“Technology is far outpacing the ability of the music industry to keep
up, and the SDMI battle to encrypt music is a short-term solution at best.
Through articles and the Musictech list I’ve learned that Microsoft’s
“secure” format was hacked the day it was released, and DVDs, which were
supposed to be the most heavily encrypted thing ever, have been cracked
as well. A list member said it best when he said that it’s simple physics
— if you encrypt a sound file, you can find a way to decrypt it.” —
Kristin and I spend hours and hours each day scouring the internet looking for the best and brightest music-technology discussions. One of the jewels in our bookmark list is Musictech — a listserv created by Ben Morgan. In this short interview he touches on many of the main technological themes that are hot issues now. Read on and get current! For more info on Ben’s coming-of-age in the music industry, see his bio on the sidebar.
Jenny: What is Musictech?
Ben: Musictech is a listserv — a mailing list for discussions about developments in technology and their specific impact on the music business. It’s not really that large, but through my old industry connections and visiting a music/internet expo I got a lot of people to sign up from lots of different areas of the music business.
J: Who is on the list?
There’s label people, artists, distributors, music publishers, lawyers, technology developers, and people from new media companies. A few people who are interested purely as consumers, but for the most part everyone involved works in the music industry on some level. Its usually pretty quiet and I think a lot of people there are just lurking for information, but when discussion does break out it can get pretty interesting.
J: When and why did you start the list?
B: Well, it began in March or April of 1999. At that time I was really interested in the concept of digital distribution in particular.
When I was still at CDNow my boss had asked me to get some compilation CDs from radio stations she was doing ad buys on into the “store.” But CDNow is just an interface to the Valley One-Stop Distribution catalog, and only distributed titles end up there, so getting a CD into the website that I worked for was nearly impossible. Despite all this technology, getting a physical product into stores was still a nightmare even in Internet retail.
This is when I first started seeing that if artists could easily sell their music through their own website, then the scarcity of distribution could be eliminated entirely. This got me really excited, and I started following the developments in digital distribution very closely.
When I started the list, I originally thought it would be a forum for
debating the merits of encrypting the music.
I wanted to learn more about what was going on, but also see if I could get “traditional” and new media industry people together to talk about the changes and hopefully everyone would start to think about the future and how they could still have a job yet give more back to the artists. I figured that even though I didn’t work in the music industry anymore, I knew a lot of people who did — good people who actually loved music and the artists, who would also want to see things change for the better.
So on the one hand it was curiosity and interest in the subject, and on the other hand my agenda is definitely to try and get people to start talking about what’s going on with the hope that everyone would get enlightened as to the opportunities the changes hold for creating a better system. Also, down the road I might want to get back into the music business myself if I can find an aspect of it that is exciting and involves music, but not raping the artists, so musictech is also about exploring what’s going on with an eye to getting more involved if and when I feel things have gotten to the point where it is a good system. I like to think that it will, but it might take along time. And if the wrong people take advantage of the technologies first, then we might end up stuck where we are now — forced to deal with assholes and sell off profits in order to get your music heard.
J: What are most important questions confronting independent musicians regarding the new technologies, and why?
B: Well, right now things are in a crazy state of transition. We’re in the end phase of a paradigm in music consumption defined by “the album” — one that began with the invention of the phonograph. This period was one in which the public had its choices defined by what the music industry decided was fit to offer them. It was simply too expensive for artists to produce and distribute an album themselves, and the the artists were dependent on companies with money. We find this paradigm coming to an end just as consumer technology has become affordable enough that an artist can own all the necessary technology to produce and distribute an album all by themselves. But just as this finally becomes possible, it becomes very difficult to make a living off of selling albums, since technology has also enbled the consumer to reproduce perfect copies with ease.
Ironically, just as the tools become available for the artist to empower themselves, the technology enables the consumer to get the product without paying for it. The “album” as we know it is simply going to become too easy to reproduce perfectly and send off to your friends. We’re not there quite yet, but don’t think we won’t be soon. Encryption simply cannot succeed long enough to keep control over the use of sound files. The album won’t be a product that artists can control the use of for very much longer, and if musicians wish to continue to make a living selling music products they will have to be something more than just songs and packaging. Personally, I hope artists continue to make records, but in order to really make a profit they’ll have to come up with new products that aren’t so easily reproduced.
J: How have conversations on Musictech influenced your opinion of digital downloads?
B: I used to think digital distribution held the key to empowering artists. Mostly due to discussions on the musictech list, I’ve come to believe that the music product as it currently exists — being a sound file and artwork/liner notes, will simply be too easy to reproduce rapidly and effortlessly in a few years. You can already burn CDs on your computer at home. The only things missing to totally eliminate the ability to control the use of music are: copying speed, ease of distribution amongst friends, and the nice liner notes you get when you buy it. That means all that’s missing is a CD burner that works really fast, the ability to send the entire sound file via email to your buddy, and better printers that can reproduce nice album packaging at home. You have the physical product the labels insist is so important, yet the tools to copy it perfectly and rapidly without the need for their warehouses, distribution, and retail space. Looking at how fast the internet and other technology has come in the last three years, I don’t think it will be very long until technology enables you to copy a CD, send it to your friend, and print out a copy of the packaging using a scanner and a printer. 5-10 years, maybe, until bandwidth and consumer cost issues are resolved? I’d love to see research on how far off these things are.
Technology is far outpacing the ability of the music industry to keep up, and the SDMI battle to encrypt music is a short-term solution at best. Through articles and the list I’ve learned that Microsoft’s “secure” format was hacked the day it was released, and DVDs, which were supposed to be the most heavily encrypted thing ever, have been cracked too. A list member said it best when he said that it’s simple physics — if you encrypt a sound file, you can find a way to decrypt it. I don’t think it’s even an issue anymore — SDMI will fail after possibly a few successful years, and then the industry will face the fact that they can’t control the music product as it currently exists anymore.
So we need new music products. That’s what I’m interested in now.
J: How should artists use the the tools currently available to them to maximize their profits?
B: I think it’s definitely important to realize that physical production and distribution still has a few years in it but it IS going to decrease. Right now digital distribution is going to grow very fast, but there are lots of different formats and companies right now and your guess is as good as mine as to what the best one will be. I think its important to take advantage of the marketing potential of giving a way a new song or two as mp3s — this will generate interest and increase physical sales, and lost revenue isn’t really lost if the person wouldn’t buy it anyway. Someone on the list said free mp3s tied with radio in a recent poll as the reason consumers had for buying a record. That’s from nowhere to on a par with radio in less than two years. That’s phenomenal, and artists should embrace the power that has.
J: How important is it for an artist to have a website?
B: I think it’s crucial to have a website. The one for my band is out of date and I never have time to work on it but you need at least something up there. If people are interested they will look for it, and they usually can find what they are looking for.
J: What do you think about online label sites?
B: When thinking about online label type of sites, my gut instinct is to avoid sites that charge money for formats that are relatively new for now, and to see what kind of deals you can get from sites that offer free downloads of mp3s.
I know many sites have exclusive contracts, so be careful what you sign. I think it’s too early to pick a front runner, and bands that sign deals now will be guinea pigs.
Eventually one or two of the online music content sites that sell digitally-distributed music will either develop a tremendous fan base like mp3.com has, or will make all the right partners and start to develop brand recognition. The ones who get powerful first are the ones to watch — they could easily become as bad as the corporate labels, demanding fees or giving bad royalty rates. Even though they might have the best market penetration, they also might be the biggest weasels to work with if the wrong people are running it.
I think it should be viewed as signing with a major — it’s a gamble that might make you rich, but could also screw you. If you don’t feel like people who want to sign you are being genuine or you aren’t sure they really will go to bat for you, then for God’s sake don’t sign anything. If you’re stuck in an exclusive online contract with a company that buries you under other priorities, then you won’t be able to take advantage of future developments that might be a lot better. And new developments are coming along all the time right now.
I think we are going to see a shift to the business model soon where the consumer pays a micropayment for a song or gets it free with an ad. This is dependent on remote devices that connect to the net or a database. Companies offering this, in my opinion, have the right idea. One suggestion I might make is to ask any potential online record company what their plans are in this arena. This will take the emphasis off the physical product, and thus will attract an entirely different consumer than the one who wants the album at home and will therefore first see if they can copy it for free rather than pay for it.
And more than anything, keep it in the back of your head that the record as we currently know and love it, is on its way out as a way to make money — it will just be too hard to control in the future despite any encryption nonsense. Asking companies what their plans for future product concepts are — if they don’t have any, then they are a short-term thinkers and that’s what you should expect from them.