A Torrent of History

A Survey of Music Filesharing
By Adam Hyde (r a d i o q u a l i a)
Dec 19, 2004

Written while Digital Artist in Residence, Waikato University

THE TRADITIONAL APPROACH TO DISTRIBUTING MUSIC

The traditional approach to releasing music independent from the architecture we call ’the music industry’ follows a basic formula. The formula is technologically agnostic, the technology used is largely dependent on the consumer norms set by ’the industry’ and the available technology of the time. At this time the dominant technology is the Compact Disc, but once it was Vinyl and before then many formats have been utilized including wax cylinders and magnetic coils.

The process for small scale independent releases follows this basic formula:

record music
imprint music on media
distribute the media
promote the release
sell the media
recover sales revenue

These steps are not necessarily discrete, for example the promotion of the release often happens throughout the entire process and often even before the recording has begun. This is however the basic, traditional process. The medium of our time for this process is the CD.

If you have never released anything before and you are not well known, then this process will almost certainly have two results you can bet on :

you will spend a lot of time fulfilling each step in this process
you will lose money

It is difficult to know why so many people follow this pattern, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they probably won’t even break even….

The point of this presentation is to look at a alternative that won’t cost you (the producer) anything financially and might even make you some money. I don’t intend to evangelize a way of doing things – as with all things, there are motivations and influences unique to your situation, hence I am not going to advocate this method because I believe it is guaranteed to work for you. Instead I am suggesting a process that you may not have considered and you may wish to consider.

THE NEW TECHNOLOGY

It needs to be said that sharing music online has been going on for a very long time. Perhaps the first substantial example of this was with the sharing of Tracker files over Bulletin Boards. Trackers are a type of sound software that use mod files for storing instructions. These files are then re-interpreted by other Tracker software for replay or for the purpose of creating a derivative work (the mod files are re-editable through the Tracker software).

I am going to skip this very interesting and important phase of online audio and file sharing and look at the more recent history leading to the development of net.labels. This story starts largely at the moment the music industry decided to introduce digital audio to the consumer market.

Before the music industry invented a way to resell us the same music we already owned there were not many complaints about the quality and function of vinyl. In fact when the new media was introduced there was a lot of grumbling, especially by music aficionados because CD audio at that time was an unknown entity and hence digital audio was an unknown proposition. The whole physics of this new media sounded like the technology was inherently inferior and more expensive. Breaking analog audio up into a series of one’s and zero’s just sounded like a bad idea. How could a mathematical representation of an analog wave (sound wave) possibly sound as good or, as the CD advocates claimed, better than an analog representation of an analog wave? It just didn’t sound right (excuse the poor pun).

However the music industry led the charge and good on them as there are now few complaints about digital audio. That is, there are few complaints except from that most vocal and powerful opponent – the music industry. There is of course some irony here…the music industry – the people that made us buy all the music we already owned in the new format – digital audio – then go overboard when ’we’ (the people) utilise two of the inherent physical advantages that new medium – the ability to copy the content quickly, and the ability to distribute virally.

Of course copying and distributing music illegally has existed ever since media was used to record music. The pianola played a role in defining how copyright law defines this process as illegal. There is now copyright inherent in media which prevents wholesale pirating of music because a long time ago the law attempted to stop the unauthorised copying and selling of piano rolls of popular tunes. Recently, in the pre-CD days, there were also many people that copied music from vinyl onto tapes.

However the costs and logistics of copying onto tape and then delivering the music to the intended recipient sets a significant threshold that not many bothered to cross, and hence not many copies were actually made in those days. There was an industry of pirating which was a commercial concern but certainly not in New Zealand. In some places, such as Indonesia, where (in the mid 80s) there was not much concern for international copyright conventions there was a profitable industry of commercial piracy…however in New Zealand there was no such industry. The tape copying that was occurring in New Zealand was merely a form of informal viral marketing, a type of ’word-of-mouth’ marketing that marketeers have now come to identify as a legitimate strategy for promoting product. If you need evidence of this then I recommend you read the well known NO LOGO by Naomi Klein. In my own experience this type of marketing was extremely effective. I remember a friend gave me a tape he had made with music copied illegally onto it, and one of the tracks was The Men By The Pool by New Zealand group This Kind of Punishment . I would not now own every release TKP made, or possibly all of the first 200 releases that Flying Nun released (except I still haven’t got a copy of Mainly Spaniards 😉 if it wasn’t for this kind of marketing (TKP were eventually released on Flying Nun Records).

However this low threshold of activity didn’t stop the music industry from complaining and lobbying government to tax tape sales because, they claimed, this inherent pirate-ready medium was enabling theft of their copyrighted product. There was no capacity to acknowledge that this process actually played a role in stimulating sales. The argument was that the record company owned the copyright, and if anyone made a copy of a recording without permission or without paying royalties, then that was theft and needed to be compensated. Ironically I remember arguing with Roger Sheppard, the founder of Flying Nun about just this point at a New Zealand music industry meeting.

What this technology (tape) also enabled was an entire sub culture of DIY music releases often but not exclusively connected to the pseudo activist/anarchist punk culture, however there were also many interesting pop culture tape labels such as Robert Scott’s label Every Special Thing (EST) and the more experimental xpressway records.

The battle over compensation for revenue lost due to copying music soon died. The invention of music TV and CD’s dramatically lifted record sales worldwide and the battle wasn’t so much won as forgotten…that is until now…

The introduction of digital audio wasn’t at first a problem for the music industry as the new media allowed a rebirth of the otherwise stagnating industry. There was no need to take costly risks marketing new artists when you could just sell the old ones over and over again. To top it off the new media offered exciting new profit margins as CD’s were cheaper to produce than vinyl AND they could (in a move I have never had explained to me) be sold for more … incredible!

However there was a slow burning bug in the system, something that some might have referred to as an ’undocumented feature’. Digital audio allowed an ease of replication unmatched by any analog audio format that had ever existed. Perhaps reflecting the same pragmatism with which the industry overcame the tape royalty argument (although in some countries there are actually taxes on tape sales for the reasons discussed above), the industry weren’t really that concerned as the new media heralded a boost to their profits so they decided they could live with the risk.

Well, you might predict that I would say that when the internet was popularized that things then changed dramatically, digital audio no longer was constrained by physical distribution media and the horse ran away with the cart. Well no…thats not the story really. The horse needed two more wheels before it could steal the cart. The first wheel was the necessity for a digital audio format that could compress digital audio from its ’uncompressed’ file size of 10MB per minute of ’CD quality’ audio to a lower data size to enable sharing over the text only infrastructure of the internet. Well actually this format had existed for quite sometime and is known as MP3 – you would have heard of this. MP3 had been around a long time before the new age of file sharing that we know now.

“Development of MP3 started back in 1987 in Germany at the Fraunhofer Institut Integrierte Schaltungen and its given name was the EUREKA project EU147, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB). With the involvement of Professor Dieter Seitzer of the University of Erlangen an algorithm was developed and eventually became known as the ISO-MPEG Audio Layer-3 standard“

http://www.mp3-mac.com/Pages/History_of_MP3.html

Unfortunately MP3 was not very popular for quite sometime because of the market strategy of the organizations that owned this format – Fraunhofer and Thompson. What MP3 proceeded to do was to close down any company or private individual that used their format without a license. I remember this clearly as they closed down the guy that, (in about 1998 when r a d i o q u a l i a started a net.label called gemma), made the only MP3 audio encoder for MacIntosh (the mpecker encoder). So MP3 existed but its popularity was constrained by its strategy to protect its market position. This might seem somewhat ironic now but then it was just a given then – one protected ones intellectual property at all costs.

So, wheel one needed to be loosened before it could really start turning, and this happened in time as Fraunhofer and Thompson appeared to realise that closing down the small guys was simply bad press.

Wheel two involved streamlining the distribution system. Ultimately some device to turn the internet from a text medium into a media distribution network. Well, this also actually existed in the form of News Groups. News Groups, if you don’t know them, existed for a long time before image based browsers popularized the internet, they still exist today and are essentially a place were you will find a disproportionate number of geeks swapping news, tips, porn, software, music and movies. They are in some way the dark inhabited sewer of the internet – rich in subcultural diversity, a bit unhealthy, and flowing below the surface of the web that most of us exist on.

In the underground of the News Groups file sharing had been happening for some time largely unharnessed by the surface dwellers. The industry ignored it more or less because the logistics of this kind of distribution meant that only a small minority of geeks participated. Files were generally split into parts and compressed. To put them back together again you had to find all the parts, de-compress, and re-assemble. If one part was missing too bad for you. This subculture also didn’t suffer fools so if you weren’t born with the innate knowledge of how to compress and de-compress rar files then don’t bother asking, you are by definition, the wrong species to try it in the first place…

It wasn’t until MP3 loosened up AND the internet delivered a consumer technology that was easy to use could audio file sharing start the course that we know today is, according to the music industry, destroying the creative industries that we have all come to know and love. The technology was of course, peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing as demonstrated most prominently by Shaun Fannings’ dorm room invention – Napster

So the file sharing industry was born. Like tapes this new technology mix also enabled the distribution of independent music at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.

NET.LABELS

So MP3, together with file sharing offers a new mechanism for sharing of music. However it is apparent that the music industry is not so happy about this new alliance. Fortunately not all file sharing is illegal and these new technologies can offer new distribution possibilities to musicians, and this has seen the slow but assured growth of a phenomenon known as net.labels. It should be noted that net.labels existed well before Napster and the popular uprising of P2P, however it hasn’t been until MP3 was popularized by file sharing networks that the format became understood and utilized by popular culture that net.labels could expand upon their previously limited niche.

As I understand it there is no formal definition of a net.label. The phenomenon is not also strictly married to the MP3 audio file format although most use that by choice. As a starting point to examining this emerging phenomenon I would like to look a bit at a net.label that uses P2P networks for distributing its content. Most net.labels do not in fact utilise this method as their primary distribution technology, preferring to allow users to download the music direct from their homepages and P2P is then a secondary strategy for distribution. However for starters lets look at SoulSeek Records http://www.slsknet.org/ .

SoulSeek has a particular place in my heart as it was one of the file sharing I used most before the music industry became the bogey man (as opposed to becoming the boggie man) and closed most successful file sharing networks down in a legislative rampage. SoulSeek, instead of dying, transformed itself into a new model of record company.

Although you can use SoulSeek to share music illegally, it tries to distance itself from this practice and indemnify itself as its policy now reads:

“Soulseek(tm) does not endorse nor condone the sharing of copyrighted materials. You should only share and download files which you are legally allowed to or have otherwise received permission to share. Soulseek(tm). was created to encourage the sharing of public domain music from unsigned, independent artists willing to share their work and communicate with a large audience in an efficient way.“

http://www.slsknet.org/rules.html

However, SoulSeek does not do much to make concrete its position as an independent music distributer as opposed to a file sharing network where many illegal files get shared. In fact it exists in rather vulnerable territory as the operators of this system charge money to users that want ’priority access’ (you pay to be first in line) and this is something the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) will likely take a rather dim view of when SoulSeek finally appears in their radar. However not appearing in their radar seems to be the only tactic of SoulSeek as founder Nir Arbel said when interviewed by slyck.com http://www.slyck.com/news.php?story=356 :

Slyck.com: Considering mostly techno, dance, house and electronic music is on the network, do you feel this has prevented the RIAA from taking an interest in SoulSeek?

Nir Arbel: It couldn’t have hurt. Considering the majority of stuff trafficked on the system is probably non-RIAA owned, and seeing as the system is pretty small to begin with, it’s likely we’re not even on the RIAA’s radar.

This doesn’t look like a smart or sustainable strategy to me. Considering the paranoia of the RIAA that leads them to suing anything that enables the transport of a single illegal bit, I wouldn’t bet on SoulSeek lasting the distance.

Apart from this, SoulSeek doesn’t work for me as a net.label. It doesn’t have have that special trusted feeling of being a label you can expect will deliver the music you need, instead it feels like a file sharing network. – a particularly good P2P network but far from the sort of entity we have associate the term ’label’ with. To me a label is something I can trust, it has a character that I relate to, otherwise I am not going to spend the time downloading material which might turn out to be awful nonsense. Essentially this is the problem of positing a file sharing network as a new kind of ’record label’…the point of the P2P technology is that users have the ability to share what they like. There are also no guarantees, you roll the dice, you take your risks. Many operate as pseudo self-regulating social networks, of which SoulSeek is a good example. In these situations there are strong rules of sharing etiquette and online behavior. However they simply do not fulfill the role of a net.label well because the content is not exclusively independently released, and is mostly simply the illegal trading of copyrighted material. It does not mean there cannot be an effective strategy for net.labels utilising file sharing networks as their main distribution technology, but I haven’t found an approach like this that satisfies my needs as a user in search of a trusted source of independent music.

Nor does P2P offer much control over the presentation of the content. If an artist wishes to release an EP where the track order is important then this cannot be maintained presently under these kind of distribution networks. This also applies to the associated information and artwork (it is difficult to maintain the association using P2P).

A net.label like ComfortStand http://www.comfortstand.com/ moves more in the direction of becoming an interesting model for a net.label and it fulfills a lot of the necessary requirements for what I think makes a good net.label. The site is one year old, well organized, and offers a lot of material by their catalog of artists. Each release is supported by ’cover art’ and ’liner notes’ (two terms they use on their site which are derived from the earlier vinyl era).You download all in one compact zip file, or each track can be downloaded individually. It is also possible to listen to the content before you ’buy’ (download) through Streaming Flash or MP3. Some releases even come with CD art to print and stick to your freshly burnt CD. The model is very much like a record label which has been put online with very little or no translation into the new medium, one is expected in some cases to complete the process of manufacture and make the CD ourselves complete with cover and disc art.

This is, I think the limitation of this approach, it feels to me to much like it is an extrapolation of an established way of doing things and not, although it is very functional, a creative exploration of a new way of doing things with this medium. The label does offer a itself as a trusted source, which is largely down to editorial policy. Whether their choices are ones you enjoy is another matter, but I have to say that the straight-forward Movabletype blog-like interface deters me from downloading anything from this site.

As a tester I downloaded their latest compilation called Comfort Cake which is a collection of their favorite tracks for the first anniversary celebrations. I notice when downloading the zip file (140MB) that the files are hosted on The Internet Archive http://www.archive.org . The Internet Archive is an interesting service that archives the internet by running an automated software process (known as a spider) to crawl through the web and download every page that exists on the web. Copyright nightmare it might be, but its an amazing service and it allows anyone to browse previously stored versions of almost any website that has ever existed. In addition to this The Internet Archive offers a service to net.labels so the labels can host their content free of charge. There are a few other services like this including scene.org but none as comprehensive and as fast as The Internets Archives service. For more information see:

http://www.archive.org/audio/netlabels.php

The Comfort Cake release was predictably cheesy and goes to prove that you can judge a net.label by its homepage.

Another approach is undertaken by 20kbps which is a net.label run out of the Czech Republic. This site is deliberately low-fi which is an approach I personally enjoy. I respond to this more immediately than to something like ComfortStand which is nice but a bit too sterile. The aim of the label is to introduce music that explores the aesthetic of low-fi electronica, it could be likened to well known New Zealand labels like Corpus Hermeticum in that sense. Past the front page is a listing of news about releases and a direct link to the MP3 files. The music is also stored at the fabulous net.label hosting facility at The Internet Archive. The attitude is very definitely inherent in the site that if you like one release then you share the same ethic and hence you are part of the 20kbps clan. Its a very direct tone the texts take about the releases and you have the feeling that you will either love or hate what they do…no in between.

The cool thing is that the releases are really 20kbps and hence very low-fi, defying the boring and relentless push towards ’perfect’ digital sound. I like the artifacts created by high compression and these guys do some cool things exploring that territory. Its an aesthetic, a way of doing things, and an attitude. The extra bonus is that because of the high compression used the files are really small and download extremely fast – a four track release (and most net.labels still use terminology like ’EP’) weighs in at about 4MB! The approach is so complete that I am persuaded to listen to some of their material that is on the edges of what I would normally enjoy. The point is that I might not always enjoy what they do but I trust them to always do something interesting.

I like this label a lot but it might not be for everybody.

Looking at something a little more hi-fi check out the Lithuanian label Sutemos http://www.sutemos.net/ . This is very slickly designed and comes complete with its own web magazine with reviews, interviews and articles about the Sutemos artists and releases as well as interviews with other musicians like Monolake and Chris Cunningham.

This site embraces the new medium a lot better than the very traditional approach of ComfortStand, presenting a blog-like interface but with great design, throwing away the default templates but still using a roughly standardized blog format. The result is that it looks good and is, if you have used blogs, intuitive to navigate. Also, instead of cover-art and liner notes we have ’virtual galleries’ (although I don’t like the use of the word ’virtual’ in almost any situation) which are photos and images associated with the release. They are not meant to be cover-art but just looked at and admired either online or after you have opened the zip file for the release.

You can also subscribe to their email newsletter if you get hooked. The releases are typical ’LP’ length format which hopefully more net.labels will fight to root out from the norm, there is after all no need to be limited by concepts set as a standard for outdated formats. There is even no real need to consider a ’release’ anymore as anything other than a snapshot or version of a ’track’ at a particular moment in time rather than as something than has been etched forever by laser or lathe and can’t be changed, deleted, updated, or rolled back.

The interesting motivation of Sutemos is that it seems to see it self as a half-way step to being a ’real’ record label. The release notes (released in Microsoft Word format, but thats another battle) for 3tronik state:

“ Although it is improper in the society to boast I will let myself say that Sutemos net label is getting rid of the its virtual features gradually and is releasing stuff that would almost fit the CD/LP format. The album of French producer Florin Fabien (aka 3tronik) called Mirror will another fast step to prove you that. I think that after listening to the newest work of 3tronik you will agree that it is more than just a mp3 release and we are sincerely hoping that he won‘t show up on Sutemos (neither on any other net label) never again after Mirror. That is what we wish him.“

The label is providing a stepping stone opportunity for the artist to be noticed and released on a bona-fide record label, if not Sutemos itself then some other hard format record label. This has some form of altruism attached to it, but also fundamentally it it is a statement about the cultural economics of net.labels. Each of these enterprises is discovering its own area and its own economy, some appear to exist on an economy of reputation, others like Sutemos see themselves as providing artists with a promotional medium from which they can refine their skills, develop a following and step into another economy perhaps where actual cash changes hands.

That is not to say it is impossible to establish a net.label that sells music. It is certainly possible but the phenomenon has not yet embraced this strategy to any great degree, perhaps because selling music online also sets a logistical and financial threshold to building an audience and most net.labels seem to be more interested at this stage in how many downloads they have rather than how much money they have made. Additionally it could be said that net.labels are throwing away the overburdening infrastructures required to make money, establishing and managing these structures after-all are the very things that have lost many independent labels money in the past.

There are however a few that do try this strategy, notably abflug http://www.abflugrec.com/ who also sell CDs.

Finally, falsh http://fals.ch is interesting because it takes a completely different tactic from not just other net.labels but it deviates from any content provider that has ever existed on the net! Born from the mego and farmers manual borg, this site is fantastic for its in your face design. This site will almost certainly cause cerebral hemorrhaging for technophobes, offering no shelter for the lost or overwhelmed…

LICENSING

The question now arises….’isn’t downloading illegal?’. Well this is the problem of the current war on file sharing, there is little done to discriminate between legal and illegal file sharing. All music is copyrighted by default through the process of publishing or making available that original content. This happens regardless of whether you associate a big ’c’ in a circle to the content or not. The copyright owner of the content is you the producer unless you sign your rights away. As the copyright owner you are allowed to license your content to almost anyone you want and you can even give away your copyright to someone else or commit the content to the Public Domain.

There is a lot of content online that is free and available for download legally. If you want to check out some of the repositories for this kind of content then have a look again at The Internet Archive or Legal Torrents < http://www.legaltorrents.com/ > or the activist video sharing network v2v http://v2v.cc/ and there are many others. Bittorrent, by the way, is an extremely interesting technology that aggregates available bandwidth from hosts that have the file you want so your download proceeds faster than if it was downloading from just one host. This technology is used for some net.labels including the Croatian label egoboobits http://www.egoboobits.net .

So for a file to be downloaded legally it must be licensed with the express permission to do so. There are a few issues involved here….

1. how do you know a file is licensed this way?

Well if the file is made available through a file sharing network then you have a problem. Some file formats allow for a lot of text data to be embedded in the audio file itself but this is really unlikely to be the case for any given file as its not yet a common practice and also it means you have first to download the file and then use the appropriate software to read the embedded meta-data. This is tricky as the software for this is not abundant or necessarily easy to use, and if it turns out that the file is not licensed for free distribution then you have already broken the law by downloading the file. This obviously means that P2P are not the best systems (yet) for finding legal content.

2. how do I know the copyright owner has got all the legal mumbo jumbo right?

This is indeed an issue…what if they have written some kind of text that is cryptic or just badly written or even not written in legalese….what is the status if the license?

To solve these problems a group formed by American academic Laurence Lessig, inspired by the recent moves on open source software licensing, has made a number of template licenses for distributing content. These are bundled together in a site (movement) called Creative Commons http://www.creativecommons.org

These licenses give one the permission to set the parameters of the distribution and re-use of your audio content. However the scope of the licenses is much broader in philosophy and central to what they are doing is the idea of stimulating creative development through derivative works. Laurence Lessig wants to encourage artists to consider licensing material so that it can not only be distributed but also so that it contributes to a pool of creative works that can be drawn on as raw materials by other artists. His claim is that culture has always developed this way and that by unnecessarily restraining this process through stringent content licenses we live in a poorer cultural environment. That is a point that you need to decide for yourself, but you may find Laurence Lessigs’ book Free Culture an interesting read on these issues. Free Culture is available for free from :

http://www.free-culture.cc/

To finish, I would like to say that net.labels are an interesting emerging phenomenon. I believe it is here to stay and I think it could be an interesting time for anyone wishing to establish such an entity for New Zealand electronic music. To establish a net.label now for New Zealand musicians would certainly have the advantage of positioning itself in a currently empty space, and help define this exciting new way of distributing local independent electronic music.

RESOURCES

bitflows

Conference on Streaming Media, Public Netbase, Vienna

http://freebitflows.t0.or.at/f/conference/video

particularly:

Session 4: Compensation Decentral

net.labels

http://www.sutemos.net/

http://tamtam.mi2.hr/EgobooBits/EgoEnglish

http://www.textone.org

monotonik

run by the chap that established the net.label archive on archive.org

http://www.mono211.com/

20kbps

“20kbps is an online net.label, specializing in lo-fi, underground, noise, distorted breakbeats and techno, and much more, all specifically made to be released as MP3s encoded at 20kbps, instead of the more normal higher bitrates.“

http://20kbps.sofapause.ch/

falcsh

cryptic net.label born from members of mego and farmers manual

http://fals.ch/

comfortstand

“Welcome to Comfort Stand Recordings, a community-driven label where all releases are free with artwork and liner notes. We strive to bring you recordings that we find interesting, compelling and downright enjoyable. Everybody needs free music.“

http://www.comfortstand.com/

net.label listings

The Internet Archive

http://www.archive.org/audio/netlabels.php

The net.label guide

http://www.rowolo.de/sites/index-labels.html

commercial independent mp3 netlabels

emusic

http://www.emusic.com

abflug

http://www.abflugrec.com/

free hosting

http://www.scene.org/

http://www.archive.org

http://www.dgen.net

online rights

http://www.futureofmusic.org/

http://www.eff.org

background

trackers

http://www.helsinki.fi/~ssyreeni/dsound/dsound-a-04

open content

Creative Commons

http://www.creativecommons.org

legaltorrents

http://www.legaltorrents.com/

This article is protected by a Creative Commons license