I stood in my living room looking at the cd tower that had been untouched for about half a decade hoping to find my …And Justice for All album (is a cd an album?). The carefully conceived alphabetization has long since vanished; 20 cd’s per shelf means that every time you buy a new cd you have to move them all over starting at the bottom -something that I think everyone eventually gives up on. I found what I was looking for on the third shelf down, it was crammed between an old Motley Crue release and Eric Johnson’s Venus Isle (which is instrumentally wonderful, and a good cd to throw in when you just need to mellow out.). I opened up the case and, to not much shock, found that the cd inside was not Justice, it was Limp Bizkit (why do I have that cd at all?). Thus the game begins.
An hour later, I was sitting in the middle of a pile of empty cd cases and oddball cd’s. Limp Bizkit’s case was holding Zamfir (I used this for music at my wedding. It played softly for about an hour while everyone was being greeted and seated). Zamfir’s case was holding Madonna’a Immaculate Collection (that one is the wife’s). Madonna’s case held Slayer’s Reign in Blood (which was cool, since I had also been looking for that one for a while). Slayer’s case was holding a Phil Collins greatest hits. The Phil Collins case was holding The Hunger’s Devil Thumbs A Ride (the only song worth listening to on that one is Vanishing Cream). The Hunger’s case was holding Pantera… And on. And on. And on.
The stereo in my living room is a throwback to the late 80’s. A Pioneer receiver that boasts some ungodly wattage spread over the sophisticated left/right speaker system. It is capable of producing some really, really loud music, which I used to think sounded great -the louder the better- but a visit to an electronics store recently taught me that a cheap surround system with a subwoofer sounds 100 times better than two speakers -no matter how many Jigawatts of power they can handle. Truth be told, I haven’t actually listened to the cumbersome stereo in the living room for years, with the exception of playing a cd while playing the guitar, and even that would be better achieved with a small boom box. In fact, I get more use out of the cd player mounted under the cabinet in my kitchen (though I usually just tune it to the satellite radio and tune it to Octane). Aside from listening to the radio, none of the stereos in the house have much use anymore (I recently found that the stereo I bought for the shelf in this room won’t play cd’s at all).
Being an avid Gamer, I try to keep both my computer and the wife’s pretty current. There are actually three pc’s in the room I am sitting in, two of them with 19 inch LCD monitors, the other with a 17 inch. Graphics cards go from the 512mb Radeon card in this machine, to the 256mb GeForce card in her machine (which is actually superior to the 512 Radeon for many reasons, and it cost a hell of a lot more), even the third pc has 128mb of GeForce goodness. There is no point in having such awesome graphics if you don’t have the sound to back them up, so they all have some spiffy sound cards in them (the third pc has the best card, but I don’t want to go through the headache of swapping cards, downloading drivers and fucking with settings for hours on end). And for the ultimate gaming experience, our pc’s have (some middle-of-the-road) subwoofer speaker systems.
You see, an mp3 played through either of our pc’s sounds far better than an actual cd played through our actual stereo. And the difference is huge. While the stereo is run through a nice ADC equalizer, no amount of tweaking can equal the sound that comes out of the subwoofer system on either of the pc’s. So when I buy a new cd (most recently Nickelback’s All the Right Reasons), I listen to it first at the pc -usually while playing poker, surfing, or playing a game. So it seems odd that until yesterday the 160gb drive on my computer didn’t have a single mp3 on it.
Years ago, I used to have a lot of mp3’s on my system. Back when Napster was in its prime, I filled up two hard drives on an old, clunky 366mhz pc, over a 56k connection, with every song that I could remember having heard. That happened in a time when it would take me like a half an hour to download a song, then I would have to get really lucky to actually get it burnt to cd -at least for that cd to actually play in a stereo. When that pc eventually crashed, all the music that was on it was gone. Between that and the litigation that Napster was involved in, I kind of got soured to the mp3 format altogether. Well, my recent frustration while looking for my Metallica (I bet they love that) cd has finally thrust me back into the mp3 world.
Boy how technology has advanced in the last six years or so. It used to take me about a half an hour to rip a cd (on that antiquated -even at the time- pc), now it takes about two minutes, sometimes a bit longer if the cd is scratched up. Ditto for burning cd’s, about half an hour, often longer, on the old system, maybe five minutes on a new one. With this newfound knowledge, I began ripping every cd I could get my hands on. Within a couple of hours, I had thirty hours of music on the machine, and the majority of that time was trying to find the discs in the first place. The problem is that I never found some of them. I have the cases in hand, and know that the discs are around here…Somewhere…but they may as well be in Jimmy Hoffa’s jacket pocket for all the luck I am having finding them.
Well, Wal-Mart has song downloads for 88 cents apiece. Maybe I could just download the songs that I liked. After all, there aren’t many albums that have more than two or three that you like, right? (Old Metallica, Megadeth and Pantera are obviously excluded from that) But my first search showed that Wal-Mart didn’t have some of the songs that I was looking for. But google did. Well, google didn’t actually have the mp3’s, but it pointed me to many, many outlets that did. And the prices, well, that is why I am typing right now.
I found a website called allofmp3.com that has song downloads at unbelievably low prices. The songs range from ten to twenty cents each. They even have cheaper versions of the songs if you get them in lower bit-rates. The thing about it is that the price for each song seems to be based on the size of the file, not the artist or any other criteria that a record company might base it on. That, combined with the way you buy music has me a wee bit concerned about it all.
The purchases are (theoretically) on a per song basis, but there is a minimum purchase; you have to buy in for at least ten bucks. I can understand the logic of that, since if you could just go and buy a song for a dime, the record keeping would be a logistical nightmare. When you are forced to buy in for a larger amount, it will keep small, individual purchases to a minimum, which will also keep credit card fees on their end low. But if you step back and look at it, it looks a smidge different; pay them ten bucks and you can download “X” mbs of music. Looking at it from that perspective, it would seem that you are not paying for the music so much as you are paying for the bandwidth to download it, which I am pretty sure would be illegal for them to do. Realistically, I don’t see how they can offer both the music and the bandwidth for a dime (although most songs are closer to twenty cents).
Being a fairly conscious consumer, I went and read their terms of service and license agreement(otherwise known as the TOS and EULA, both of which I ordinarily ignore completely). The company is based in Russia, and claims that it pays international license fees for the music that it provides… But it goes on to say that every country has different copyright laws, and that they do not know the laws for every country. Thus it is your responsibility to find out if the music from their site is downloaded in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction you are in. That sounds just a wee bit shady, eh? That sure would seem to release them of any liability from a purely legal standpoint, and place the blame squarely on you.
I am going to continue to use the service (until I spend my initial balance at the very least), because the prices are great and I think I have found a close parallel to it: cigarettes. It’s no secret that the majority of the price of cigarettes is directly due to state and federal taxes. However, it is possible for a consumer to purchase cigarettes in foreign countries and bring them into the US without paying a penalty. That is, R.J. Reynolds sells the cigarettes to Cambodia (for instance), a nation that doesn’t require such taxes. Cambodia can then sell the cigarettes to anyone for any price they want. A US citizen can buy the cigarettes and bring them back into the states (although I think there is a limit to the amount you can bring in) for personal use. Of course the resale of the cigarettes would be highly illegal, but for personal use it is fine. There is a bit of a grey area regarding buying them over the internet or the phone, but since you can buy them legally, and they can sell them to you legally, there is little that can be done about it.
Since allofmp3.com says that they pay the international copyright fees for the music, I have to take that at face value. As an individual, I’ve no way of getting into either their records, or the music industry records to verify it, so I simply must assume that it is true. At the same time, I do have access to google, and a quick search there shows that it is also apretty grey area. All of the articles that I have read regarding the service show that the consensus seems to be that it is legal for private use (with the RIAA, of course, disagreeing). So until it shakes out in court, I am not going to get too gung-ho about it.
I don’t want to break the law, but I also don’t want to being paying for Lars’ solid gold bathtub. If a service like this one is actually legal (even if only for Russians to use), that means that the music that we pay 15 bucks a cd for is being sold elsewhere for two bucks. To me, that makes it seem far more likely that the recording industry is breaking laws by selling the music to US citizens at seven times fair market value. As much as I hate to admit it though, I could be dead wrong on this. It is necessarily going to take some landmark lawsuit being settled in the US Supreme Court to decide whether the record company is using their monopoly to extort the US people or the users are stealing content from the record companies. And the sooner the better for all of us.