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Signal or Noise

Artists, Record Labels, Net Gurus, Meet to Discuss the Future of Digital Music

By Katie Allen

Lawyers and musicians seldom have a lot in common, so when Harvard Law School hosts a conference on the future of the music industry, it is bound to attract a diverse crowd. And so it was last Friday, when the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Electronic Frontier Foundation co-hosted “Signal or Noise: The Future of Music on the Net”.

The conference included a lineup of music industry bigwigs as well as Internet music entrepreneurs, technology experts, artists and legal experts, all gathered to discuss the future of their industry and the effect on it of music’s newest medium, MPEG level 3 audio compression, commonly known as MP3.

MP3s have been controvertial in many areas: the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group of artists and record labels, has several lawsuits pending against companies that build MP3 players, and companies that provide software to search for and download MP3s from users. There have been several instances of college students being punished for MP3 distribution: in November 1999 Jeffrey Levy pled guilty to a violation of the No Electronic Distribution (NET) Act, which makes it illegal to reproduce or distribute copyrighted materials worth over $1,000 over the internet. Seventy-one students at Carnegie-Mellon Uniersity were reprimanded, lost internet access, and were required to attend a 90-minute lecture on copyright laws after they allowed access to MP3s over the school’s network in October 1999. All these cases have established a precedent: copyrighted materials, including MP3s, are protected from free distribution over the internet, and universities are potentially legally responsible for the copyright violations of their students.

The major issue in this debate is ownership and compensation. Currently, many artists get less than 10 percent of the revenue from their music sales. This seems unfair to many, and is often used as an excuse by consumers for music piracy. Another reason (cited several times during the conference) is the artificially high price and, correspondingly, the artistically-limiting twelve song format format of CDs. Together, this leaves artists in a quandary: should they support the system that cheats them of their commissions, or should they break out of the established system to try their luck in the fragmented world of internet music?

Chuck-D of Public Enemy is one artist who chose to break away. After five years of trying to help rap and hip-hop break into the mainstream of music controlled by the “RRR” (Radio, Retail, and the Record Companies), he was frustrated and fed up with trying to make records in the major companies. In 1997, Chuck-D broke all ties with the major labels, and started his own music website,, which now is a major distributor of original MP3s. Because of his experience with both mainstream and Internet music distribution, Chuck-D believes that “the old way is just not working ... I believe the album format is dead.” He predicted that in the next few years, 85-90 percent of music will be freely available for “digital download.” Music will be available worldwide on the day it is released, and that artists will no longer be limited to the twelve-cut format.

The afternoon sessions of the conference focused on the artistic, musical, and technical possibilities of the new media. Rocket Network, a company that has set up internet recording studios, demonstrated their secure website, where artists on different continents can record and work together in real-time to create music for less cost and hassle than “brick and mortar” studios. Others ventured the possibility of internet jam sessions, the ability to create “non-linear” musical experiences, and a new method for bridging gaps between visual, motion and audio arts. All seemed to agree that the internet is going to change the way music is created, distributed, and received.

Ken Wirt, the CEO of, suggested that the internet will do to the music industry and record companies what cable did to television. However, some members of the panel shared fears that the technology will overwhelm musical ideals. Bob Ezrin, of Enigma Digital, stated that “we’re so caught up in the noise that we forget that it is about the music. There needs to be some reason for people to claw over each other, otherwise we will just have a world of mediocrity.”

Mark A. Fischer, an attorney for New Media and Entertainment, proposed that future musicians will be divided into three schools: those who start and finish their careers in the mainstream media, those who break out on the net and then move to the mainstream, and those “niche artists” who find their group of followers on the net and continue to release, compose, and play for them. This leaves the major record labels with some influence, while allowing room for the artists who would normally be on the back burner to break out and become popular in their own right.

The culmination of the conference was a concert Friday night at House of Blues in Harvard Square, featuring They Might Be Giants (who had last years’ best-selling MP3 in “Spoon”) and “DJ Spook” both of whom participated in the conference. Although tickets to the concert were offered to all the participants, only 200 were available for the 650 physical participants in Ames Courtroom, at Harvard Law School, and the several thousand participants who logged into the conference’s webcast during the day. The webcast of the conference and the concert is still available to view at < netmusic.html>