Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Lost in Cyberspace

MP3 changing the face of the music industry

This article was originally published on March 23, 1999 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

You may have heard the overhyped argument that business cycles have been accelerated beyond all recognition by computers in general and the Internet specifically. It's one of those little cliches the media likes to trot out when discussing technology issues.

But as recently illustrated to the ongoing chagrin of the multibillion-dollar music industry, it's one of the few cliches regarding the Internet that still packs the punch of reality.

Just over a year ago, AT&T introduced a wonderful new technology they dubbed a2b. It was a new compression code that allowed CD-quality music tracks to be stored in a format that personal computers could read – and in a much smaller file than earlier standards such as WAV. AT&T figured that with the massive, multi-gigabyte hard drives then coming on the market for under $250 and speaker systems for home computers every bit as good as those for home stereos, folks might be interested in purchasing their favorite music over the Internet and downloading it via their modem.

Thanks, but no, the music industry said after AT&T's rollout. RealAudio and its streaming, radio-like interface (from which the record companies could garner royalties) was one thing, but when folks wanted to BUY music, they could get it on CD or cassette.

Well, just a few months after a2b came out, a new public domain compression standard called MP3 hit the 'Net.

Like a2b, MP3 can compress a 4-minute song into an 800 kilobyte file. (A standard WAV or Mac sound file of the same song would run closer to 8 megabytes, 10 times as large – and 10 times as much time to download a song over the modem.)

But MP3 had a couple of other features that made it immensely popular with the general public – and not so hot in the eyes of the music industry.

For one, as mentioned, MP3 is an open standard – anyone with the requisite programming skills could go on the Internet, learn the MP3 standards, and write their own MP3 player or encoder. (For information on that, see As it is a nonproprietary standard (much like ASCII is a standard for plain text documents – any computer can read an ASCII file), there are no built-in anti-piracy codes in MP3.

Predictably and quickly, people around the world began posting MP3 files of their favorite songs on the Internet, where anyone who could find them could download them. (This was greatly facilitated when Lycos posted an MP3 search engine on its site at

All of which has led to the giant, multibillion-dollar music industry – heavyweight multinationals such as Sony, BMG and Time-Warner – scrambling to find a way to regain control of their products.

Of course, being large corporations, their first inclination is to sue anyone who illegally copies and distributes copyrighted music. But with literally millions of people around the globe (read: hundreds of jurisdictions and court systems) busily copying their favorite CDs and posting them on the Internet ... well, let's just say the lawyers would have made out quite nicely on their hourly fees without ever making an appreciable dent in the traffic.

Clearly, another approach is needed – and, oh, is that AT&T with their sweet little a2b sitting over there waiting?

So whereas a year ago, a2b was met with a collective yawn, today the record companies are flocking to a2b as their primary weapon against MP3.

The AT&T product has features important to the music industry: a2b files can be copy-protected using key encryption, so that you can save it to your hard drive, and even make backup copies on floppies, ZIP or CD-ROM, but if you try to give a friend a copy, s/he won't be able to play it on their computer (which also means you can't play the same song both at home and at work). Files can also be limited to a certain amount of time – recent free giveway songs by Lenny Kravitz and Joe Walsh, for instance, expire after 30 days. Also, a2b is a proprietary standard – you can only play a2b songs on AT&T's a2b player (available for free for Mac and Windows).

These features allow the record companies to control their copyrights and musicians to gain royalties for their songs. If you want an a2b-formatted song, you must purchase it first.

Whether this will work or not remains to be seen. MP3 pirating is not going away, anymore than folks have ever stopped making cassette tapes of their favorite albums to share with their friends. No matter how many pirates the music industry prosecutes, there's always going to be a fresh crop of 14-year-olds willing to take on the system.

Interestingly, the record companies also opposed the cassette audiotape technology when it was introduced almost 30 years ago. We were warned that widespread pirating would mean the end of the music industry – folks would no longer purchase LPs or reel tapes if they could get a free copy on cassette from their friends.

Of course, the exact opposite happened. Instead of impeding the recording of new music by strangling its income, cassettes and the sharing of music they represented have only spurred an interest in music among two generations. Folks who listen to a pirated cassette (or, now, CD or MP3) and get hooked by that music are likely to not only purchase that album legally, but others by the same artist.

Since the introduction of the cassette deck, the music industry has grown at an astounding rate and today sells tens of millions of units per year more than it did in the late '60s, maybe more.

MP3 is likely to have the same result as cassette tapes did. And as the legal version of the same technology, a2b is likely to continue as the main beneficiary.

All of which shows that, on the 'Net, even huge corporations like AT&T can see their fortunes swayed by what some poor programmer is creating with her free time late at night.