Best Of ’99: Rykodisc Becomes First Big Label In MP3 Market

Company's deal with GoodNoise makes songs in controversial digital format available for 99 cents each.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Thursday, Feb. 4.]

In a deal marking the third major milestone for the controversial MP3
digital-music format in about two weeks, the Rykodisc label announced
Thursday (Feb. 4) that it would offer 200 songs for purchase as MP3s,
making it the first big label to go digital.

Rykodisc’s decision to form a partnership with GoodNoise — an Internet-based music label — heralds a significant boost for the digital music
movement. While some smaller labels and individual artists have
embraced the near-CD-quality MP3 format, the industry’s major labels
have shunned it, citing a lack of copyright protection that some say
encourages online piracy.

“If Rykodisc provides a user-friendly and legitimate alternative to
the hodgepodge, chaos and lack of authorization that is mostly the rule
right now in the MP3 sphere, we will have a significant impact in
counteracting [piracy],” said Lars Murray, Rykodisc’s director of
new media.

MP3s — shorthand for Motion Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer 3 —
have exploded in popularity in the last 18 months as music fans use the
compressed digital format to transfer music quickly and easily over
the Internet.

While the format began as an underground movement that courted some
controversy over illegal copyright distribution, recent developments
have pushed MP3s ever-closer to the mainstream.

Last month, “MP3.com,” a popular clearinghouse website that hosts
thousands of MP3s by mostly unknown bands, received $11 million in
funding from a well-respected Silicon Valley venture capital company.
Earlier this week, the Internet search site Lycos launched an MP3-specific
engine boasting a half-million links to songs on the Internet
in MP3 form.

Because Rykodisc — whose catalog includes the work of such major
artists as David Bowie, Elvis Costello and Frank Zappa — is one of the
most powerful independent labels in America, its use of MP3s has to be
considered a significant endorsement of the format.

Rykodisc solo artist and former Throwing Muses guitarist Kristin Hersh
called the label’s partnership with GoodNoise an important step in
bringing music to listeners who eschew top-40 radio and other
traditional outlets.

“It’s ultimately good for music,” Hersh, 32, said.

Although Hersh now has two solo cuts and four Throwing Muses tracks
available through the new partnership, she was a proponent of the MP3
format well before Rykodisc got involved. Last fall, she kicked off her
own subscription series that offers fans 12 unreleased MP3s over the
course of a year for $15.

With MP3s in general and the Ryko-GoodNoise deal in particular,
“people no longer will be subjected to the lowest-common-denominator
aspect of the music business,” she said.

“Music that isn’t formulaic and based on the outfits musicians wear
can be heard.”

Listeners can download Rykodisc’s MP3 tracks at the GoodNoise website,
www.goodnoise.com, then play them back through a software MP3 player
such as Winamp, or a portable player such as Diamond Multimedia’s Rio.

Such tracks as Zappa’s “Lather” (RealAudio
excerpt
) or Golden Smog’s “Until You Came Along”
(RealAudio
excerpt
) cost 99 cents each. There are no plans to make entire
albums available for download, Murray said.

Deb Klein, manager for the metal band Morphine, said the MP3 deal
offers the group a great avenue to reach a college audience, since
most students now have high-speed Internet connection in dorms.

“Change is inevitable,” she said. “Why not be involved at the
beginning? Take chances. I think that’s exciting.”

Not every artist in the Ryko catalog has material available as MP3s.
The first batch of releases includes songs by Morphine, Leadbelly,
Bootsy Collins, Galaxie 500, Material Issue and Medeski, Martin & Wood,
in addition to Zappa, Golden Smog and others. New additions to the
MP3 catalog will be forthcoming, Murray said.

“Until our deal with Ryko, many of the Frank Zappa recordings were
probably on the Internet in an unauthorized fashion,” GoodNoise
chairman Bob Kohn said. “Now, it’s available legally, and we think
that’s going to have a significant effect on the availability of the
pirated recordings.”

Spencer Crislu, archivist for the late Zappa’s library of recordings,
said the eclectic musician and composer has one of the most active fanbases on the Internet. Zappaphiles already trade unauthorized MP3 files
— created by fans from traditional compact discs — on Usenet
groups, including alt.binaries.mp3.zappa.

Although Zappa was known for breaking boundaries, he may have been
disturbed that MP3s offer slightly less than CD-quality sound, Crislu
said. “He was always for taking things to new places, but always at a
higher quality level, and never at a lesser quality level,” Crislu explained.

Rykodisc has long maintained a reputation as an envelope-pushing label.
Founded in 1983, the Salem, Mass., company was the first label to sell
only compact discs at a time when that format was in its infancy. One
of the developments that encouraged Rykodisc’s entry into the MP3
market was the introduction of the Rio, a $199 Walkman-like device.

A nationwide radio advertising campaign for the Rio will begin in
March, Diamond Multimedia spokesperson Lorraine Comstock said Thursday.
The California-based Fry’s Electronics chain already has started
touting the device in its radio ads.

Since it first hit stores last November, Diamond Multimedia has been
manufacturing 10,000 Rios a week, she added.

“The proliferation of a portable player definitely had an impact on
our decision making,” Murray said. “The fact that it takes it away
from the computer makes MP3 a much more compelling format than
competing formats that don’t presently have a player.”