Twenty-six-year-old John Lee of Brooklyn is so into the new Internet music craze called MP3 that he has done away with his home stereo and rarely buys CDs in stores anymore.
MP3 (short for Moving Picture Experts Group Audio Layer 3) is the new technology that enables Net surfers to download music from Web sites sometimes for free, and always for less than a CD would cost store it on their computers and then manipulate and play it with specialized software.
Music lovers like Lee, who works as a Web designer for the Comedy Central cable channel, listen to it from speakers or headsets connected to a computer or from a new portable device designed to serve as an MP3 "Walkman," like the Rio.
The craze was an early hit with college students, who have fast access to the Internet on campus computers. But now it's attracting every Net surfer who wants to pay less for music and hear it as soon as it has been recorded by the artist. As a result, MP3 is changing the way music labels work and recording artists reach their audience. It is also revolutionizing the way we all will eventually buy, collect and listen to all kinds of music, not just the latest releases.
Lee's 6-gigabyte hard drive at the office holds more than 200 MP3 songs that he downloaded at home and brought to work on a zip disk. His playlist includes a bit of everything, from the boppin' '50s to the eclectic '90s. And he never has to change a tape or CD.
"I prefer to be able to just listen to what I want to listen to and arrange it the way I listen to it," Lee says. "I like the flexibility that MP3 allows me."
MP3 has been all over the news the past few months, amid predictions that the music industry as we know it will soon go the way of the dinosaur. MP3 Web sites acting as cyberlabels can deliver a new song by Tom Petty, for example, through the downloading process; which means buyers pay less on the Web (in some cases, they pay nothing, when new artists release their work for free to get exposure). It also cuts out the record companies, who are now banding together to explore new ways to market their artists using online technology but still maintaining their copyrights and their share of the profits.
"MP3 is more than just an audio format. It's a movement," says Joanne Marino, editor-in-chief of the Stoneham, Mass.-based Web site Webnoize (www.webnoize.com), which covers the dizzying developments in digital audio.
How It Works
New developments in technology are fueling the Internet music craze. A minute of stereo audio usually takes up 10 megabytes of disk space, but with MP3's better than 10:1 compression rate, the space needed to store it is reduced to less than a megabyte. So you can hold many more music titles on your computer than was possible before MP3. In addition, ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) and cable modems make it possible for audio (or any other digital data) to move over the Internet at lightning quick speeds.
Just about any computer can play MP3s, although we recommend at least a Pentium, Mac Power PC or comparable processor. Also, you will need a sound card and speakers. If you do not have a sound card, you can buy a generic SoundBlaster-compatible one for less than $50 at your local computer store. Adequate speakers with a subwoofer are available for around $100. To download MP3 music from Web sites, your computer must have a modem, an Internet connection and browser. The faster your connection to the Net, the less time it takes to download music; but if you're using a 28.8 modem, be prepared to spend as much as 20 minutes waiting for one song to download. (With the advent of ADSL and superior compression rates offered by other formats, the day is fast approaching when you can retrieve an entire album in less than 10 minutes.)
A multimedia PC's audio line out enables you to play tunes through speakers, headphones or your home stereo system. To do so, you'll need software called an MP3 player; it's freeware (no cost) or shareware (software that requires a small registration fee) downloaded from the Web.
The software players are like virtual stereos on your computer screen. Some of these programs come with changeable skins (various graphic depictions of the player control panel). The players also include features for making playlists with different music cuts in any order. By far, the most popular player is Winamp (www.winamp.com), a Windows-only program that more than 10 million people have downloaded.
Aside from the player software that lets you listen on your computer, there's another kind of player, a hardware gadget resembling a personal stereo like the Sony Walkman. These players let you take your music with you. The most popular portable player is the Rio from Diamond Multimedia (www.diamondmm.com). The original Rio (PMP300) comes with 32 megabytes of flash memory, which holds an hour of music. You can buy 16- or 32-megabyte memory cards to extend the amount of music to 90 minutes or two hours.
The Rio comes with a cable to connect to your PC and software for transferring MP3 files. Currently, the unit only works with Windows machines, but the company says Macintosh will be supported in the future.
The popular player had been retailing at $199.95 but as a result of the release of a competing unit, is now going for $149.99 after a manufacturers rebate. And aware of consumer response to Apple's colorful iMAC computer, Diamond has just put out a special-edition Rio (PMP300) in a translucent teal color.
Creative Labs, makers of the popular Sound Blaster audio card, has just unveiled its Nomad MP3 player. The 2 1/2-ounce device has a magnesium case and includes an FM tuner and digital voice recorder. The Nomad comes with a pair of rechargeable nickel metal hydride AAA batteries and AC adapter. The 32-megabyte version goes for $169.99 and is only sold on the Web (www.nomadworld.com). The 64-megabyte model retails for $249.99. You can buy 32- and 64-megabyte flash cards to expand the memory.
RealNetworks, maker of the popular RealAudio software, which enables the computer to produce sound that streams from the speakers in a continuous flow (as if from a stereo or CD player), has just come out with RealJukebox, software that can copy, store and play audio CDs on personal computers.
The RealJukebox software, which will be available in free and commercial versions, copies CDs in a fraction of the time it takes them to play. Portable players for the RealJukebox system, which also handles MP3s and RealNetworks' G2 streaming software, are expected to be produced in the coming months.
A slew of other portable players including ones for your car are in the works. RCA, for example, just announced plans to introduce a portable player called the Lycra. In addition, some small mom-and-pop operations are offering kits for building your own unit. Links to the various manufacturers are at www.mp3.com/hardware/.
Stores like Nobody Beats the Wiz and Circuit City may have whole display cases of new portable digital players in time for the Christmas shopping season. The players likely will be capable of handling more than just MP3, though. The recording industry's Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), announced in December and assembled to come up with a new format to prevent MP3 enthusiasts from pirating copyrighted music, is expected to announce specs for portable players by the end of June.
What's debatable is whether the gear being rushed to market for Christmas will be SDMI-compliant.
"It's too early to tell whether the current Rio can be made SDMI-compliant," says Lorraine Comstock of Diamond Multimedia's marketing division. "We plan to support all the major formats out there."
"Future formats may be able to be incorporated into this version of the Nomad," says Creative Labs press representative Gary Brotman. "The company is known for providing software upgrades on its Web site."
As popular as MP3 has become, industry observers think it's just a blip in the long run.
"I think that the format that performs better and allows for greater security will be the ultimate pick and I don't think that's MP3," says Webnoize's Marino.
But don't expect MP3 to disappear overnight. A new study by Mark Hardie of Forrester Research Inc. titled Virtual Music Rocks hints that the record industry won't be able to shut down newsgroups or File Transfer Protocol servers devoted to swapping MP3 music because they appear and disappear overnight, like a Prohibition speakeasy.
One of the other audio formats, called AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), uses a 15:1 compression rate and downloads 25% faster than MP3. AAC was developed at AT&T Labs and is employed by a2b music, an AT&T subsidiary, as well as Liquid Audio (www.liquidaudio.com). At least two other alternative formats, Sony's Magicgate and IBM's EMMS (Electronic Music Management System), are being touted for distributing music.
Microsoft's Windows Media Technologies 4.0 was unveiled at Internet World in Los Angeles early in April. Also known as Microsoft Audio 4.0, it both downloads and streams FM stereo quality over a 28.8 modem twice as fast and with slightly better sound quality than MP3.
And Apple has introduced a new version of its QuickTime multimedia software, called QuickTime 4, to compete with the Windows media player and RealAudio.
The Internet is changing the multi-billion-dollar audio book industry as well as the music industry. And more and more talk radio stations are streaming their programing over the World Wide Web.
For spoken-word content, one of the first stops you'll want to make is Audio Highway (www.audiohighway.com) where everything is free. But for every half-hour of content you download, there will be three or four 30-second commercials at the beginning of the material. The content is in a variety of formats, including MP3, RealAudio and the site's proprietary low-quality format, for which you'll need its free Audio Wiz player.
The thousands of free audio books available include 10 Sherlock Holmes titles produced especially for the site. But keep in mind that the sound quality of a downloaded audio book is more like an AM radio transmission than a studio quality reading. More than 20 hours of radio documentaries are also available, with more being added. You also can download the daily National Public Radio newsmagazines, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. programing and shows produced by CNET Radio.
The New Jersey-based Audible Inc. (www.audible.com) has some 7,000 audio books, the majority of which are abridged. The audio books you download from audible.com usually will cost half of what the cassette versions do in retail stores. "Angela's Ashes" goes for $9.95 on the site but retails for $21 in Barnes & Noble. Also available are audio digests of newspapers, newsletters from technology pundits and such public radio fare as Marketplace, Fresh Air, Car Talk and Science Friday.
You can listen to www.audible's content on your desktop, laptop or palm-size PC. In addition, the company sells its own portable players. The MobilePlayer can hold two hours of audio, and sells for $79 with a commitment to purchase $9.95 of content a month for one year. The MobilePlayer-Plus will hold more than seven hours and costs $299.
With RealNetworks' RealPlayer or Microsoft's Windows Media Player you can hear more than 400 radio stations at broadcast.com. The site's most popular content is college and pro sports, which can be heard as live play-by-play, as well as archived on-demand.
If you've hankered for 24 hours of the BBC, one of those quirky FM stations (say, WFMU in Jersey City) whose signal just doesn't come in well where you live, or that great jazz station in New Orleans your friend has been raving about, broadcast.com is the place to go. Recently acquired by Yahoo!, the site has more than a million people logging in each day.
www.mp3.com Aspires to be the Yahoo! of MP3 scene. Tons of unknown artists and links to manufacturers, plus free music
www.webnoize.com Massachussetts-based Web site covers the revolution in digital audio
www.audiodiner.com Free MP3 and Liquid Audio singles and entire albums
www.goodnoise.com One of the premier sites for sampling and purchasing MP3 tunes
www.noisebox.com Search engine for your ears lists MP3 and Liquid Audio
www.launch.com Offers Peter Himmelman, MC Lyte and XTC in the Windows Media Player format
www.spinner.com 150,000 songs in a variety of formats organized in 100 channels
www.digitalphono.com Mostly classical music that is in the AAC format
www.a2bmusic.com Name artists in AAC format Some downloads in exchange for buying concert tickets or joining a mailing list
www.tunes.com Offers two live Webcasts a week of concerts and artist interviews, as well as songs in MP3, a2b and Liquid Audio formats
www.real.com The free RealPlayer allows Web surfers to listen to streamed audio
www.waby.com Calls itself the adult alternative to rock music, with sounds of legends like Ella Fitzgerald as well as swing and Broadway, in Real Audio G2