Fighting the Hand that Feeds You (If the Body Wears a Microsoft Shirt)
In a Western setting, it seems that a central aspect of being a fan of someone or something always means being hungry for more of the same it is not enough simply to be satisfied with what's already out there, and what originally made the fan become a fan, but there is a nearly unstillable hunger for continuous reaffirmation of one's reasons for being a fan, through new product.
'Let's make things we can't live without'
-- Spock's Beard, "Day for Night"
'Nothing he's got he really needs'
-- King Crimson, "21st Century Schizoid Man"
'This will be the future / Every home is wired'
-- Porcupine Tree, "Every Home Is Wired"
In a Western setting, it seems that a central aspect of being a fan of someone or something always means being hungry for more of the same it is not enough simply to be satisfied with what's already out there, and what originally made the fan become a fan, but there is a nearly unstillable hunger for continuous reaffirmation of one's reasons for being a fan, through new product. For music fans, long established as amongst the most insatiable of fan groups, this means new records and concerts, as well as live recordings of those concerts (authorised or not). You don't have to look at extremes like Grateful Dead fandom with its myriads of (band-authorised) bootlegs to realise that the market for live recordings is immense, and despite the record industry's best (?) efforts the seedier side of the business continues to flourish, even though it may have been forced to operate from China, Russia, and various other states with lax copyright laws rather than from the European Union or the USA.
With the development of digital music technologies and the concurrent rise of the personal computer, and later the Internet, the problem -- if we choose to see it as one -- has only magnified. The transmission of MP3 files, which contain good-quality audio, often directly 'ripped' from CDs, at relatively small file sizes, is today one of the favourite pastimes of private Internet users, and there are pirate sites and even dedicated MP3 search engines to cater to the appetites of even the most discerning or obscure taste communities. From a more commercial angle, MP3 is joined by distribution formats such as RealAudio, long the preferred choice of online radio stations such as Spinner.com and recently boosted by a major upgrade to its new G2 format, LiquidAudio, and Microsoft's Windows Media Audio format, part of a suite of formats which can be played through its Windows Media Player.
Online music fans, who had been left to their own MP3-using devices for a remarkably long time and found themselves coping very well despite a lack of strong institutional backing, have observed such renewed commercial interest in controlling distribution formats on the Net with some concern. Being fans, they obviously salivate at the thought of even more recordings becoming available (and more directly from the source, rather than through third parties and with amateur-level production values); on the other hand, they also strongly hold the belief that Microsoft, and by extension most music and computer industry corporations, cannot be trusted, and that any move to commercially controlled formats will inevitably lead to a drying up of available resources and an increase in prices (from their present level of virtually zero) in short, their supplies would be rationed, and they'd even be forced to pay for them.
For the companies, eager to enforce existing copyrights even on a medium so patently ill-suited to the concept as the Internet, the central concern is Digital Rights Management (DRM) they want to be able to track the number of copies made by licenced distributors, and disallow further copying beyond a minimal degree of private 'fair use', so that the artists themselves, as well as the facilitators in between, can earn their living; in other words, they are looking to find a mechanism to force fans to reciprocate for being provided with fresh and constant supplies.
Corporate giant among giants Microsoft is the latest company to claim to have found such a mechanism its new Windows Media Technologies 4.0 format, introduced in mid-August 1999, which contains DRM facilities: it claims
- Smaller and better: files half the size of MP3 with superior quality;
- Variable licence periods available for downloaded products;
- Digital Rights Management (in compliance with the Secure Digital Music Initiative). (DGM Live, "About DGM Live")
One of the first applications of the format was in a 'strategic partnership' with the British record label Discipline Global Mobile, home amongst others of the classic Progressive Rock band King Crimson, whose 1996 concert in Mexico City became "the first downloadable concert in secure format from Windowsmedia.com" (DGM, "BootlegTV.com Press Release"). Additionally, the new 'DGM Live' also announced it would introduce two further ventures, 'BootlegTV.com' and 'ConcertArchive.com', on 1 November 1999, to provide a variety of live concerts from King Crimson and other artists (video plus audio, and audio only, respectively) in Windows Media format. The first release in this project itself, Live in Mexico City, consisted of a professionally produced live recording (audio only) with a total running time of 67 minutes, which has so far been downloadable free of charge; in WMA format, it clocked in at roughly 32 Megabytes and to this listener, the format seems to realise its aim of providing sound quality slightly better than MP3, while considerably reducing the file size. Perhaps naturally for a release intended to showcase a new distribution format, the musical quality of the recording chosen is also excellent, even in comparison with a number of other recent King Crimson live releases.
DGM Live states a number of aims for its operation: "Performers gain access to a wider audience, and are paid for their work. The audience gains access to recorded live performance, legitimately, at a fair price. The music is recorded and relayed with quality. The market available to the industry is grown, without its existing markets being compromised" ("About DGM Live"). DGM label manager David Singleton expands on this point in a separate statement: "BootlegTV.com offers a complete new trading model for the record industry by creating a significant new revenue stream in an area now mostly used for promotion. At the same time, it provides fans access to a vast, new, and ever-changing catalog of music" (qtd. in DGM, "BootlegTV.com Press Release"). Fans, in other words, will be able to sink their virtual teeth into a whole new variety of delights (and DGM, which has already released a large number of archived live recordings of recent years, does have an established track record of catering to its customers' appetites) but contrary to the MP3 experience, they must now expect also to be charged for this service.
The collaboration between DGM and Microsoft seems an unexpected one, especially considering Discipline Global Mobile's stated aim "to be a model of ethical business in an industry founded on exploitation, oiled by deceit, riven with theft and fuelled by greed" (DGM Website) a description which, although directed at the music industry, public opinion would also readily apply to the computer business, with the Microsoft Corporation as its main culprit. In its short existence since the early nineties, the company has provided an outlet for innovative music which might not have survived the passage through the channels of the mainstream (centrally, King Crimson and related proje[K]cts), and it has relied to a large extent on fan support over the Internet; at the same time, it has also been a highly vocal advocate for artists' rights, and against industry exploitation. That DGM 'venal leader' (and King Crimson guitarist) Robert Fripp would embrace a technology allowing direct music distribution over the Net while tracking artist copyrights could therefore be expected that he would in the process also embrace Bill Gates, however, is all the more surprising.
The irony has not been lost on King Crimson fans, traditionally a very vocal as well as highly organised group, thanks not least to its community mailing-list Elephant Talk. Initial unfavourable comments on DGM's use of Microsoft technology even elicited a rapid response from Singleton through the DGM customer mailing-list, in which he assured readers that "DGMlive remains an independent company, in which Microsoft neither has nor has requested any holdings. Our relationship is simply that we have undertaken to use Microsoft technology, because it is the best currently available". He went on to say that "our relationship with Microsoft is entirely non contractual, and beneficial to all those involved, including the fans."
This did little to quell discussion, however, and a review of the ensuing debate is instructive as it plays out, on a smaller scale, the overall controversy amongst Internet music users on which formats to use and which to avoid for industry-political reasons that is, on whose food is offered in good faith, and whose might turn out to be poisoned bait. Not known for its altruistic business practices, Microsoft was immediately suspected of ulterior motives, and the fact that the Media Player 4.0 format had so far only been implemented on Windows machines (with a Mac beta version pending), and that these machines would also need to be suitably well-equipped, did little to allay fears that the format was yet another ploy to get users to 'buy Wintel'. A posting to Elephant Talk summarises this position:
by using a closed format, the only players available are those that the one controlling company chooses to release. Other than platform support, this also means that when something doesn't work, you are a single company's mercy. With mp3, I can download dozens of players, and if a file is readable at all, it's almost sure that I'll find one that will actually read it. With a single "Media Player" program, if something doesn't work, tough shit. And we've already heard of quite a few people having trouble playing the file, even though they met the stated requirements. (Llima, ET #611)
Other contributors were similarly warning that "Microsoft's 'generosity' in helping out shouldn't be viewed as purely philanthropic"; that the company "is trying to replace the existing standard with one owned by Microsoft" (Cohen, ET #609). In his reply, Singleton suggested that such detractors "should look at the current music carriers, CD and cassette. Both of these were developed and licensed (if my memory serves me correctly) by Phillips [sic], yet another large multinational. Yet no one questions our use of these technologies" ("DGM NEWS Mailing #2 - Update"), but this argument falls short on several levels from the beginning, and certainly since the advent of relatively affordable CD-R burners, CD encoding technology has been widely available to interested users, without any need to pay expensive licence fees to Philips; additionally, CDs have always been a separate, stand-alone format which did not require the purchase of additional hardware beyond the CD player itself, and which has not been in need of constant upgrades CD players, in short, don't run exclusively under Windows. The comparison points to a distinct difference in company philosophy, in fact, with Philips seeking to establish a wide adoption of its technology through cooperation with and licencing to its competitors, and with Microsoft aiming for market domination through the exclusion of serious competitors from its markets.
The downloading of Live in Mexico City was not without its problems for fans with bad connections of less powerful computers, another factor which generated negative responses and served to sour the relationship of the band with some of its fans:
I've just about had it with King-Crimson-the-Upperclass-band First the expensive collectors club, Now albums to buy-online !!! Free, for a limited time they say. I get some errormessage saying that the stuff is not available for Mac or Unix machines. Ofcourse I have a regalar PC. If KC thinks that this is a way get their music to their fans they are wrong. I AM VERY ANGRY !! (Jurriens, ET #609)
Others, however, saw such problems as transient, and responded to such protesters that they were
missing the real point here. In establishing an on-line bivouac, DGM has taken another step around the need for retailers and distribution. This capitalises on an important Internet trend that may change things about the way music business is performed. With direct distribution, there's much less overhead. Potential customers may be able to "sample your wares" without having to plunk down dough to begin with. What this may mean in the end is that, all of a sudden, it may be possible for musicians to once again support themselves through their music. (Anderson, ET #611)
Such long-term goals would seem doubtful, however, if a further trend emerging from Elephant Talk postings immediately following the release of Live in Mexico City is considered: as soon as the concert itself had become available, contributors (especially those with non-Windows or underequipped machines) began asking for copies of the concert in formats other than Windows Media, even despite a general tacit agreement amongst Elephant Talk users that in the light of Robert Fripp's and DGM's explicitly stated views on artists' rights and copyright infringements such dealings are usually conducted away from the mailing-list. It was soon discovered that popular Windows MP3 player Winamp in its 2.24 version would allow a conversion of the WMA file to other formats, and a transfer to CD-R (although, worryingly, later versions of the programme have this option removed), and that Mac users could at least play the recording on their computers by using a Windows emulator such as Virtual PC; in ET #613, Melnick even posted a complete 'how to' guide on transferring the file to CD-R.
The speed and inventiveness with which such solutions were found illustrates that no proprietary format can today hope to remain exclusive and uncrackable anymore; at best, a continuous race between format designers and those looking to break the code and convert the file to other, freely manipulable formats will develop. This has also been seen in the case of RealAudio, whose streaming file format (which plays back on the target computer, but does not leave a permanent file there) can now be downloaded through the use of utilities such as XFileGet (although the new RealAudio G2 format has temporarily blocked these attempts again). This breakdown of copy protection mechanisms is a direct result of the use of computers for storage and playback of audio files, of course; as Llima describes in his contribution to ET, in a digital environment copy protection
does NOT WORK, and more than that: it CANNOT work.
Computers are not black boxes, despite Microsoft's attempts; even under Windows, it is perfectly possible to capture the digital output going to the soundcard. It is not even particularily hard.
This means that, no matter what the original digital format is, no matter what protection it claims to offer, and no matter how many hoops the first user had to jump through to get a license to listen to the content, they can pretty easily save it as a raw soundfile (.wav or .aiff or whatever), then use a free encoder to make an mp3 out of it, which they can then keep, copy, give away, etc.
The cat is out of the bag, for the good reason that it was *born* outside of the bag, and noone is going to manage to shove it in as long as computers have soundcards that take PCM through software drivers (and I really don't see that changing). (ET #611)
Such eventual convertability also affects the effectiveness of Digital Rights Management systems, of course, as direct facilities for tracking copying and usage are generally lost in the conversion process. In other words, to continue the food analogy, the cake, once made, cannot be unmade again, and may be cut into any number of alternative slices; in this process, to track its ingredients is impossible unless we keep them from mixing in the first place. Consumers, on the other hand, can have this cake and eat it, too; their food suppliers may make it more or less difficult for them to follow the recipe and bake the cake, but they cannot control what happens to the end result.
Some companies are gradually beginning to realise this fact, although many are still stuck in old modes of thinking. DGM Live itself appears to acknowledge that it is fighting a losing battle: "we support the Secure Digital Music Initiative, to safeguard the rights of artists in their work. But our view is that concerns to find a watertight SDMI, to protect Internet distribution, are overstated. Nothing on public release is 'secure' where there is sufficient determination to make it otherwise, and CDs have been making digital audio masters available for 15 years" ("About DGM Live"). In any way, as Parrott points out, companies may not have as much to fear from a lack of copy protection as they once thought: "Home Taping is Killing Music was a claim made by big record companies in the US back in 1980 or so (and in the U.K., I think) in reference to analog cassette tapes (I still have some old LPs with this claim printed on the inner sleve). This claim was not supported by the facts" (ET #611).
The reason for this fact, simply put, is that although all manner of ingredients and of recipe books are available today, people still go to restaurants. Music fans, too, have today at their virtual fingertips an increasingly huge collection of music available for (generally free) download off the Net, and even more for copying on tape or CD-R from friends, but still they continue to buy CDs. To a large extent, this is because they know that a share, albeit shamefully small, of the money they pay will go to the artists they follow, and that this payment enables the artists to continue making music. As DGM Live notes, "our experience, and anecdotal evidence, suggests that most bootleg collectors buy legitimate releases of the same material when it is made available (and would prefer to do so)" ("About DGM Live") this is true especially in the case of a long-established band like King Crimson with its dedicated fanbase and a parent label which continues to stress that an unusually large share of the sales revenue is returned to the artists, and it is expressed in a number of postings on the issue; Parrott writes, for example, that
I, for one, thought the gesture of giving away the Mexico City file was very nice. Thanks. The audio quality was wonderful (I expected a lot less). Downloading it was a pain (from home anyway) but, hey, THE PRICE WAS RIGHT! Oh, and when can I expect to be able to buy that performance on CD so it's not captive to my computer? (see, I _WANT YOU_ to take my money!!) (ET #609)
To worry overly much about copyright protection seems unnecessary in this case, therefore as Llima notes, "with this system as with any other, some people would cheat but the majority wouldn't, and the DGM community is tightly knit enough that one can expect honesty. It would probably be even cheaper for DGM to do things this way too" (ET #611). And this, it seems, is ultimately the most important point: as long as there are a variety of competing file formats (and with the continued presence of MP3 and a potential for further development of other free formats, this variety seems ensured at this point), and since any format will ultimately always become convertible to others, no matter how difficult the process may be at first, it does not matter whose file format a company uses for the distribution of its products there is no more need to attack the hand that feeds, even if it is attached to the body of Bill Gates. If the Windows Media format offers DGM the opportunity to publish its music on the Internet and this way charge honest users a fair price, even the spectre of involvement with Microsoft cannot diminish the advantages of this process; overly belligerent attempts to enforce copy protections, however, will only alienate users, and should be discouraged in favour of appealing to their sense of responsibility. As Robert Fripp himself writes in his introduction to DGM Live, indeed,
The cultural life of any community is shaped by its technology. Conversely, the technology adopted by any community reflects its aims, aspirations, wants and needs. The First World of technologically sophisticated cultures, where computer and Internet usage is commonplace and unremarkable, will increasingly develop forms and customs of cultural expression, experiencing and celebration. (DGM Live, "About DGM Live")
Such customs, then, will be based on voluntary cooperation between artists and fans rather than on support artificially enforced by the industry and policed through copyright laws and protection mechanisms; we'll dine at restaurants of our choosing rather than consume what's dished out to us at the company canteen.
DGM. "Bootleg.com Press Release." Aug. 1999. 1 Oct. 1999.
DGM Live. "DGM: Launching Official Bootlegs Online." Aug. 1999. 1 Oct. 1999.
---. "About DGM Live." 9 Aug. 1999. 1 Oct. 1999.
Elephant Talk. Issues #609, #611, and #613. 25 Aug., 7 Sep., and 13 Sep. 1999. 1 Oct. 1999.
King Crimson. Live in Mexico City. Discipline Global Mobile, 1999.
Singleton, David. "DGM NEWS Mailing #2 - Update." DGM News Mailing List. 17 Aug. 1999.
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Axel Bruns spent the last five years studying English at the University of Queensland. His particular interest is in the field of Cultural and Communication Studies, with a special focus on new and emerging media. Combining this with his love of Progressive Rock, he has finished a thesis on the use of Internet discussion fora by the subcultural community of Prog fans; he is currently working on a thesis which aims to introduce and analyse the emergent genre of Resource Centre Sites on the World Wide Web.
Axel Bruns is also a co-founder and a Production Editor and Webmaster for M/C - A Journal of Media and Culture, the University of Queensland's award-winning Web-based journal which crosses over between the popular and the academic, attempting to engage with the 'popular', and integrate the work of 'scholarship' in media and cultural studies into our critical work. It is a journal that is set to be a premier site of cultural debate on the 'Net. Bruns has published a number of articles in M/C.