Friday, December 21, 2007

Super-Compressed, DRM-Free MP3s: The Future of Recorded Music?

Here at FMC, we talk a lot about how technology and policy affect music, but not so much about what music actually sounds like in this digital era. Advances in technology now allow artists to create major-label quality recordings in their bedrooms, and the MP3 is quickly becoming the consumer audio standard. What does this mean for musicians, fans and audiophiles?

An article published in the 2007 wrap-up issue of Rolling Stone offers a hint. The piece is about how listener preference for MP3s is affecting how music is recorded, mixed and mastered. Producers (yes, they still exist) are finding themselves pushing the limits of compression for music that's most often heard on tiny computer speakers or cheapo earbuds.

For those who don't know, compression is a production technique by which a song's dynamic peaks are squashed together in order to make the quieter parts as powerful as the loud ones.

We'd love to link to the piece, but it's not available online. Essentially, the it says that MP3 + dynamic compression = compromised sound, something that vinyl connoisseurs have been claiming for years. The story includes a particularly interesting visual: a screenshot of the waveform data from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," next to an Arctic Monkeys cut. The latter looks like it's been dosed with the audio equivalent of performance enhancers. While compression certainly makes tracks "punchier," it can also rob music of its dynamics and lead to the dreaded "ear fatigue."

Mp3s, for their part, lack the complete data profile of a CD, which results in less definition in the highs and lows. This might not matter to the casual listener, but to musicians and engineers who work hard to create a rich and detailed listening experience, it can be frustrating. We're sure the folks at Tape Op have talked and written about this well before RS.

But with CD sales tanking pretty much across the board, the major labels are increasingly relying on MP3s to shore up sagging profits. Several of these companies are reevaluating their position on Digital Rights Management, or DRM — which restricts how a file can be reproduced, shared or transferred. Even holdouts like Sony BMG are flirting with the idea of DRM-free MP3s, for use in a retail "download card" promotion.

It remains to be seen whether or not consumers will become completely conditioned to uber-compressed digital audio. It wouldn't be the first time inferior technology has been adopted in favor of convenience — Microsoft Word, anyone?

Stay tuned for a closer look at this issue with technophile/producer (and rock criticism cornerstone) Sandy Pearlman.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Still Making Sense

If there's anyone who knows how to survive in the music industry, it's David Byrne. From his days on the NYC underground with the Talking Heads, to running a label and touring the world as a solo artist, Byrne has seen pretty much every side of the business. He's also revered by a younger generation of indie musicians, who look up to him as a role model of artistry and integrity.

Now he's offering his opinions on how musicians can survive in an increasingly unstable music world. Byrne recently wrote an article in Wired, entitled "David Byrne's Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists — and Megastars."

In it, Byrne suggests that the crisis facing the industry's old guard, while disruptive to a certain status quo, need not spell doom for working musicians.

“What is called the music business today is not the business of producing music. At some point it became the business of selling CDs in plastic cases, and that business will soon be over. But that's not bad news for music, and it's certainly not bad news for musicians. Indeed, with all the ways to reach an audience, there have never been more opportunities for artists. Where are things going?”

The online version of the article also features audio of Byrne's chats with forward-thinking artist/producer Brian Eno and Merge Records co-owner Mac McCaughan, as well as a link to a separate back-and-forth with Radiohead's Thom Yorke.

Byrne delivered a presentation at FMC's 2006 Policy Summit called "Record Companies: Who Needs Them?" McCaughan, too, is a Policy Summit veteran, and also testified before the Senate Commerce Committee at its October "Future of Radio" hearing.)

With so much insecurity and backbiting among the music business elite, it's refreshing to hear a more proactive response to this period of transition. Especially coming from someone as cool as David Byrne.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

FCC & Cross-Ownership: The Votes Are In

Today, the Federal Communications Commission moved to lift the 32 year-old ban on common ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets in the country's 20 largest cities. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin provoked the ire of more than a few citizens and public interest groups by arranging for what many (including some members of Congress) have deemed as a rush to a vote.

The changes aren't as sweeping as those proposed in 2003 by Martin's predecessor, Michael Powell. The new rules would allow a newspaper to merge with a TV or radio station only if the publication is not among a city's top four and there are at least eight independent media voices in the market.

But that doesn't mean there isn't opposition to the decision. Take a look at this statement from Free Press, which highlights many of the issues surrounding today's vote.

FMC understands the concerns of our allies about the rule changes. Many groups believe that they leave room for cross-ownership in smaller markets. And it's important to note that there was dissent on the Commission itself. Here's a quote from Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein:

“For many years, the underpinnings of the Commission’s public interest analysis with regard to media have been to promote localism, competition, and diversity. Yet it is clear from the record that this decision undermines all of these goals. . . as a result of newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership, there is less local news in the market as a whole and there is less competition for stories and ideas since two competing entities become one. There is also less diversity, as a voice in the market is lost, and broadcast outlets are taken even further out of reach of women and people of color.”

Commissioner Micheal Copps echoed his associate' sentiments:

“The situation isn’t going to repair itself. Big media is not going to repair it. This Commission is not going to repair it. But the people, their elected representatives, and attentive courts can repair it. Last time the Commission went down this road, the majority heard and felt the outrage of millions of citizens and Congress and then the court. Today’s decision is just as dismissive of good process as that earlier one, just as unconcerned with what the people have said, just as heedless of the advice of our oversight committees and many other Members of Congress, and just as stubborn—perhaps even more stubborn—because this time it knows, or should know, what’s coming. Last time a lot of insiders were surprised by the country’s reaction. This time they should be forewarned.”

It remains to be seen whether or not Congress will move to dismiss these new rules, but considering its 2003 remand of Michael Powell's changes, there is precedent.

But it's not all doom and gloom, particularly on the radio front. FMC is pleased that the line has been held on further radio station ownership consolidation. Currently, a single company can own up to eight stations in a single market, depending on how many other stations are operating in said market. Some were predicting that Martin would move to relax these rules to allow for further concentration of ownership. This would no doubt lead to even greater homogenization of playlists and prevent many artists from being heard on the airwaves. Although we'd love to see a rollback to pre-1996 Telecommunications Act levels, the door to increased consolidation seems, for the time being, to be closed. Check out our 2006 Radio Study to learn more.

The Commission also seems increasingly committed to Low Power FM. On November 27, the FCC moved to prevent groups from owning more than one such station, and clarified rules regarding license transfer. They also placed limits on so-called "translators," which repeat the signals of full power stations and extend the reach of commercial radio. These decisions on LPFM will hopefully lead to more locally-oriented music and news options in our nation's cities. Check out our LPFM factsheet for more info.

Perhaps as important, there have been significant steps towards expanding non-commercial radio. In October, the FCC opened up a licensing window for full-power, non-commercial bandwidth — the opportunity of a generation.

Let's hope these latter developments bring greater access and opportunity for musicians. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

No Label? No Problem.

A couple of indie-music veterans and their managers have come together to create a new music site that "will allow artists to release new music, and create deeper relationships with fans, who can create remixes and spend up to $5,000 to get an executive producer credit on an artist's album," according to an article in DigitalMediaWire.

Krstin Hersh (Throwing Muses) and Donita Sparks (L7) recently launched CASH: Coalition for Artists and Stake Holders. Apart from a new Hersh single, there's not too much on offer at the moment, but Hersh states on her blog that the site will "soon be open to any and all independent artists who want a set of tools to offer their music directly to their audience for collaboration as well as financial support."

There are a lot of digital-distribution services cropping up lately, but this one is interesting in a few different ways. Firstly, it aims to foster more dynamic connection between creator and consumer by providing the master tracks from songs, to be reinterpreted by fans and shared among the CASH community.

The concept of user-generated remixes isn't entirely new: Trent Reznor debuted a similar web-based project not long ago, only to have his ex-label, Universal Music, pull the plug over copyright worries. Reznor's response was to relaunch the site on his own servers.

As creator-owners, CASH artists aren't likely to run into that problem. The site is also offering a "pay-what-you-want" MP3 of Hersh's new single, administered under a Creative Commons license. Perhaps we haven't heard the last of the much-ballyhooed Radiohead pricing model.

And there's more "value-added" for CASH patrons:

. . .fans of Hersh's music can choose one of a number of "subscription" plans, ranging from $10 per quarter, for which they get a sticker, poster, CD and downloads; to $30, which includes a "Works in Progress" CD sampler, as well as guest list +1 to one of her shows.

For $500, fans will get a visit with Hersh in the recording studio, while $1,000 will earn them a "Featured Sponsor" credit, and $5,000 an "Executive Producer" credit on her next album.

This idea is certainly interesting. A similar dynamic exists at ArtistShare, where musicians can manage and develop a "tiered" relationship with fans. There are varying degrees of personalized access — including studio visits, executive producer credits and signed merch — depending on the level of donation. Progressive big band composer Maria Schneider is one of that site's finest talents and greatest success stories.

As many traditional labels continue to flounder, will we see more artist-fan patronage arrangements in the future?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Podcast Interview Series: Tim Quirk of Rhapsody

Tim Quirk [r] at FMC's 2007 Policy Summit. Photo by Caroline Deutermann

“The market has spoken: people have said they want their music digitally. It’s a completely mainstream way of accessing music these days — it’s not just hacker college kids.” — Tim Quirk, on modern music distribution.

Have you ever checked out the folks that make up FMC’s advisory board? There are some very diverse and accomplished people in tune with our work, and we’re always thrilled to have them offer their perspectives. In fact, we’ve long wanted to share their views and opinions with you, as our advisory board represents a ton of music-related knowledge and experience.

Recently, we were finally able to do so. Our first victim, er, interviewee, was none other than Tim Quirk, the VP of Music Programming for Rhapsody — a music service with millions of songs available for subscription or purchase.

But Quirk isn’t just a music technologist; he’s also a musician. He spent ten years as the singer and lyricist for Too Much Joy, and currently performs and records as one-half of the electro-pop outfit Wonderlick. In the years between his touring adventures and his duties with Rhapsody, Quirk worked as a music journalist.

Given the recent shifts in how major labels approach doing business in the digital age, we figured Quirk would be a great person to talk to about the “future of music.” And we were right: throughout our interview, Quirk answered questions about emerging technology, consumer confidence in an ailing industry and the impact new models of accessing music could have on your average, independently-oriented musician.

Here’s an MP3 of the full conversation for your listening pleasure.

Stay tuned for more chats with some of the music world’s most intriguing and informed players, who also happen to be FMC supporters.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Net Neutrality, Comcast & the FCC: A Closer Look - By Mehan Jayasuriya

It's been almost two months since Comcast's regulation of BitTorrent traffic was first revealed by the Associated Press, inciting an Internet-wide call to arms for proponents of network neutrality. In case you haven't been following the story, it was revealed that Comcast was "actively interfering" with traffic on its network, using a technique known as packet-forging to disrupt traffic relating to BitTorrent applications — including the Gnutella peer-to-peer sharing client and IBM's Lotus Notes groupware application (used by businesses for sharing calendars, emails and other files). In the weeks since, the EFF has confirmed the AP's initial report, a California man has filed a lawsuit against Comcast and everyone from to the telecom-industry puppet group Hands off the Internet has come forth to demand that the FCC open up an investigation into the cable company's methods (though Hands off the Internet may be simply aiming to keep the digital meddling of a competitor in the headlines). Thus far, the FCC has yet to make an official statement on the matter.

Despite the nature of some of the applications being blocked, Comcast's maneuvers can be seen as a first step toward a so-called "tiered Internet," where certain applications are slowed or blocked while others are prioritized. And as we've previously noted, a tiered Internet will likely spell trouble for musicians, independent labels, entrepreneurs and pretty much anyone else who benefits from the democratization that the Web brings. So what's the solution? Network neutrality legislation, right? Well, unfortunately, it's not quite that simple.

As you may already know, the FCC actually has policies in place (PDF link) that aim to promote openness on the Internet. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not Comcast is in violation of the four principles outlined in the FCC's 2005 Internet policy statement. As Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice recently told CNET, "We engage in reasonable network management to provide all of our customers with a good Internet experience, and we do so consistently with FCC policy." Here's what's scary: this may be telling the truth. The FCC's 2005 statement includes an exemption for "reasonable network management," though only the FCC knows whether or not Comcast's actions fall under that banner.

That matter of network management could also cause problems on the legislative side of things. Though there are two net neutrality bills currently being considered in Congress — one in the House and one in the Senate. Both allow for providers to use "reasonable and nondiscriminatory measures" to regulate their networks. Though it's unclear exactly what this means (i.e., whether the provider must refrain from discriminating against the user, the application or both), the judgement call could ultimately be made by an "expert agency" like the FCC.

But just because the FCC launches an investigation, doesn’t mean they’ll demonstrate appropriate follow-through. Earlier this year, the Commission claimed they lacked the capacity to enforce anti-payola rules, despite having issued a consent decree in the aftermath of ex-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s probe. Thus, even if net neutrality legislation is passed, depending on how the laws are interpreted, providers could continue to throttle traffic under the guise of network regulation.

If you've been following our Rock the Net campaign, you know that FMC is fully committed to network neutrality and believes that some form of legislation is needed to prevent service providers from creating a tiered Internet. We understand that musicians rely on equal access to the Internet in order to reach new fans and we'd hate to see a level playing field get ruined by a few corporations. If you haven't already signed our Rock the Net petition, be sure to join thousands of artists and fans around the world in doing so. You can also help us spread the word through the official RTN MySpace page.

Mehan Jayasuriya is a technology and music journalist who lives in the Washington D.C. area. Outside of his work for the Future of Music coalition, he also writes for DailyTechRag and local culture blog DCist. You can visit his personal website at

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Future of (Digital) Music? - By Mehan Jayasuriya

There's no doubt that the emergence of peer-to-peer file sharing, music blogs and portable media players just a few short years ago launched a digital music revolution. Yet as incredible as carrying around tens of thousands of songs in your pocket is, selling songs via the PC is not likely to be a permanent music business model. What’s next for the iPod and its brethren? A quick look at the devices currently on the market points to a wireless future. Apple's high-end iPod Touch and it's closest competitors, the SanDisk Sansa and Microsoft Zune, all have the ability to acquire music wirelessly -- via either an online store or wireless file sharing. Although these features are exciting for many consumers, they basically constitute a wireless version of the same old same old, and represent only an intermediate step in the evolution of digital music. So what’s really next?

One strong possibility is, surprisingly enough, a relatively old technology: Internet radio. But this isn't your Grandpa's Internet radio. (OK, maybe your older sibling?) A new breed of mobile music service is emerging that blends social networking, smart recommendations and customized radio into an integrated music platform. Having found success online, social music platforms such as Last.FM and Pandora are now taking baby steps into the mobile space. Pandora, for example, has partnered with both AT&T and Sprint to bring their service to mobile phones in the U.S., while competing service Slacker has introduced their own $199 device that allows users to carry personalized radio stations with them on the go.

What makes this new breed of service so compelling is that it caters to the user’s personal tastes. By monitoring the music that you listen to and prompting you to rate the songs you hear, Pandora and its ilk build up a database of your tastes over time. That data is then used to generate playlists consisting of songs that fit your personal profile. The result is basically an Internet radio station that only plays songs that you like, and, the more that you use the service, the more accurate it becomes.

Internet radio is different from terrestrial radio, in that webcasters pay ASCAP/BMI/SESAC for songwriting royalties but they also pay royalties to performers and record labels. This is because of the Digital Performance in Sound Recordings Act of 1995, which established a digital performance royalty for sound recordings. SoundExchange is the designated organization that collects dues and distributes payments to recording artists and labels for performances on webcasts, satellite radio, cable TV, and even for play on services like Pandora.

If webcasting does take off, this could mean a wider distribution of money per play, provided artists and labels are on board.

The best way for indie artists and labels to get paid for online play is to sign up with SoundExchange. Their website even has a searchable database called “Plays” that allows artists and labels to see if they’re owed anything. Well, money at least. To learn more about compensation in a digital world, check out our SoundExchange primer.

Mehan Jayasuriya is a technology and music journalist who lives in the Washington D.C. area. Outside of his contributions to the Future of Music Coalition, he also writes for DailyTechRag and local culture blog DCist. You can visit his personal website at

Monday, December 3, 2007

"Carnival Time" in D.C.

Last Saturday, FMC had a blast at “Hope for Home,” a benefit house party for Sweet Home New Orleans and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. In attendance was Mike Mills of R.E.M., who performed both with Al and in an opening set of his own.

Check out some photos By Caroline "Puck" Deutermann.

Joining Mike onstage for part of his set was none other than FMC Executive Director Jenny Toomey. Her backing vocals were lovely, particularly on the R.E.M. classic “Don’t Go Back to Rockville,” which is now stuck in our collective heads.

Al -- backed up on drums and trumpet, as well as Mike Mills on guitar -- was also fantastic. His warm-hearted rhythm and blues brought a taste of New Orleans to the home of Eric and Sharapat Kessler, who graciously opened their doors for the event.

One particularly powerful moment occurred when Al cut short his Katrina-inspired number “Lower 9th Ward Blues,” due to the strong emotions it triggered. It was obvious that Al, like so many other New Orleans dwellers, still has heartache over the tremendous losses inflicted by the hurricane. He brought the mood back up, however, with a rousing rendition of his signature song, “Carnival Time.” The crowd danced and swayed ebulliently as Al and co. showed how they do it in the Crescent City.

The food was fantastic (the drinks weren’t too shabby, either), and the vibe both laid back and engaging. And as if all the great music wasn’t enough, a silent auction featured signed collectables from Pearl Jam and My Morning Jacket, as well as other highly desirable items such as an iPhone.

The Washington Post’s Reliable Source column has very nice things to say about the party, as does DCist and

All in all, it was a tremendously successful event that raised more than $20,000 for Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. Sweet Home New Orleans deserves particular credit for highlighting the challenges faced by New Orleans musicians in returning to a city in which 80 percent of the housing stock was destroyed. It’s tough to put a positive spin on one of the largest natural (and man-made) disasters in our nation’s history, but events like this certainly help. Thanks to all who attended and donated to the cause.

Have a look at our earlier posts for more info on Al, Mike, and Sweet Home New Orleans.