed by telephony and television; culminating in the medium-free fabric of the internet.

It has been an exciting adventure of innovation. Mankind's desire to communicate has carried our signals to the furthest reaches of our globe, and even beyond the confines of our solar system. The echoes of our communications ring on.

In this world, interwoven with a network of communication cabling, orbited by man-made satellites reflecting signals beyond our horizons, all carrying messages at light speed to anyone with even the simplest of transceivers, he who hesitates is lost.

The distribution networks of our world realise this most simple fact, well for the most part they do.

News Networks

News dissemination has reached new heights of efficiency through embracing the technology of the internet. "For what tangible gains?" you may rightly ask, and the answer there is credibility. Trust that the corporation in question has its valued customers best interests in mind; not mere financial gain.

News corporations have created resources of unquestionable value on the internet and now enjoy increased credibility and perceived integrity.

One sector still fails to embrace this new technology.

The music industry?

It calls itself the music industry, although the function in question is distribution of music. Assuredly, it does have a lot to lose, but the most efficient path for music distribution will be followed, with little regard for those who would halt its progress.

As with each step in our journey, the new development comes with the usual baggage. Short-sighted resistance to change; persecution of those who dare to be different; products of a fear rooted deep in the security of the old way.

The new way, as usual, also brings a host of advantages. Of course it does, otherwise it wouldn't even be worth a moment's consideration. Among the most significant advantages in this particular case is the huge reduction in resources required.

The environment

In every other sphere we struggle against all odds to reduce the impact on our environment, using as little paper and plastic as possible, cutting down on manufacturing processes and reducing physical transportation requirements.

Yet for the plight of the record label executives we are willing to make an exception. The world is happy to cater to their demands to cut down on the implementation of online music exchange in favour of resource intensive physical media.

Online music exchange - clean, environmentally friendly methods of distributing music, elegantly performing the function that music corporations refuse to facilitate.

At most they involve only the displacement of electrons (and occasionally some photons) for distribution and about 2/10000 square inches of hard disk platter per minute of music.

Compressed versions of music (MP3 for example) are easily transmitted across the internet to the far reaches of the world. They can be found through "underground networks" which act as directories for people to find music. The music is then stored in previously wasted hard drive space, in libraries that are easily searched and indexed. These libraries are freely shared across the internet, perpetuating the cycle.

But any successes are short-lived. Soon enough the infantile whining of the bloated music corporations is heard, rallying against these efficient means of digital music exchange.

Instead we are expected to embrace their favoured distribution techniques.

Compact Disc?

We are expected to use the many times redundant technology of encoding the same digital signals onto aluminium, coating that in plastic, printing a label onto that plastic, then putting that plastic disc into a case made of still more plastic and decorated with pieces of paper.

This CD then needs to be transported to a warehouse, then to a retail corporation and finally to the shelves of their store. The customer then needs to employ time to drive their fossil fuel burning vehicle to the store, and find the pretty package wrapping a pitted aluminium disc. (which hopefully hasn't gotten damaged)

Then another person, who most likely does little but oversee these trussed up tinfoil doilies, is enlisted to receive payment for the package and place it, together with a slip of paper serving as proof of this transaction, inside a packet which the customer can now carry home.

Once home the little disc is carefully manoeuvred into a metal and plastic receptacle whose sole purpose is decoding the message recorded on the pock-marked surface of that disc.

Finally, the signal is once again in its digital form ready to be processed and played; ready to be liberated once more into the air and uplift the spirits of men.

Any further comment on the elaborate nature of this process is unnecessary.

And now?

So now we watch the infantile tactics employed by the record labels to try to stop the progress of music distribution by MP3. Trying to stop people from working together to achieve what the labels refuse to facilitate themselves, they employ tactics which challenge their credibility. The labels exert financial and legal muscle on both individuals and "underground networks".

What recourse do they have? That is not for this article to dictate, it merely seeks to lend a viewpoint on the situation and show the folly of clinging to the old ways when they have clearly been superseded.

As the sun sets on the legacy of the distribution media industry, the only thing that is in question is how each party will play its hand.

Will they be left staring over the horizon after the disc-shaped setting sun or making preparations for the new dawn and what it will bring?

Still up for more?

The report that sparked this article into being can be found here:
"Labels open new fire on piracy"
By Dawn C. Chmielewski - Mercury News

Another interesting article:
"Cyberlaw: Cybersmart or cybersilly?"

Relevant links:

"Underground Networks"


Some Record Labels


WinAmp - MP3 Player.