Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2003 / 26 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Glenn H. Reynolds

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Death of a Friend


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | I'm losing a friend, and it's time to say goodbye. The friend is MP3.com, the online music distribution site. Although it had a market capitalization of a billion dollars when it went public just four years ago, it will be shutting its doors, er, servers, on December 2. CNET, which has
bought up much of what remains of MP3.com, will be introducing some sort of new service, but at the moment the details aren't clear. Most likely, though, it will be something very different: a platform for selling commercial tunes, under some sort of copy-protection scheme, not a platform for distributing independent music for free. I hope I'm wrong about that, and MP3.com's email announcing the change suggests, without actually promising anything, that I might be, but I'm not very optimistic. Finding new ways to sell me the latest Britney Spears song seems to be the goal of most new online music services. But what I'm looking for is a way to find music I like from
bands I'd otherwise never know about.

 

That's what MP3.com did best. And -- I'm not a disinterested party here -- I know because I was one of those artists. Actually, I was several of them: my techno band Mobius Dick, for example, which was able to put up a song, have it hit the charts in a few days, and wind up the subject of a story in Salon within the week. Other bands ranged from jokes (Eco-folkies The Meadowlarks, who protested the "brutal" customs of Valentine's Day with a song entitled How Many Flowers Must Die) to more serious efforts, like the Nebraska Guitar Militia, for whom I wrote some songs and whose new CD will sell independent of MP3.com anyway. And I discovered a lot of other bands that I liked via MP3.com. Los Angeles-based Salsoul act Cecilia Noel and the Wild Clams rules -- I bought her CDs immediately after streaming some of her songs, as I did with Nashville-based new wavers Audra and the Antidote. And if you're following these links (and you should be), don't miss bands like the Hector Qirko Band, Terry Hill's Balboa, and Digital Ritual. You may like them. I know that I found a lot more good and interesting artists through MP3.com than I've found via listening to the radio. I don't know where I'll look now.

 

Most of these bands will still be around in some form, of course: lots have their own websites, and there are other opportunities to market music over the internet, and other hosting sites like IUMA, PeopleSound, and so on.

But none have the reach, or the ambition, that MP3.com offered. It was even possible to make money on MP3.com, with some artists earning six-figure incomes -- though most didn't make much. I made a few hundred bucks a month for a while, and thought I was doing well for having music on the Internet. And I was. So were quite a few other people. But more than the money, it was the opportunity to get music in front of a lot of people, and to be part of a community of musicians and fans. MP3.com did that better than anybody else, too. I'll miss it.

 

It's true, of course, that MP3.com has been sick for a long time. They foolishly bet the company on a music "storage" system called "Beam-it" that was really a filesharing system, were nearly put out of business by the resulting lawsuit, then rescued by Vivendi, a company that's in pretty bad shape itself. But the original idea was a great one: Easy to use, easy to upload music and art, lots of networking and music-finding capabilities, and a real sense of community. That lived on, to a degree, even after the takeover. Now it's soon to be gone, and it's not at all clear that the replacement will be similar.

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I can't help but notice that this change seems to be working to the advantage of big record companies. It's not just that they're cracking down, with mixed success, on file-sharers. It's that the environment for independent music on the Web seems to have grown more inhospitable, too. And I've always had a suspicion that shutting down these independent channels for music distribution, more than cracking down on piracy, has been the real goal of big record labels. The
technology for making music, after all, has gotten steadily cheaper. Where once their control of big studios gave them an economic advantage, now record companies' chief asset is their control of distribution and marketing channels. The Internet threatened an end-run around that process. It still does, but the end of MP3.com bodes poorly for the future. Its replacement is likely to be something that ought to be named DRM.com., based on Digital Rights Management, and aimed not at facilitating the spread of music, but at limiting it.

 

Maybe I'm too pessimistic, here. Cheaper bandwidth and hosting, coupled with the explosion in wi-fi, probably mean that we haven't yet entered the Golden Age of Internet music, and that MP3's experience was just a sort of false dawn -- a musical Leif Ericsson to some future online Columbus. I certainly hope that's right. But it's hard to be optimistic when a friend dies.

 

My gloom aside, I recommend that you spend some time poking around and checking out the music while you can. MP3.com's collection of independent music, millions of songs available for free download with the artists' permission, is an enormous store of common wealth -- for a little while longer. The best place to start is probably by picking a genre from the charts page, and then checking out the artists there. Take advantage while you still can, because it's not (quite) dead yet.



JWR contributor Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal, among others. He created and writes for the influential Instapundit website. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2003, Glenn Harlan Reynolds