June 15, 1999 5:20 PM PDT

MP3 Summit sounds old theme: Bury labels

SAN DIEGO--The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.

Although the Internet music business has made significant strides over the last year, the opening keynote address at this year's MP3 Summit sounded an old theme: a call to arms against the mainstream record business.

Today's events began with a lighthearted dig by MP3.com chief executive Michael Robertson, who made Hilary Rosen--president of the Recording Industry Association of America--the name on the registration page of a new personalization feature he demonstrated for the packed auditorium. Her MP3.com nickname was listed as "MP3Forever."

But the barbs began flying in earnest when keynote speaker John Perry Barlow, Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder and Grateful Dead lyricist, took the stage. From the outset, his message was clear: The group gathered here at the University of California at San Diego should "bury" the enemy, the mainstream record companies.

Tapping a theme from his counterculture roots, the '60s icon also compared the recording industry's tactics to the war on drugs. "They keep saying it's about enforcement and education," Barlow said of the record companies. "Where have we heard those words before?"

Throughout his speech, Barlow noted that he wasn't in favor of music piracy and that there is a place for copyright law in cyberspace--namely to ensure that artists are paid for their work and retain control over it. The problem, he maintained, is that the record companies are using the law to "bottle up" music and other content, which he described as "the common property of humanity."

In this case, the vessel for that content is the compact disc. And as music downloading becomes more popular in the mass market and the need for physical product wanes, Barlow predicted, so will the power of the record companies.

"We need a different economic model," he said. "The one we have now is based on the material containers" that hold the music.

"Music is being considered a thing, and that is not what it is," he said. "Music is a relationship between the artist and the listener. Music is not a noun--it's a verb."

To those who have followed the debate over digital music, his argument is a familiar one: Proponents of the MP3 format, which allows for the easy download of high-quality audio files to a personal computer or handheld device, have long said it has the power to revolutionize the music industry and put major record companies out of business. Sites such as MP3.com put the power back in the hands of artists and give them a much larger cut of the revenues that arise from sales.

The record industry has countered that it invests a great deal of money and resources to find, develop, record, and market artists. Studios say a lot of money that doesn't get paid directly to the artist is spent on building them up, getting them on the radio and MTV, and marketing products such as CDs and concert tickets.

MP3.com, for example, offers bands a place to post their work, but consumers have no way of finding that music without devoting a lot of time to digging through the site. Better-known artists, on the other hand, are introduced through the radio and other mainstream media.

Barlow played up his experience with the Grateful Dead to address that point, as well as to make the argument for liberating content along the lines of the Grateful Dead's bootleg tapes. He pointed to the group's recent announcement that it would allow its music to be distributed in MP3 format as long as it was done completely non-commercially.

To that end, the EFF today launched an initiative dubbed CAFE--the Consortium for Audiovisual Free Expression, aimed at "protecting your online intellectual freedom and fair use rights," according to its Web site.

 

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