In the past couple of years, downloading music from the Internet has exploded, with the most prominent and exciting development being the arrival of a format called MP3, which compresses files to an extent that it enables them to be digitally transferred very quickly. MP3 sites have popped up all over the Web, and pirates have been offering entire albums by cult bands (thousands of Radiohead sites offer rare music in the MP3 format). The Recording Industry Association of America apparently employs people whose full-time job is to surf the Internet in search of pirate sites offering free downloads. Legitimate sites offer otherwise unavailable music as MP3 files -- the Beastie Boys offer live cuts on their Web site, and tiny labels are offering personalized compilation discs as a way for fans to familiarize themselves with the music -- and record labels have begun teasing fans with advance screenings of new songs.
But the problem for the industry is that once you've got an MP3 file, you can dupe it thousands of times without any sound degeneration. How are labels and artists supposed to make money if you're copying entire albums and giving them to your friends?
Answer? They can't. The solution? The Madison Project, an experiment unveiled by the major labels last week that will test the potential for selling music directly from the Web to the home, removing those pesky middlemen, the retailers. For a fee -- apparently "consistent with our traditional pricing," Kevin Conroy of BMG told Billboard last week -- you can buy a record online, download it and the accompanying artwork and you've got your product, all without leaving the confines of your computer station.
Why are the labels in such a hurry to offer this option? Why else -- money. They don't have to pay for CD pressing, booklet printing or shipping, nor do they have to swallow the 30 percent markup that retailers normally make off the sale of a CD. Sounds to me like a scam in which the record companies make loads more money per piece without having to expend nearly the overhead costs. What's more, the music you download would then be protected against duplication -- you couldn't copy it for your friends, and you couldn't put a song on your next mix disc. Welcome to the future, one that's inevitable on a number of levels, one of which is that the major labels will try to milk as much profit as they can out of artists' music, at the expense of anyone who gets in their way.
BLIP ALERT: Indie-rock stalwart Matador Records, home to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Liz Phair, Belle and Sebastian, Arab Strap, the Arsonists, Cat Power, Boards of Canada and a host of others, has strayed further into the waters of the new wave of electronic music by inking a deal with the wonderful Warp Records out of England to license all of the previously unspoken-for records from that label. Warp is the home to the Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Autechre, all of whose records are already licensed elsewhere in the States, but in the near future you'll be able to save some dough by buying at domestic prices the new releases from Nightmares on Wax, Plone (whose most recent 12-inch, "Plock" is glorious bubblegum electronica), Two Lone Swordsmen, Boards of Canada and Red Snapper. In the meantime, you can check out Matador's most recent electronic blip-and-bleep release, the sonically minimal work of Pole (a.k.a. Stefan Betke), who works mostly with old records, sampling the skips and jumps of the needle and transforming these sounds into music.
-- Randall Roberts