[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."