Helen Mackay

"Critically discuss the ways in which music technology is set to alter the face of the music industry in the twenty first century."

The International Journal of Urban Labour and Leisure, 4(1)

ISSN: 1465-1270


New formats have gone beyond the limits of human hearing, and music is available free over the Internet. New technology has finally brought the music industry to a point where it must change. The most important areas which I believe are within the scope of this question are the issues of the music industry’s relationship with the Internet, data compression, and DVD-A.

Much has been written about how the music industry may be affected by file sharing programs such as Napster, Aimster and Gnutella, and whilst I will write a little about copyright, sales, and lawsuits, I also want to touch on the freedom of transmission of data, watermarking and anti-piracy efforts. Finally I will ask how the music industry can use the Internet to its advantage, and whether or not it is possible for musicians to avoid restrictive ties to labels by marketing and selling their own music online.

There are plenty of articles available online, which give statistics to back up why file sharing programs are either increasing or decreasing sales. Some bands such as The Offspring have had injunctions taken out by their record companies in order to stop them from releasing new material for free on the Internet, whilst others have released or pre-released whole albums for free download. Some artists, such as The Grateful Dead have encouraged fans to record their concerts and share them because they have no intention of commercially releasing this live material and it gives the fans an opportunity to hear versions of the songs they probably already own from their albums and gives them a far wider potential audience of new fans.

When musicians adopt this attitude towards the sharing of their music over the Internet the relationship between musicians and their record companies comes into focus over the issue of whom the music belongs to and who has the right to determine the format of releases. The conclusion that is easily drawn here is that whilst some musicians might be happy to potentially lose sales, the music industry is not.

Many anti-piracy measures have been put forward by the music industry and rejected. The most recent failure is Macrovision’s SafeAudio which it was thought would make copying CD’s onto a computer hard drive impossible. SafeAudio is thought to add noise to the CD which is corrected by the error correction in a CD player but which will be discovered by ‘ripping’ programs (programs which convert music from CD’s into MP3s) to be bad data which is designed to stop the computer from recording. Not only have hackers bypassed this security feature, but it also raises questions about whether or not it is reasonable to prevent consumers from copying their CD’s for listening to them on MP3 players or on their computers. As an article by Tony Smith points out that:

Macrovision claims that return rates on SafeAudio-encoded CDs are no higher than unprotected discs, but we’re still not too happy about a technology that explicitly messes with a recording’s fidelity. Doubly so, since it appears record companies don’t seem too keen on actually telling consumers they’re buying a SafeAudio CD.1

Whilst many people in Britain believe that they are legally allowed to have ‘back up’ copies of music they have bought, in whatever format they choose, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 seems to disagree with them. I spoke briefly to the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society who is the organisation responsible collecting royalties for the use and recording of music. The person I spoke to said that whilst making copies of a legitimately purchased recording was illegal, it is the MCPS policy not to prosecute individuals who do this. I also sent them an email asking whether or not the MCPS was likely to be involved in any Napster - style legal battles over the distribution of copyrighted music over the Internet but have not received a response in sufficient time to include in this essay. In the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act’s American counterpart there is a ‘fair use’ clause which it is thought may allow people to duplicate items in their music collection this way, and I think that it is probable that a test case may be brought against record companies there in the near future.

Ultimately, if a CD can be played then it can be duplicated, even if it means making an analogue copy as and then re-digitizing. Current attempts to shut down napster style file sharing programs or make them charge a subscription fee may succeed but others offering free music will always spring up in their place. The only hope the music industry would have of preventing sharing of music over the Internet would ultimately be to try to have laws passed which would prevent the transmitting of copyrighted music. I believe that the music industry’s attempts to impose a restriction on freedom of transmission of data in this way will prove utterly fruitless. What the music industry have started to do is to use watermarking to enable music to be bought in a ‘secure’ format which can only be uploaded onto one computer and downloaded onto one portable player, and which will prevent the user from playing illegally recorded music on their portable player. This is one of the aims of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, which is an organisation composed of companies involved in IT, consumer electronic and the recording industry. The music industry certainly needs to adopt a standard format for downloaded recordings which have been legitimately purchased, and set a quality standard for music for download and I see these as commendable aims which can only be of benefit to consumers. Digital music currently available for download on file-sharing programs is variable in quality as it is dependent on the person who encodes it (MP3 is not the only music file format available on the Internet) understanding how to maintain the quality of the recording whilst removing data which will make the file as quick as possible to download. I think it unlikely that the record industry will succeed in controlling our ability to play music by using intelligent electrical devices. The open source fraternity have already developed Ogg Vorbis, which is a format that allows high quality compressed audio to be exchanged, and therefore has obvious legal advantages over the MPEG format, as the method used to create the MPEG file has been patented by Fraunhofer IIS and Thompson CSF. I very much doubt that any security feature which forms part of the music itself will last for very long as the number of hackers who can work on cracking it is inestimably larger than the number of people who will have been employed to develop it in the first place. The bottom line with digital anti-piracy measures even those involving intelligent electronics is that if it can be played it can be reproduced, and anyone can build a set of speakers.

Whilst the record industry is clearly most preoccupied with sales and copyright issues with current artists it has been suggested that perhaps it should be considering its role in the promotion of music online. The Internet has opened a gateway to an audience for unknown musicians, who are able to promote and sell their own music. Whilst perhaps most of those who are looking for music online are either looking for specific tracks or a particular artist or group, there will also be those who will use the facility offered by some music sites where a recommendation for other less well recognised artists who have a similar sound or appeal are featured. The music industry has perhaps been a little slow to see that the Internet could be a fantastic tool for selecting and promoting new artists, and has lost out to companies such as InFront and Peoplesound who offer contracts to unsigned musicians. According to an article on TheRegister.co.uk, selling music for download has been found by a recent survey to be unappealing to adults.2 3 This is probably due in part to the disadvantages and difficulties of downloading an entire album - you have to have a fairly fast modem and an uninterrupted connection’, and of course you miss out on having the limited edition formats that are sometimes offered with interesting cases or more comprehensive booklets. There is also the issue of where you can play downloaded music. If you can only play music you have downloaded on your computer, in a car, or on a portable player then you have less choice about where you listen to your music than if you had chosen to go out and buy a CD. It is a recurring problem with new formats that the consumer electronics companies have not yet caught up, because the music industry has taken its time over developing a standard format for downloaded audio, and most people don’t listen to music sitting at their computers. The music industry has in my opinion wasted a lot of time and money chasing after lost royalties when it should have foreseen that music would be transferred over the internet, developed a standard format for the few who do want to pay for their music online, and seen that the internet could be used to help them find new artists.

The music industry will have to pay attention to how and where people want to listen to music. Digital music, which can only be played on a computer or on a portable player of one kind or another, as I’ve already mentioned, has a limited appeal. The DVD-A format offers higher quality sound and the storage capability of a DVD-A is so great that it is not necessary to compress the data it contains. Whilst data compression using psychoacoustic modelling is useful to screen out the detail that the human ear is incapable of hearing so that high quality audible data can be more easily received by people with an average speed internet connection, the advent of DVD-A means that compression for the sake of easy storage of large numbers of tracks, is unnecessary. Again, this format is currently hampered by the lack of a suitable range of playback devices. It is difficult for the music industry to decide what to do with the DVD-A format because such a large amount can be stored on it at such high quality that decisions have to be made about how much music should be included on each disc and how much consumers will be willing to pay. I think that eventually, DVD-A will become at least the equal of the CD, and will be particularly useful for the audiophiles who are fans of classical music which is possibly the type of music that suffers most from the limits of current formats.

The music industry will have to make some fairly radical changes in the twenty first century. Artists can promote themselves successfully on the Internet, and audio files can be exchanged in minutes, and I believe that this will lead the music industry to become more customer led. Standard formats will be developed, and widely used, but I doubt that the music industry will ever make a significant amount of money from downloaded music - if a record company has shareholders than it will never be able to justify distributing music in any format which can be easily copied and redistributed. Despite it’s best efforts the music industry will never eradicate piracy, because there will always be someone willing to spend the time to crack security features and make their work freely available. The future of the music industry is in making changes to the way it operates and what it charges or risk consumers only buying music that they feel is genuinely worth supporting, and downloading individual songs which are likeable but nothing special and being content to listen to them at their computers or in personal/car players. The greatest change to the music industry will be that it needs to learn its lesson and start consulting and considering now how people in a couple of generations time will be listening to music. A recurrence of the current situation where technology has developed faster than the music industry has found a way to make it pay would probably result in the end of the music industry as we know it.


1 Tony Smith, Anti-rip CD system bypassed http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/54/20766.html
2 Smith, T (2001) ‘Online adults won’t pay for music downloads’ TheRegister.co.uk, htlp://www.theregister.co.uk/content/6/21335.html
3 I emailed Tony Smith, the author of this article to see whether or not he was able to point me to an online resource which might have more comprehensive statistic than those quoted in the article, but have not received a reply.



The Popular Music Course Website www.popular-music.co.uk

The Register, www.theregister.co.uk

CD Freaks www.cdfreaks.com

The Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, http://www.mcps.co.uk/

Secure Digital Music Initiative, www.sdmi.org

Ogg Vorbis www.vorbis.org

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