PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

MP3 powers on
March 2001

About two years ago, the Editor in Chief of this tome and myself can claim to have been amongst the earlier spotters of the MP3 phenomenon headed our way. (That's not to say we made any money from this insight, sadly.) It happened to represent the perfect combination of timing: the technology (CD and audio players in every home PC), the move towards lower cost internet connections and the arrival of "always on" cable modems in particular; the availability of suitable forms of memory that had been initially developed for digital cameras).

At the time, music purists said that the quality would be unacceptable; but having witnessed the real world where people listen to the most indifferent forms of reproduction quite happily, this didn't seem likely. And in the event, if the quality of MP3 is perfectly acceptable for 90% of the users, then it's a done deal and the 10% of pedants can wax lyrical about their Linns and ESLs while the rest of the cloth-eared world moves on.

But more than anything, MP3 has addressed a specific issue that all technology developers learn from: it provides sheer convenience, delivering what the customer actually wants, when they want it. Storing and managing CDs is a pain. How many of us would like to reorganise the tracks in our CD collection to match our likes more precisely..? The answer is of course just about everyone, since unless the band is utterly stellar, the average CD has maybe 3 or 4 good tunes and 4 or 5 fillers (or worse). This is something the record buying public has accepted since the days of LPs because there was no choice. Arrogant record companies had assumed that their market would continue to do as it was told

As with all technology revolutions, the only thought of the first wave of the incumbent industry luddites was to find ways to prevent the MP3 phenomenon (mostly Napster) because it was "stealing their business". Well, considering the artists actually get about 10% of the CD price, the most important thing that the "music industry" is trying to do is preserve its role in distribution. Music industry executives will protest that they contribute hugely to the whole process by nurturing talent, but let's be honest, most talented musicians would make music whether or not they were paid for it.

There's perceived to be precious little difference between music industry management and managers of prize fighters - or "managers" that exploit any form of human talent for that matter, so most MP3 pirates have remarkably clean consciences when it comes to worrying about taking the livelihoods away from the record labels. But for a complete revolution in ideas and practises requires more than someone like Napster just dishing out music for free - so while the music industry dinosaurs have been stomping about with writs, there is plenty of evidence that more agile creatures of this jungle have been evolving.

In the early days, there were not many players/rippers around, but it was obvious that this business was going to boom, and many attempts have since been made to corner the MP3 player (software) business. Some of the dafter efforts have been to try and create a proprietary standard and thereby try and "force" users into one particular corner.

My personal favourite remains MusicMatch <musicmatch.tif> since this is more than a "simple player", it's a complete solution to locating, buying (yes, people do still buy music) and organising the results. Particularly neat is the integrating search engine that takes you to the details of any tune that you are listening to - and much thanks to , now known as Gracenote, for much of that information service.

The truth of Napster is that most of the amateur rippers produce results that are not really as good as you would want (the most frequent error is set the recording level wrong so the result is clipped, And beware the perils of auto level control - all the hard work has been done in mastering the CD, all the ripper needs to do is stop the red tip of the bar from appearing. There is of course an interesting collection of issues on the matter of copyright going on here - and no one seems to be really very close to resolving it yet.

But since MusicMatch makes it simple to browse and buy the original recording from the real people, then guess what - people buy CDs. And this fact is now dawning on more than one or two of the (big) music publishing operations who are regarding Napster-like phenomenon as a great way to distribute music. At moments like this, I can't help but be reminded that 5 years ago BT was very much against the internet because of the harm it would do to its fixed leased line business.

MusicMatch is also available for Mac and now Linux, which is a commendable an act of faith and commitment, but I doubt if they will go unrewarded in the long run. Building a solid foundation like this is really important - and it's pretty much the old way of doing things before dotcom madness and hordes of fresh MBA graduates spread IPO fever.

So what's the Rants top tip for 2001? Well, it just about has to be the year when "desktop video" gets its act together. The horsepower of PCs has been a little lacking until the past year, but I think we can look forward to a bit of bloodbath in the PC industry in the next year when prices of memory slide, and truly "video capable" hard disks proliferate.

The issue of bandwidth via land-based connections will remain a problem for a while longer, but the runes are generally looking good. For better or worse, Sony has kept a firm hand on many of the standards that contribute to the process - and Sony digital cameras with record and replay are spreading. There is some stellar software out there in the shape of Sonic Foundry's Vegas, and I have just got the new Premiere version 6.

It's all teed up and ready to roll…