Music

Although the Internet has also revolutionized the music business, most of the big headlines to date have been about Napster, its progeny and the delaying action record companies have been fighting against them. These so-called peer-to-peer technologies are revolutionary in themselves, but there's no denying that their users have crossed over to the wrong side of the law. It is illegal to distribute copyright-protected music over the Internet without permission from the copyright holder.

Even though Napster, which first made it possible for users to swap music files with one another, had to close shop after a court order, it has hardly slowed the sharing of MP3 files. Napster was simply supplanted by a handful of new technologies built in a way that made it impossible to close them down at one central server, as was done with Napster. The record industry, fighting to protect its rights and more importantly its source of revenue, hasn't yet given up what seems a hopeless struggle, but keeps on tossing this or that spanner into the works.

At the time of writing, the record companies have managed to make their already soiled image worse by, among other things, suing the twelve-year-old daughter of a penniless single mother from New York for having used a file-sharing program. Whereas, the companies selling file-sharing programs made themselves even more popular by paying the poor girl's $2,000 settlement with the industry. There was also an Internet collection to get the same $2,000 together. Somehow, it seems the record companies are very much alone in their fight.

Last year a lot of artists added their own voices to the anti-record-label chorus.1 Probably the most well-known of these is Moby, a big name in electronic music who has openly spoken in favour of file-copying fans.2 He says he is genuinely happy that people want to listen to his music and if they can listen to it through file-sharing then that's fine by him. The way Moby sees it, a lot of his fans have actually first heard his music through files downloaded from the Internet, something that makes him happy rather than angry. In addition to Moby, several other musicians are rumoured to be feeding their songs into the file-sharing programs - which is quite contrary to what one would expect, judging from what the record companies say. The group Offspring said in a TV interview that they had even included some MP3 files as bonus material on their latest record but the record company had removed them before it was released.

Formerly of pop-dance duo Wham!, singer George Michael was the first major league pop star to announce that the record he released in the spring of 2004 will be his last.3 The album concluded his deal with his record company and in future he will release all his new songs (of course, he has no rights to the old songs, which are the property of the record company) on his website, where fans can download them for free. There will be no charge for copying the songs, but anyone who wishes to do so can give a donation to one of the charities listed on the site.
The rocking granddads of Offspring are happy to talk big in interviews, lashing out against their greedy record-label masters, but sneaking your own MP3 files into file-sharing programs is not exactly Open Source. They may be angry that a signature on an old recording contract prevents them from putting their own songs onto their own website, and George Michael is certainly leading the way in this, but these are just the first steps. As far as I know, he hasn't agreed to hand out his music for others to profit from or to sell on the same terms as Linus Torvalds did with his Linux code.

But there are some real revolutionaries out there. A small record company called Magnatune states on its front page: We're a record label. But we're not evil.4 The owner John Buckman founded the company after seeing how his wife fared with a standard recording contract she signed with a traditional record company. About a thousand records were sold and his wife, as the recording artist, earned a staggering $45. As a result of the contract, she lost all rights to her own music for the next ten years, which means she cannot put the music she has written on her own home page despite the fact that the record has sold out and cannot be bought or reordered from anywhere. John wanted to found a record company that would offer recording artists a better deal.

The music recorded by Magnatune can be downloaded quite legally either a song at a time or as whole albums from the Magnatune website. In addition to which, the site can be used to create your own personal web radio broadcast by selecting the music you want to hear. (Even realizing such a technically simple and fun idea is practically impossible with traditional copyright practice.) Naturally, one can also order actual CDs from the company, because of course that is what a record company sells. The music available has grown relatively quickly and encompasses a broad range. There are now more than a hundred artists in the Magnatune camp, and the label has already released some 200 albums. It's good to see that different types of music are represented by Magnatune; in addition to the ever-present techno there's a lot of classical music and quite a nice collection of jazz.

Magnatune's music also passes the criteria for openness. Although a separate deal must be made and paid for to use the music commercially, all the music available on the website can be used for any non-commercial purpose according to the rules of Open Source. John Buckman uses the term Open Music to describe the principle. It means anyone can use the music as a background to their own film, or make their own version of one of the songs. Many artists actually make the "source code' of their songs available with a view to this, meaning you can download midi files or given audio tracks. The only condition for reusing songs is that the use must be non-commercial and that the original artists must be acknowledged. And most importantly, the new work must be made available to other people under the same conditions.

This last "ShareAlike' condition brings to mind Richard Stallman's copyleft principle, which most Linux programs use. On the other hand, Open Source computer programmers have seen fit to ease up on the condition of non-commercial use. Because there are some actual costs to the distribution of programs - such as the price of a blank CD and postage - the criteria of non-commercial use didn't seem to further the aims of the GNU movement, which was to spread GNU software as far and wide as possible. History has shown that commercialisation didn't hurt Linux - quite the contrary. The other demands of openness included in Stallman's GPL licence have been enough to safeguard openness and fairness and prevented the creation of monopolies.

Although the conditions for Magnatune's music also include that of non-commercial use, the company's existence and work is a step in the right direction, particularly when compared to the exploitative capitalism of traditional record companies. Perhaps the requirement for non-commercial use is just an evil we have to live with during a transitional stage and something that can be discarded in the future.

The next step has actually been taken by a record company called Opsound.5 The music available on the Opsound website is made freely available in any shape or form, there's only the ShareAlike clause to ensure the material continues to be free and open in the future. Which means the music from Opsound could be used in a film that is sold to a television channel, provided the television channel is given the same right to use the whole of the film in the same way and the channel commits to passing this right on to all its viewers. This model is beginning to look very much like the GPL licence which is used to sell Linux. So, it's looking good!

Statistics show that Opsound has yet to reach the same levels as Magnatune. The number of artists is roughly the same and the music files number around 400, but at the time of writing, the first record is only just being released. The music available through Opsound tends to lean towards machine music, but an interesting specialty is the recordings from various environments that might be best classified as sound effects rather than music. My own favourite is a piece called Pildammsparken, a recording from a Swedish bird lake.

I will end this review of the open music scene with the joyful piece of news I read some time ago in a small local paper of Pietarsaari, the town where I was born. A composer-cum-lyricist called Iiris Lumme had published a song book containing a hundred or so of her own songs, and the joyful thing about the news snippet was that she states categorically in the preface that "all songs may be freely copied and sung; that's why they've been printed here.'

That is indeed why music has been made throughout the ages. But at some point we seemed to have forgotten this, and music became the property of record companies, which meant that artists and listeners have had to ask them for permission to enjoy what they like doing. The example set by Iiris is touching in that this old lady has probably never even heard of Linux and may not have a clue about what it means to share MP3 files over the Internet. To her it was just the natural way to publish her songs. They were written to be sung.

Iiris's openness has also brought her some modest financial success: I, for one, naturally rushed to order a copy of her song book, despite the fact that I'm not much of a singing man. And I suspect there are more people out there who'd like a song book like that - with songs you can sing!

  1. 1. Rock star Courtney Love, for instance, accused the record companies of being the true pirates. See her article "Courtney Love does the math' at: http://dir.salon.com/tech/feature/2000/06/14/love/index.html
  2. 2. http://www.moby.com/
  3. 3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3499534.stm
  4. 4. http://magnatune.com/
  5. 5. http://www.opsound.org/

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Where are they now: Magnatune, Fading Ways, DRM

The music industry is still having trouble tackling the internet beast. Their efforts seem to continue to be focused on pushing for draconian legislation, randomly suing teenagers for thousands of dollars in damages, and applying new Digital Rights Management technologies. Among these, Sony hit a low bottom by actually employing techniques usually seen in virus software.

So instead of seeing a revolution in Open Music, the last years we have actually more so had a fight whether we will have any music at all on the internet in an accessible format. There is some hope though, as Yahoo was the first to try out publishing music from a big pop star in standard mp3 format. Sadly their crappy online music store did not allow me to actually buy the song since they seemed to have bugs that prevented all Finns (or all Non-Americans probably) from succesffully buying anything. (Not that I'm a fan of Jessica Simpson, but I encourage you too to buy that file, if you can that is.)

John Buckman is still going forward with Magnatune and they are still not evil. Some other companies also sell Creative Commons licensed music. One to note is Fading Ways Music who's founder Neil Leyton is not only active in Creative Commons circles but actively producing records and going on tours himself. I had the pleasure of listening to 2 of his concerts in Helsinki and can affirm that he has a great voice. I also participated in the same panel with him at a seminar on Creative Commons and copyright, and I was surprised at the level of details this Canadian knows about European copyright legislation. So if you see Neil on tour somewhere, listen to him singing but also listen to him talking. (And buy his records!)

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