SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - Madonna. Public Enemy. Ginger MacKenzie? At first glance, you might think one of these names just doesn't belong. Look closer, however, and you'll see that a common trait unites them: Each has released songs--or in the case of rap superstars Public Enemy, an entire album--online.
And though just a few short months ago the Austin, Texas, native Ginger MacKenzie was selling sodas and beer on a golf course during daylight hours and crooning away at night in the city's many clubs, these days she supports herself wholly on CD sales, thanks almost exclusively to the Internet.
"I put some songs up on MP3.com last year," the singer recalls when asked to explain her meteoric CD sales. MP3.com Inc. has become the first step for many unknown acts who hope to use the Internet to advance their careers. MacKenzie's bluesy, soulful songs caught the ear of the MP3.com staff, which named her "Best Pop and Rock Artist of 1999." That distinction helped generate hundreds of thousands of free downloads of her songs from the site, which in turn resulted in tens of thousands of CD sales "in places like the UK, Syria, just about everywhere," she says. MacKenzie parlayed her popularity into an opening slot at last year's Lilith Fair, as well as a publishing contract with Warner Chappel.
Granted, for every Ginger MacKenzie, thousands of still-unknowns hope that the come-one, come-all approach of MP3.com and other free song warehouses online will somehow produce the break each longs for. But musicians aren't the only interested parties taking advantage of the Internet as a distribution channel.
Corporate heavyweights from AOL to MTV want a ride on the digital music bandwagon. The clout such companies wield means that more music from big-name talent will soon be available for download.
Where did MP3 come from and why do music fans love it? What are the best digital music players and software programs? How do you find good--and legal--digital music on the Web? We answer these questions and more in our sound test of the digital music revolution.
Running on MP3
The much-hyped MP3 isn't the only audio format on the Web. At least four others--ACC, Liquid Audio's eponymous technology, RealNetwork's Real G2, and Microsoft's Windows Media--crowd the field. But MP3 has become the de facto format because it's readily accessible and lacks built-in security mechanisms.
When you buy a CD, you don't need the record company's permission to tape it for your car. And you don't need to monitor how many different devices in your house contain transferred versions of the songs. MP3 continues that tradition:
It allows you to transfer songs from your computer to any MP3-playing device without worrying about how much of the music you own. But formats such as Liquid Audio don't extend that freedom to the user; and neither do the preliminary guidelines for the record industry's alternative digital music format, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI). Instead, these proprietary formats include security hooks that determine both the allowable number of copies you can make of a song and the types of devices you can play the songs on. Of the MP3 players we reviewed for this article, only Sony's Memory Stick Walkman plays SDMI-compliant music.
C30, C60, C90, Go!
Like .jpg, .wav, and even .doc, MP3 is a file format. It dates back to 1992, when the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany invented a technology that at the time seemed innocuous. Discussed only in esoteric technology circles, the "Moving Pictures Experts Group, Layer 3" format (mercifully shortened to "MPEG-1, layer 3," and colloquially called MP3) introduced tighter compression to the existing video and audio MPEG format. Using MP3, scientists were able to shrink files to about an eighth of their original size.
Not long after the code's release, other people realized that the format was ideal for compressing and sharing music. The sound approached CD quality and an average 4-minute song shrank to about 4MB--small enough to share over the Internet or from PC to PC.
One of the earliest hindrances to online music was its lack of portability. No one wanted to be confined to a computer when listening to music. Into this breach have leaped a multitude of vendors--from stalwarts such as Sony to fledglings like HanGo--each offering a device for playing digital music.
First out of the gate was Diamond Multimedia, with its Rio 300. Not long after the Rio was announced, however, the Recording Industry Association of America, a lobbying organization for record companies, sued Diamond, claiming that its product violated the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act, a law stipulating that digital recording devices must come encoded with an antipiracy copy management feature.
The RIAA lost that case in late 1998. Because the Diamond Rio 300 didn't record music, the court ruled, the device was a "space shifter"--functionally equivalent to a cassette player that was used by its owner to replay songs copied from a CD the person owned. The ruling helped the Rio and similar units compete with other portable music devices.
The competition has yielded significant consumer benefits. When the Rio 300 debuted, it cost around $300 and could hold only 32MB (about 32 minutes worth) of music. Most newer models today--including our Best Buy, Creative Lab's Nomad II --come with twice as much storage capacity and range in price from $229 to $400. They feature added microphone capability, radio tuners, and other accouterments.
Scheduling problems with the manufacturer prevented us from reviewing the most recent Diamond Rio model, the 600. For a brief review of the Rio 600's older sibling, the Rio 500, see "Why Don't We Do It on the Road?"
Unlike CD- or cassette-based portable players, MP3 players have no internal moving parts, so the music won't skip or change pitch when the device is jostled or dropped--a boon to exercise buffs. MP3 devices are far from perfect, however. Though the standard memory size has doubled from 32MB to 64MB, that's still good for only about an hour of near-CD-quality music. In addition, the MP3 files you listen to remain on the storage device until you replace them with other tunes transferred from your PC, a process that can be time-consuming and frustrating.
Speed is a serious concern here. Some manufacturers include USB support in their latest models, which greatly increases the file transfer speed. To run a USB-enabled player, you must use Windows 98 or 2000 as your operating system.
As broadband technologies such as DSL and cable modems become more commonplace, digital music fans can download files much more quickly. (Compressing a typical 4-minute song into MP3 takes as little as 15 minutes on a 56-kbps modem.)For audiophiles, sound quality is another weakness of MP3. The standard MP3 encoding rate is 128 kbps, whereas true CD sound quality typically demands 256 kbps or better. A higher encoding rate translates into a larger MP3 file that occupies more hard drive or portable player space. And if you stream music through your PC (see "Borderless Radio," page 134), minuscule errors such as split-second lapses during a streaming session can result in hics--audible breaks in the stream of digital sound data.
Now let's take a bird's eye view of digital music, focusing on how it works, how to use it, and what to watch out for. We'll report our findings for ten of the top portable players and recommend a couple that are worth the price.
We'll also look at some of the leading software programs used for playing MP3 files on your computer. And we'll discuss how to find great music online, how to transform your PC into a radio receiver, and how to minimize the chance that innocently downloading MP3 files will land you in the slammer.
MP3s For Nothing
Finding MP3 files isn't hard--just add .com to the end of MP3, and you'll find well over 250,000 free songs awaiting you. But you probably won't be familiar with the vast majority of them, since anyone can post music on MP3.com.
Until recently, major record companies avoided the Internet as a distribution medium and refused to make their catalogs available for download. That's changing. The pending merger of AOL, Time Warner, and EMI will align two music powerhouses (Warner Music and EMI Publishing) with AOL, which may put their artists in the Web spotlight. DreamWorks, Sony Music, and other big labels have begun experimenting with free downloads, and most of their sites offer at least some kind of downloadable music.
But downloading tracks from labels' sites onto a portable player carries its own perils. First, the labels that offer downloads package them in secure, proprietary formats--such as Liquid Audio or Microsoft Windows Media--that many of the portable MP3 players we tested can't play. Creative's Nomad II plays Windows Media, and Sony's Memory Stick Walkman plays its own format (ATRAC3), which you can convert MP3 files to using included software; but the majority of players we reviewed handle only MP3 files, confining files created in other formats to the PC on which they were originally downloaded.
Moreover, many major-label sites offer only streaming versions of songs, so the songs can't be saved on your hard drive or transferred to your MP3 player. And sound quality varies with the speed of the stream and the quality of the connection.
Even if you can find desirable MP3 files on major labels' sites, you probably don't want to visit 15 different sites to hunt down 15 different songs.
Fortunately, music hubs like Listen.com and EMusic.com consolidate a great number of currently available tunes.
EMusic.com sells MP3 versions of albums and singles at a discount rate. Most of its repertoire comes from independent rock labels (mostly unknown bands), but you'll also find a healthy number of jazz and blues tracks too. Single songs cost $1, and most albums go for about $9.
Listen.com doesn't warehouse any of the songs, but points you to other sites where you can download them. When a visitor clicks on a Listen.com genre--Latin, for example--Listen.com lists all the links to legally downloadable music files of that type. The site categorizes more than 10,000 legal songs, and is adept at describing an unknown band by comparing it to a more familiar act.
Spy In The House Of Law
Because the riaa has taken an aggressively litigious stance toward digital music--shutting down thousands of pirate sites, many operated by college students--finding legally downloadable MP3 files can be a bear. And obtaining pirated MP3 files is so complicated--not to mention, tainted by the element of receiving stolen property--that the thrill of acquisition may not be worth the considerable effort and the lingering bad taste.
Some sites that dispense unauthorized MP3 files have devise elaborate (and even silly) schemes to protect themselves and to thwart all but the most dogged music-seekers. To reach one site, for example, you first have to page through ten different sites, some containing offensive content. Once on a site, you're told to type in a URL or click a letter in a banner ad. After visiting several different sites and clicking various letters, you eventually acquire a password that gets you into the MP3 site, where you can paw through the illicit merchandise.
A far simpler way to get songs for your MP3 player is to convert your CD collection into MP3 files. Most of the software players we reviewed include a recording component (formerly known as ripping device). Some players automatically record songs as you play them, converting them to MP3 files on the fly; with others, you have to hit a record button first. Album tracks and titles are automatically listed in your player through an archival database known as CDDB, which is built into most popular software players. As long as you refrain from starting a Web site where you post your converted CDs for anyone to download, copying your music from a CD to your computer and from there to your portable hardware player is legal. In fact, it's protected under the "space shifter" clause of the Audio Home Recording Act.
Once you've become bored with your CD collection and you've scoured the aforementioned sites, where can you go to find the hottest new bands online?
Unfortunately, in most cases the only material available is pirated, though the number of legal, popular songs online is increasing.
One of the most popular ways people can find and share pirated material is via a free, downloadable software program called Napster Inc. Created by Shawn Fanning and popularized by college students, Napster has ignited a firestorm of protest from artists as well as from the RIAA. When you install and open the program, your computer acts as a server, uploading any MP3 files you have on your hard drive. At the same time, you can search the hard drives of others logged on to the Napster network.
For the time being, Napster software is legal. But that might not remain true for long: The company is currently fighting an RIAA lawsuit that could be decided by the time you read this. Many artists--notably Metallica and Dr.
Dre--object to Napster technology because they receive no royalties from copies of songs downloaded in this way--unlike those sold on mainstream sites. Other artists, however, have high hopes for Napster, believing it lets potential fans taste-test their music, ultimately leading to increased CD and concert ticket sales. At any rate, college students, major labels, online music aficionados, and artists anxiously await the outcome of the lawsuit.
Are Trends Electric?
Napster watchers aren't the only ones curious about the future of digital music. Will CDs be obsolete in five years? If not, will they cost less? Will major labels ever embrace digital music and begin to put more--if not all--of their content online?
It's too early to tell. But certain tea leaves offer strong clues about how digital music will unfold. Here's a peek into the pekoe:
Labels take the plunge: If the AOL/Time Warner/EMI merger receives federal approval, the combined talent arsenal of the Warner Music label and EMI publishing company--featuring such Midas-goes-platinum stars as Tom Petty, Cher, and Madonna--will have at its disposal America Online's massive distribution capacity and brand identity. Clearly, the power to control placement of music in an online market is a major priority.
Other labels are sticking their toes into the digital waters as well. Sony Music has been ramping up its efforts (in part because it now has a secure music player, the Memory Stick Walkman, which you can use to play tunes).
Universal Music has announced that it will allow RealNetworks to distribute software that can be used to download and play secure versions of some of its music. If that plan stays on track, some Universal songs could be available for listening by the time you read this.
Artists take the plunge: The rap group Public Enemy made headlines last year when it became the first commercially successful group to exclusively release an album online. The album There's a Poison Goin' On was offered only on Atomic Pop Records, an online music label. Then James Brown followed suit, selling his Christmas for the Millennium and Forever album online before it reached stores.
Look for more artists to follow their lead in the future--if not with albums, then with free downloadable singles.
Portable players get smaller and more powerful: There's no reason why portable MP3 players can't follow the rest of the computer industry. Once RAM prices start dropping again, you can expect to see players that can store more songs.
What does this wall of sound portend? You'll have more choice--more music, cheaper and more powerful players that read more formats, and quicker downloads. You'll also have a clearer conscience as more songs from your favorite musicians appear online, this time legally. And you won't even have to think twice about it, since digital tunes will be almost everywhere. Now that's music to our ears.
Eric Hellweg is a founding editor of Business 2.0. He covers digital music for Spin, among other publications. Michael Gowan is an associate editor for PC World.
Move and groove: The Creative Labs Nomad II wins Best Buy accolades for thoughtful features such as 64MB of storage, sturdy construction, bright LCD screen, fast USB connectivity, audio controls that can be accessed via a remote control, as well as MusicMatch Jukebox software for managing your MP3 files.
Want to listen to MP3 files on your PC? Then you need file-playing software.
You have lots of options to choose from, but not all offerings are worth considering. Some software "jukeboxes" come prepackaged with MP3 players. Most software players are available online for free, while a few cost around $30 if you elect to upgrade to the full-featured versions. But packages bundled with portable MP3 devices tend to offer limited options beyond rudimentary options geared toward getting the files from your hard drive to your portable hardware player.
We look at two categories of file-playing software. Basic programs like Winamp and Sonique (available at PCWorld.com's FileWorld, www.fileworld.com/magazine) allow you to play only the music files you currently own. They won't let you convert CDs into MP3s. The second group--MusicMatch Jukebox, RealJukebox, and Windows Media--are more robust, allowing you to play, record, create playlists, and perform a host of other audio management functions.
MusicMatch Jukebox 5
Our favorite program excels in design, robust features, and extras. Its interface is clean: The top section is a standard CD player interface, the middle is your track library, and the bottom is a CD recorder. You can create playlists that group songs by artist, genre, mood, or whatever category you choose. MusicMatch also lets you record CDs for free at a high bit rate.
MusicMatch gains extra points for including such information as artist info, genre, and even an area for art or a photograph to accompany a track. You must gather most of this information on the Net, but it's nice to have a place to put it.
RealNetworks' RealJukebox 1.1
This player is unduly intrusive and lacks add-ons such as lyrics, extensive track information, and photos. It has a dastardly habit of asserting itself as the default player for such things as sound files and CD tracks--even if you'd prefer to use another player. RealJukebox does permit CD recording, but you get sparse information: track name, artist, and track length. Listeners who miss the days of LPs with artwork and extensive liner notes will stare blankly at the RealJukebox interface. RealJukebox Plus, a $30 upgrade version, adds the ability to record at CD quality.
Sonique is the flashiest of the software players. One look at the tagline--Made by Aliens--and you know you're in for an otherworldly visual experience.
Sonique 1.30 shuns the standard box-based Windows interface in favor of an elliptical bubble shape, at the center of which a montage of psychedelic imagery moves with the music being played. Sonique is almost as popular as Winamp, largely due to its enormous base of user-supplied designs, or skins.
Sonique's Web site displays hundreds of different skins you can download for your player. But if this level of interactivity isn't your bag, Sonique will disappoint. The player's interface is somewhat cryptic, and its mouse-based volume control is suitable for contortionists only.
AOL acquired this popular program last year. Its relatively small size--2.5MB to 4MB, depending on the components you want--and whiz-bang graphics help push it ahead of the rest. Winamp consists of four main components: the standard cassette player-like interface (play, fast-forward, rewind), a ten-band graphic equalizer, a playlist editor that keeps track of your songs, and a mini-browser window. You can easily choose the components you want on the device's screen, and the program does list song titles, but Winamp loses points for not providing added information such as lyrics. Plus, the minibrowser seems superfluous: When we tried buying a CD, the app launched a separate, non-Winamp browser.
Windows Media 7
(www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia)Microsoft's foray into the MP3 game, this application radically departs from its predecessor--a tiny app that many music fans considered absurdly weak. The new version wants to be your media hub, handling everything from CD and radio audio to downloadable music to broadband and video. We looked at a beta of the application, which will be part of the post-Windows 9x consumer operating system (code-named Millennium) expected in the fall of this year. Microsoft spokesperson Crystal Lee Patriarche says that the final version will be much smaller. Windows Media's everything-to-everyone approach has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the player can scan your hard drive for all media files and list them within a large play screen. But it also stores such unwanted system sounds as the "You've got mail" ding. Overall, we liked the song information display, the radio screen, and the drag-and-drop portable player file transfer; but the version we tested crashed too often for us to give it more than a marginal recommendation. PC World will review the shipping version when it's available.
Know Your Rights
Before you post an MP3 file to your personal Web site or download one from a friend's FTP site, you'd better think twice. Just ask Jeffrey Levy, a University of Oregon student.
Levy posted MP3 music files--along with PC software and digital copies of movies--on his Web site, making them available for others to download for free.
In August 1999, he was convicted for distributing copyrighted materials without permission. (See "MP3 and You" at www.pcworld.com/heres_how/mp3players.)Copyright law protects artists and copyright holders from having their work used in unwanted ways. You must obtain the copyright holder's explicit permission to copy a work, or you risk spending up to five years in prison and paying as much as $250,000 in fines. By the time you read this, legal authorities that enforce piracy laws will have even tougher penalties at their disposal.
The law also applies to digital audio formats including MP3, Windows Media, and RealAudio. To keep yourself out of trouble, you need to find out how to obtain legally distributed files and you need to know what you can do with the files after you get them.
Lawyers, analysts, MP3 companies, and the recording industry agree that there are three legitimate ways to collect MP3 and other digital audio files: You can buy them, you can get permission to download them for free, and (in the case of MP3 only) you can make them from CDs you own.
Buying an MP3 file from a Web site such as BMI, Listen.com, or EMusic.com confers the same rights on the purchaser as buying a CD at a record store--irrevocable permission from the copyright holder to privately play and listen to the music the file contains.
You can obtain the same type of permission from a copyright holder--usually an artist who isn't signed to a record contract--to download free versions of recordings. These are available at omnibus sites such as MP3.com and at smaller sites run by the bands themselves. In general, the copyright holders are so eager for you to listen that they'll give you the file for free.
Finally, you can make MP3 files from audio CDs that you own. Thanks to a clause in the copyright act known as the fair use privilege, you can buy a CD and later make an MP3 copy of it, as long as the copy is for your own personal use.
Similarly, you can make copies of files that you legally own to play on a portable MP3 device.
Those three methods are about as far as you can go legally. Posting files on your Web site for friends to download is a no-no, unless you have explicit permission from the copyright holder to do so. Neither can you lawfully download an MP3 from a site, unless the person running the site has the copyright holder's permission to give it to you. That puts most MP3s you run into on the Web--including at least some of those on MP3.com--off limits.
Meanwhile, FTP sites, search engines, and applications such as Napster pose a lot of temptations. Smaller, more personal sites may say they have permission to distribute files, but their claim is not always true--and if it's not, you could be liable for illegally downloading a song. If you're unsure, stick to downloading files from commercial sites such as BMI and Sony. -Michael GowanBorderless RadioIn 1981, Dave Davies of the Kinks lamented the sorry state of radio in his song "Around the Dial." He sang, "FM, AM, where are you?" Nineteen years later, the answer is: on the Internet.
A quick search around the dial of the Internet yields thousands of radio streams, ranging from online versions of popular offline megawatt broadcasts to commercial-free broadcasts that emanate from someone's kitchen. Thanks to very low or nonexistent setup costs, Net radio gives anyone with a record collection that must be heard the opportunity to share it. You can listen to everything from high school football games in rural Texas to news broadcasts from the Indian subcontinent to all-bluegrass formats around the Web.
If you're content to listen rather than create, you'll find many ways to enjoy Net radio. In most instances, you don't need much special software or equipment to listen to most online stations. Typically the two requirements are free streaming software (RealNetworks' RealAudio or Microsoft's Windows Media) and a reasonably fast connection to the Internet. Be aware that even a 56-kbps connection can be marred by awkward stream breakups, especially if you listen during peak hours.
Streaming radio stations exist all over the Internet. An excellent place to find mainstream options is at Yahoo's Broadcast.com. Fine-tune your listening selection with genre-specific choices at Spinner.com or ImagineRadio.com. If you want to be a DJ, however, we recommend Shoutcast.com. It requires a fairly extensive setup process (including downloading and installing the free, proprietary Shoutcast software), but the site has attracted a sizable following.