Listen to My Music

The music industry is considering doing away with digital rights management, The New York Times reported on Tuesday. This change of heart might be interpreted as a white flag in the D.R.M. battle, an admission that software-based restrictions on digital media are problematic, at least, enough to hamper the labels’ ability to do business online.

Or, you can read it, as I do, as a strategic ploy to undermine the iTunes Music Store, which, as Apple has recently admitted, has turned D.R.M. against the very people it was meant to protect. Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management framework, by tying purchases made through the iTunes Music Store exclusively to the iPod and to no other handheld media players, has allowed the company to create a de facto monopoly on digital music sales, in which it’s very difficult for the major labels to peddle their wares over the Internet through any other vendor.

Even though it’s still just a rumor, this newly enlightened attitude is an encouraging sign, right? If it actually comes to pass, though, I seriously doubt it will be accompanied by an embargo on the industry’s questionable habit of suing consumers who download music from unauthorized channels. Concessions tend to come piecemeal, not wholesale, in this kind of economic disruption.

Nor will it mean that I’ll be any freer to do what I really want to do with digital music: create and distribute the equivalent of mix tapes online. A steady stream of new music makes its way into my iTunes library, some of it protected by D.R.M., some of it from less reputable sources. I’m no taste maker, but I hear a fair amount of interesting stuff, and I’d like to share it with people (this means you).


The Ghost of Mixtapes Past

In 2005, my good friends Naz and Andrew ran a little club, so to speak, in which the members essentially made MP3 compilations for one another every week — online mix tapes. I got a big kick out of this, because when it was my turn, I took the opportunity to present my choices as a kind of virtual album — with artwork and everything (See it on this post).

Similarly, going even further back, my friend Todd once ran a club where the members made compilations on actual compact discs (crazy, right?) for one another, and distributed them via mail. I also indulged myself with those discs, designing and packaging each one with more and more elaborate artwork through each round of exchanges. You can track the progression on the posts I wrote about the first round, the second round and the third round of exchanges.

Design Your Own Album

Spending most all of my days as I do immersed in the world of interface design, I rarely tackle much design that’s innately narrative or authorial. That’s why I so often enjoy and promote on this site those facets of graphic design that push us beyond the boundaries of contemporary Web design: illustration, photography, even self-indulgence. All of these are good for the creative soul; they prevent us from becoming narrow-minded craftspeople rather than prolific specialists.

To me, creating simple, small-scale album artwork falls into that same category. It gives me a chance to play, to act as a kind of author, to reach beyond the confines of my job description. I’d like to do it more often, not just when my friends create the opportunity for me through clubs like those I described above. And I would, too, except that there’s almost no point to it unless my audience can hear what I’m designing for. As with most anything I design, I want it to be more than just pretty, I want it to be useful too, as useful as possible, even if that means making it as entertaining as possible. If I’m going to create the artwork for a compilation of music, I’d like to be able to distribute the music along with the artwork, preferably as MP3 files, free of digital rights management.

Do Not Distribute

But, the current climate for such wanton distribution of digital music would seem to discourage that. Perhaps I’m overly cautious, but I’m reluctant to throw a dozen or so unprotected MP3’s on a page for general consumption, as much as I’d like to. In no way do I need to invite even the possibility of a call from one of the R.I.A.A.’s lawyers. (If you can persuade me that it’s actually safe to do this, let me know.)

So, beyond just ditching D.R.M. from their strategic plans for consumer sales, I hold out a little bit of hope for the possibility that the R.I.A.A. might allow some level of mix tape production, too (vain hope, perhaps, given that the industry has actually been clamping down on mixtapes in recent weeks).

Perhaps such a thing could be done by offering lower-quality MP3s for distribution in these scenarios, where someone like myself would essentially be serving as a marketer for their product, offering a ‘taste’ of the label’s wares. Or perhaps a competitor to the iTunes Music Store would allow small-time operators, again like myself, to assemble compilation albums within the context of their online stores, leaving me to push my audience to that destination to purchase the tracks as a package, alongside my custom artwork.

Or whatever. I don’t pretend to be expert enough in the machinations of today’s music industry to be able to offer a workable solution. But I do know that it would be a lot of fun for the industry to find a way to let us create mix tapes. It’s half the fun of music, and it would be a nice little boost to a fallow part of my creative brain.

+
  1. I hear you Khoi. I was thinking of putting together mix tapes too. It sounds like a fun exercise. What do you think of maybe offering a .m3u file or something that streams the mp3s? I realize it’s a pretty low-tech way of hiding the mp3s, but it might work and keep you more protected.

  2. mix tapes are awesome fun, i’ve had the habit since magnetized strips of plastic were changing hands! and yeah, doing up sleeves has always been fun. i still make cd copies of my podcast and music to hand out at concerts i play, something about the manual labor and craft involved keeps me at it.

    as far as the music industry: they’ll figure it out or they won’t. drm is just their latest altercation, major labels are notorious for chewing up and spitting out artists after their sell-by-date comes and goes. now consumers are starting to experience the abuse.

    my hope: artists and fans alike will realize how back asswards the music industry is and we’ll see more energy being poured into the creative commons scene.

  3. Have you visited the website magnatune?

    They have a nice little selection of differnet types of music without DRM. And they present themselves as “not being evil”. And you can choose how much you will pay.

    A little beginning??

  4. Of course, its not as great as an actual mixed tape or CD; but I’ve been publishing my playlist, and when I do I always create an iTunes Store iMix so that people can listen to clips and buy. I’d like to add a .m3u stream as well; but haven’t had the time to research hosting issues related to that.

    I have to admit, while most of my playlist don’t get that much response, I did have someone send me an email once saying that they would love to have the playlist, and walla—I actually got to burn a CD of the tunes. That was all exciting again. Giving a mix tape to a virtual stranger. Less trying than giving mixed tapes to ‘would you be more than a friend types’. But still exciting nonetheless.

  5. This is why I love Last.fm… I can play my tracks on iTunes and it makes a “radio station” out of the tastes that I play. I can be confident that my “radio station” is protecting me from RIAA gustapo from knocking on my door. Also I love the idea of social networking around music.

    That doesn’t tackle having complete control of the tracks, transitions and album artwork I love to make as well for my friends. However, I like making mixed CDs and mixed MP3 CDs for friends becuase I like printing actual artwork and having physical discs they can have.

    One digital model I like is on yewknee.com where he makes a compilation and posts it for a week or so and then disables it and moves on to the next comp. Granted most of the music is indie based and doesn’t fall under RIAA protection, but those comps and his artwork are tight.

    Honestly DRM has never been an issue for me because I get all my digital music through bit torrent filesharing communities and then support the bands I like or listen to over a certain amount by first trying to buy vinyl from the artist direct. If vinyl is not available, I move on to CD direct, then vinyl or CD from a local store. This way I have a non-DRM digital version and I have something physical (preferably analog) for backup. The only DRM protected audio I have are a couple audiobooks and some iTunes exclusives, but honestly, I use means to strip the DRM relatively easily.

  6. How is what you described in your second-to-last paragraph any different from the ability to create ““iMixes” on the iTunes Music Store??

    “….allow small-time operators, again like myself, to assemble compilation albums within the context of their online stores, leaving me to push my audience to that destination to purchase the tracks as a package…”

    …This sounds exactly like the iMix format. The only difference is the custom artwork part. (??)

  7. Part of the problem with the music industry is their take on what consumers want, coupled with the “one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing” syndrome. Many consumers still fall into the model of those who have a preference but only because they don’t actually have enough information to make a choice and so their preference is actually just acclimation.

    Communities like Last.fm and Pandora do hold part of the greater solution, to help with discovery and sharing.

    Everyone I know still shares CDs but mixtapes (and mix cds) are gone. I used to spend hours dubbing songs onto cassettes. I still have some lying around to boot. Wanna trade?

  8. hi i think shareing music is fine but where are the profits ? now artists have to rely on mtv and tv to make their money cause cd sales slumped we all know that …. but thre still is some good mone to be made out there being an artist i nope tha t does not disscurage ayone ,being a rookie rap artist myself im trying to get my stuff heard and im having a hard time if anyone wants to listen to my stuff go to http://www.heatherlee.co.uk/DaMercyMan.html

  9. wow u know what i could say damercy is right
    when i waz young i waz all shy even in church,
    but i have those strick parents but now my parents walk proud every where they go i give out my demos every where in stores,
    on the streets, god dont help those who dont help thier selfs well good luck to all god bless.