Lousy Compression
It's payback time for the music biz.
Opinion by Blake Linton Wilfong -- The Wondersmith!

Theodore Sturgeon's Law, "Ninety percent of everything is crap," has been the bread and butter of the music industry. Record company execs even have specialized terminology for it; they call mediocre songs "album cuts" or "B sides", meaning that they're only fit for padding out albums or filling the backside of 45 rpm singles (though of course 45s are long gone). Want that great tune you heard on the radio or in the movie theater? You're expected to shell out 18 bucks for the album--a CD with 10 or so songs, all but one of which is junk.

That's if you're lucky. There's a good chance you won't even get what you wanted. See, you're not allowed to listen to the CD before your purchase to determine whether it actually contains the song you crave, nor can you return the CD if it doesn't. Buying an album of music is like playing the shell game with a con artist.

A friend of mine purchased the sountrack from The Year of Living Dangerously just to get the movie's great love theme. Sorry, wrong shell! The piece he wanted wasn't on the soundtrack CD. It turned out to be "L'Enfant" by Vangelis, from the album Opera Sauvage. I bought the "soundtrack" to the movie Batman, unaware that it contained not a hint of Danny Elfman's majestic orchestral score. I found it later on a completely separate CD. (This has since become common practice, but at the time it was unheard-of.) My mother has bought numerous albums of "hits" by famous singers, only to find that they contained obscure poor-quality "live" recordings, not the performances that made the songs famous. I was lucky to learn before making a costly error that the soundtrack album for the television series "Robocop" didn't even contain the title theme! Etc, etc. I don't need to cite more examples; you can think of plenty yourself.

Now enter lossy and lousy compression. MP3 is an example of lossy compression, an automated process that shrinks near-CD-quality songs to a tenth of their original size. It's not perfect, which is why it's called "lossy", but you probably won't be able to discern much difference between an MP3 file and the original song. Lousy compression (as I call it) is a manual process whereby you can similarly reduce an album of music to a tenth of its original size by discarding all the "crap", aka "album cuts". Put the two together, and you've got a 100-to-1 compression ratio, which lets you put all the good stuff from 100 audio CDs onto a single data CD-R to give to your buddies at a cost of one dollar. And with recordable DVD on the horizon, you'll soon be able to hand your friends the distillate of a thousand albums on just one disc.

This 100-to-1 compression ratio works wonders for Internet users. It would take a day or two to download an album of uncompressed music using a 56K modem, but it requires only minutes to download the best bits of that album using lossy and lousy compression. Squirrel your pirated MP3s away on a big hard drive and you're better off than you would be if you bought the CDs; you can easily find and play the songs, and they take up virtually zero physical space.

There's nothing the record industry can do to stop this. They can't patrol all the fleeting ftp, web, and irc sites that constantly wink in and out of existence like quantum virtual particles in empty space. They can't shut down all the Napster-like file sharing communities that will arise. They certainly can't go door-to-door searching people's houses for pirate CD-Rs and DVDs without warrants. Copy protection schemes are worthless because it's easy to create great-sounding MP3s from analog audio using any decent $100 sound card. (Anyway, if it's possible to play it, it's possible to copy it, as the DeCSS decryption program for DVD movies has demonstrated.)

Plus, there's virtually infinite competition. Websites like MP3.COM, Riffage, and AMP3.COM probably already have more free or inexpensive music online than you could listen to in a lifetime, and--surprise!--much of it is of professional quality. You can play MP3.COM tunes using streaming audio just like a radio station; if you hear something you like, you can download a high-quality MP3 version for free.

Which brings us to another big problem for the music industry: its product now costs almost nothing to create. That same $100 sound card mentioned above, along with a little software and perhaps a MIDI keyboard, can generate studio-quality sound that rivals any real band or orchestra. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of amazingly talented amateur composers and performers who are happy to share their creations for free, just so others can enjoy them. Distribution via the Internet costs nothing. Oddly, even though the big record labels "explained" years ago that the high price of CDs compared to vinyl LPs was due to higher production costs, the price has increased since then even while the cost of stamping out CDs has dropped almost to $0.00.

Don't count on consumer loyalty or morals to save the music biz either. After having lost the shell game umpteen times, we're tired of being burned. Besides, it's hard to feel sorry for an industry that pays its artists miniscule royalties, then takes big cuts out of those royalties--sometimes every last cent--for studio time and production costs, even while paying its execs enormous salaries. We've also heard too many stories about record companies stealing melodies, lyrics, and ideas from demo tapes sent in by countless hopeful little guys like you and me. MP3 piracy is theft, but Robin Hood proved that sometimes theft is justice.

Our frantically paced society is best modeled by chaos theory. Revolutions, like the shift from vinyl records to CDs, tend to start slowly but suddenly explode when they reach critical mass. The distribution of MP3s, legal and illegal, will soon reach that point, and the music industry will be restructured overnight.

It's payback time.

 
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