Music, Internet Expo Attendees Express Frustration With Digital Music

Ice-T sums up the troubles shared at the New York event: 'The site was cool, but ... I never got to your music.'

NEW YORK — The excitement at last year's inaugural New York Music & Internet Expo inspired by the MP3 revolution gave way at the second annual event, held Friday through Sunday in Midtown Manhattan, to a pervasive feeling of frustration about the difficulties involved with digital music.

Many of the attending recording artists — including Robert Fripp of King Crimson, Thomas Dolby, Ice-T, Chuck D of Public Enemy and former Gin Blossoms singer Robin Wilson, now of the Gas Giants — expressed hope that the emerging online music industry could represent a fresh start, especially since many of them expressed resentment about, as they saw it, being screwed over by major labels.

As Ice-T pointed out, not only is it hard for fans to find legally licensed music, but it's also difficult to download the tracks once they're found.

"The site was cool," he said rhetorically, "but f---, I never got to your music." Most people, he surmised, just give up and go buy the CD.

A great deal of griping was heard throughout the event. Digital music vendors and recording artists griped about the major record companies — which, once again, were no-shows. They griped about the absurdities of digital copyright law. They griped about the terms of recording contracts and digital music licenses.

Ice-T said many major artists are staying away from digital distribution because their labels are scaring them into thinking their music will be bootlegged endlessly once it gets out onto the Internet. But he said the piracy issue is a smokescreen designed to slow down the online industry until the majors figure out how to control that, too. "They're ripping you off now, stupid ass."

But there are exceptions. One promotion run on Yahoo! last year allowed fans to remix Moby's dance track "Bodyrock" (RealAudio excerpt) and email the results to friends as a "GrooveGram."

Fripp said the best thing an artist can do is follow the auction model of eBay, where people with music to sell find buyers through an intermediary. Fripp said he's running his own indie record company site at DisciplineGlobalMobile.com to sell such King Crimson albums as Lizard (1971) and Islands (1972) and to promote the band's June tour.

Bugs To Work Out

Dolby (born Thomas Robertson) offered an old media/new media analogy: He likened the music-download industry to CD sales, while he said streaming media was comparable to radio broadcasting. He said that after his recording career trailed off in the 1980s, he began developing technologies that would help artists promote themselves on the Internet.

Michael Weiss, senior vice president at Internet radio station TuneTo.com, urged people not to forget about what he called an "evil empire" — the radio station conglomerates that keep a tight control on playlists.

Although he said personalized music channels on the Internet are the answer, he acknowledged that bugs remain to be worked out — for example, he said that by law, Internet radio stations are not allowed to list upcoming songs.

Also, they're required to display the artist and title of songs as they play them. In addition, because the technology is so new, copyright holders and Internet radio stations have yet to work out a standard pay-per-play fee, which traditional radio stations and record companies agreed to long ago.

Danny Goldberg, now running his own Artemis Records indie label after stints at Atlantic and PolyGram, said the reason that the online business is still small, and all the legal wrangles remain unresolved, is because there's still no commercial incentive for the majors to post their content online. There's little money to be made in online sales, he said.

"I'm a content guy — f--- it, I'm a record guy," he said. "And records are what consumers want, not computer files," he said. "This is show business," he said, adding that in show business, stars matter more than technology.

Download Dissatisfaction

Others said the major record companies need to understand that their proprietary advantage is their promotional power and their ability to finance artists — not their manufacturing or distribution muscle. That role will diminish as fans increasingly download music and burn their own CDs at home.

Music fans, mostly sitting on the floor or standing, complained that they have to resort to criminal behavior to get the music they want in a digital format. David Pakman, senior vice president at MyPlay Inc., said there are 20 million tracks traded or downloaded on the Internet each day; few are legally licensed.

If legal digital downloads were conveniently available, entertainment lawyer Paul Ungar said, more people would follow the rules. "In the U.S., most people are either honest or lazy," he said.

John Gilmour, one of the creators of Usenet and currently a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said downloads had to be convenient and fair. If the music is in a protected format that prevents the consumer from making more personal copies, he said, that's unfair.

Gene Hoffman, CEO of EMusic.com Inc., said his company is working toward providing one-click downloads of entire albums in an unprotected and open MP3 format. "It's real pure MP3 files, because we trust you," he said.

He noted that EMusic is selling numerous big-name acts, including eight Grammy nominees. But most of the big names are either out of their major-label contracts, such as Elvis Costello, or they shrewdly negotiated to control their own digital rights, as did Bush, who posted "The Chemicals Between Us" (RealAudio excerpt) for sale on EMusic's site.

"The reason I don't have everything you want is, frankly, because the content owners are afraid," Hoffman said. "People who are afraid put lots of locks on their doors."