MP3/CD-R combo rattles music industry

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Toronto Computes, February 1999

You?d think the recording industry would be content to be sitting on the cash cow of pop music hits. But no?even more than the software industry, they seem haunted by the spectre of piracy?people making copies of their artists? products.

A decade ago, these fears resulted in digital audio tape technology being kept out of the home consumer market?DAT recorders are available, but in a price range that pretty much limits them to recording studios. Has that lack kept anyone from making (analog) tape copies of their favorite CDs? I doubt it.

But while the record companies (somehow, it doesn?t sound right to call them the CD companies, even though there haven?t been ?records? mass marketed for over a decade) relaxed with their victory over home-digital technology, the enemy snuck into millions of homes through a couple of unexpected beachheads.

Start with millions of home computers. Add near-CD quality sound cards and multimedia CD-ROMs. Well that?s fine. If computer owners want to play audio CDs in their home computer, the record companies still get their cut.

But three new factors have made the industry take a second look:

  • CDs are no longer a read-only medium. Only a few years ago, computer add-on CD-recorders cost $2,000, blank disks were $25 each, and the technology was touchy enough that it wasn?t unusual to blow away a recording session, wrecking an expensive, write-once disk.

Now, with hardware prices hovering around the $CDN400-$500 level, and blank disks costing just  a couple of bucks each, CD-R technology is on the verge of being commonplace. It?s not quite there, but the biggest question is whether it will be replaced by recordable DVD before it reaches mass levels of popularity. And while it?s less tragic to ruin a $2 blank then a $25 one, the faster CPUs and larger buffers on modern drives makes the recording process much more reliable.

CD-R makes it possible for computer users to backup their data, archive little used programs, and create other custom solutions. But it also makes it possible for them to make exact, digitally perfect copies of CD-ROM software and audio CDs?in the later case, copies that will play quite happily on home and car stereo CD players.

  • The Internet provides a new wide that digital information can be widely disseminated.  And digital information, a stream of ones and zeros, doesn?t care what its content is. It can be my web page, passing on tips on setting up a Win95 network. Or it can be an unsigned band?s demo. All just ones and zeros.

Still, the recording industry wasn?t worried. CD-quality music takes an awful lot of those ones and zeros?about ten megs worth per minute of CD-quality music. Thirty or forty megs for a single track from a CD. That?s an awful lot to download, just for one song.

And streaming audio, like RealAudio, simply provides sound quality that, despite the name, doesn?t compare to the real thing.

So the Internet didn?t cause the record companies to work up a sweat. Another way to sell CDs? and if RealAudio let bands, stores, or record companies demo a CD?s contents, well that?s great!

  • An old  (1991) technology made new again brings all these pieces together in an ominous way for the record industry, however. Just as JPEG graphics allow large, colourful photos to be compressed into much smaller files (with a real, but acceptable loss of quality), MPEG-3 compression trades a little quality for a lot of the size of video and audio files.

Using the freeware MP3Box program (, I ?ripped? a track from a favourite audio CD?as expected, I ended up with a 40 meg WAV file. But MP3Box let me compress it into an MP3, shrinking it down to 7 megs in the process. Put it on the Net and it?s still a hefty download if you?re using a modem, but not a big deal using one of the increasingly popular broadband connections like Wave or ADSL from your local phone company. Once you have the MP3 file, you can play it on your computer, using MP3Box or even newer versions of Microsoft?s free Windows Media Player. Or de-compress it back to that 40 meg WAV file using MP3Box again.

Put together the Internet, MP3 compression, and CD-R for storage and suddenly, music can be distributed in a way that bypasses the record companies and music stores. Perfect for music enthusiasts searching out independent bands or minority tastes. But also perfect for people just looking to pirate popular but expensive mass market CDs.

Even with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) actively trying to track down and close down web sites offering pirated MP3s, it would seem that this means of distributing music is here to say?according to the authors of the popular shareware WinAmp, ?MP3? is the second-most popular phrase on Internet search engines (after ?sex?).

You can find legal MP3s MP3-news at (where else?) Or check Goodnoise ( who are trying to be a new-medium MP3-based ?record? company, that the company?s president, Steve Grady, hopes will grow to be the next Grady . He also suggests that the traditional recording industry may just have to learn to live with it?just as the software industry has. After all, even with widespread software piracy, no one would claim that companies like Microsoft aren?t profitable.

Search WWW Search

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan