I don’t think it’s a stretch to call myself an MP3.com historian at this point. From my initial essay two-and-a-half years ago, to digging deep into how the service worked, to previewing some of the music that MP3.com were promoting their service with, I’m part of that small group who have been trying to keep the memory of one of the most forward-thinking dot-com startups alive after it was all but forgotten post-closure in 2004.
I was effectively honor-bound to pick up the last copy of The Official MP3.com Guide to MP3s from Amazon after all that work, and I was not disappointed for my $6.29! We’ve got late 90s MP3 hype, forgotten MP3 and MP3.com competitors, and even some screenshots of the backend of MP3.com, far away from where any web spider could’ve gone. It’s a trip.
The condition of the book itself
This book’s in good shape for being an ex-library book. The markings indicate it came from the Newton Free Library, in Newton, Massachusetts (about seven miles west of Boston!). Weirdly enough, though, the Amazon seller was based in Maryland and the book itself passed through Toledo, Ohio and York, Pennsylvania in shipping–Toledo basically bordering Canada, York being in southern PA, and Maryland being south of them both and way south of Massachusetts.
So yeah, this book’s been around some places. Still, it’s clean, readable, no fucked up pages or anything–mostly just a few labels and markings inside the book for, of course, library and security purposes.
Establishing the format
This book is cut up into nine rather long chapters, starting from rank amateur stuff we still do today (just playing MP3s using Winamp and Sonique and ripping CDs with many, many programs) before moving on to the more ephemeral aspects of the late 90s MP3 boom (where to buy MP3s and how to make good use of that newfangled MP3.com site if you’re a musician).
Michael Robertson, the MP3.com co-founder, co-wrote this book, and his eerie tech predictions and business savvy are all over it, often at the start of each chapter. Possibly a little narcissistic, but when they’re this spot on, I can forgive:
The biggest danger to artists is not being heard, which is a surefire recipe for failure. Only through exposure does music get appreciated and subsequently CDs sold, concerts attended, fan bases established, etc.
Many scoff at the notion of people sitting in front of a computer to listen to music. […] A couple of days ago, I was talking to a music industry exec. I told him that incoming college freshman [sic] aren’t taking stereo systems into their dorm rooms anymore. They are simply attaching speakers on the now mandatory personal computer and using that as their listening station. He rolled his eyes and laughed in disbelief. He quickly sobered up when I explained that this was not 5-10 years in the future I was talking about. This is now.
If it’s easier to find and buy the legal stuff, it greatly reduces the demand for the illegal stuff. I challenge anyone to find drug dealers pushing aspirin. Why would anyone frequent a drug dealer when aspirin is prevalent, cheap, and high-quality? Making music as prevalent as aspirin and “one click easy” for netters to buy is the most significant step the music business can take to combat piracy.
Because there’s so much to unpack here, and the book itself even suggests skipping around and not reading it cover-to-cover (which is a good call–the first couple chapters really are just really dry MP3 ripping information), I’m just gonna point out a few key bits in a couple sections.
Okay, a little bit on how to rip MP3s 1999-style
The book goes into ripping music from CDs in two ways, with the ripping and encoding steps separate, using a ripper like AudioGrabber and encoding the resulting WAVs with something like BladeEnc, and with all-in-one ripper-encoders like Xing’s AudioCatalyst and MusicMatch Jukebox.
These days, even for your retro machines, you can probably find better alternatives, but it’s still fun to skim through to see all the wild blobby 90s app UIs. The text is largely just dry tutorials on how to use the programs and not much worth reading.
Buying MP3s in 1999 (or, buying water in the Gobi)
Onto more fun stuff! What was buying MP3s like in the late 90s?
Harsh. For one thing, basically nobody sold MP3s, certainly none of the major labels. These days, Amazon MP3 has you covered for just about any album, DRM-free, but back then, your options were limited to a small handful of indie bands who had climbed onto the internet. MP3.com was around, naturally, but the book spotlights two other options, PlatinumCD.com and GoodNoise.
As far as I can tell, PlatinumCD.com was connected to a now-defunct label known as Platinum Entertainment. Platinum started in the gospel music industry and branched out to scoop up legacy artists like Dionne Warwick and the Beach Boys. They started betting rather heavily on the future being internet distribution and apparently even let people create and buy mix CDs that would get mailed to them:
One of the services offered by PlatinumCD.com is called “Create (your own) Custom CD”. For those of you without CD-burning capabilities, this is an invaluable way to create your own best-hits CD. You can take delivery of this CD as a download to your computer, or PlatinumCD.com will have it delivered to your door. As You can imagine, this opens up some interesting possibilities for the future of music delivery.
Platinum Entertainment folded in 2001, with its assets liquidated and used to form another label, Compendia Music Group, that was then acquired. No one quite knows who owns their catalog now.
GoodNoise is more curious. In case you ever need an example of how wacky internet archaeology can get, look them up now. You’ll find a band and a photography studio named that, but no record label. “Okay,” you think, “so they’re defunct and obscure. Duh.”
But then I found this article from the Los Angeles Times about They Might Be Giants signing to GoodNoise–a fairly decent catch as far as indie music goes–and releasing an album of fifteen new tracks as MP3s only. That article is dated February 19, 1999.
But thanks to Wikipedia, I then find a press release from, of all places, eMusic (another prehistoric indie music distributor), who also apparently scooped up They Might Be Giants for an exclusive new MP3-only album in July 1999.
Long Tall Weekend, that album, has fifteen tracks.
GoodNoise is eMusic!
At first, I thought it was a simple rebranding, but it turns out that GoodNoise actually acquired the original eMusic and then rebranded itself to that name on June 2, 1999. eMusic was later bought by UMG while they were still a Vivendi subsidiary, in 2001–Vivendi also bought MP3.com around the same time.
What a tangled web of acquisitions and companies you only might’ve heard of.
Other people’s MP3s: search engines and SHOUTcast
Did you know there were once MP3 search engines? Yes, dedicated search engines specifically for finding MP3s. RioPort.com was Diamond’s offer (of course, those fellows who made the wildly popular Rio MP3 player). They glow about this one, saying it “includes a lot of legitimate options for finding MP3 files” and “doesn’t contain outdated links”. Apparently, Lycos also had an MP3 search engine, and apparently not one as nice as RioPort.
The book also takes a very passing look at internet radio and how to play SHOUTcast MP3 streams. It recommends only those who use ADSL or cable to connect to the internet try those rather large 128kbps streams, but beyond that, the world is your oyster.
Well, it looks like Justin and the Nullsoft development team have done it again. SHOUTcast makes it possible for anyone with a Windows computer, a modem, and audio content to originate an MP3 streaming broadcast. RealNetworks currently charges $25,000 to license four hundred streams of audio and video via the RealServer, and that is just the licensing fee. If you put RealAudio up against MP3 in a sound-quality comparison, MP3 will win hands-down. SHOUTcast is a real breakthough.
The future of MP3 (by replacing it with other audio formats)
Hindsight is a great thing. In 2022, we are still listening to MP3s. The patents are all expired, the technology is in the spot of being too antiquated to be pushed by the big players, yet simple and effective enough to still be enjoyed by consumers the world over, and the efforts to lock down the format with copy protection have all but failed. The MP3 is an open format, and we’ll get rid of it like we got rid of JPEG.
This book, however, spends chapter seven speculating on a potential replacement for MP3. Keep in mind that in the late 90s, there was still a lot of quality to squeeze out of the concept of lossy audio. MP3 encoders were more rudimentary and less tuned than they were now. Advancements in psychoacoustics would cause every subsequent lossy audio format–AAC, Vorbis, Opus, you name it–to outperform MP3 at the same bitrates.
This new technology was just on the horizon in the late 90s, so it was fair game that folks would upgrade to them like they upgraded from cassettes to CDs and enjoy the nice boost in quality and functionality (48 channel surround! Through your cheap earbuds on the bus!) that came with them. At the very least, it would give consumers more choices.
Various flavors of AAC are discussed; you’ll best know it as iTunes’ default format. VQ audio, as developed by Yamaha and a bunch of other eggheads in Japan, promised 50% smaller files than MP3 at the exact same quality. Microsoft was working on what was at the time dubbed “MS Audio 4.0”, which would become WMA. Sony is mentioned not for peddling an MP3-killer, but for their MagicGate encryption, which was speculated to be integrated into some kind of media distribution system. MagicGate was used on PS2 memory cards, Sony’s own memory sticks, and not much else.
The legal eagle shuffle
One thing that becomes apparent when you spend enough time with this book is just how often the legal stuff comes up. The excitement about SHOUTcast is tempered by mention of the DMCA. RioPort’s selling point is how aboveboard it is. There’s an entire chapter towards the end discussing the legalities of the MP3 format.
The Official MP3.com Guide to MP3s is very clear about it: only get your MP3s in a legal way. Only rip your own, legally-purchased CDs for your personal consumption. Only buy them from legitimate storefronts that give that money back to the artists. File sharing, according to the book, hurts the industry and puts people out of work. It gets kinda heavy handed.
Here’s some examples. The aforementioned chapter nine gives us this glimpse into a past that never happened:
You’re a cool, fifteen-year-old computer genius with a cable modem connection and a Pentium III computer. Every afternoon before your parents get home from work, you turn your computer system into an FTP site and make the more than one thousand MP3 files in your personal collection available to anyone who shows up. […] As fate would have it, Big Booty Records, the home of your favorite recording artists, has shown a drop in sales of 35 percent in the last six months. This drastic reduction in revenue can be directly attributed to the fact that the target audience of Big Booty’s recording artists is under twenty-one, computer literate, and has jumped on the free MP3 bandwagon with a vengeance. […] You, in fact, have changed the world. You’ve put people who were pursuing their dream of working in the music business out of work.
The scenario goes on to describe Big Booty honeypotting your underage ass on an AOL chatroom, confiscating your computer, and slapping your parents with a $10 million lawsuit, the fullest extent of the law.
Or how about this one from Chapter 5, “Portable MP3”, on the concept of an “MP3 tax”:
At some point, we consumers will be paying a tariff on the portable MP3 players that we buy, and it will go directly to the five biggest recording companies. We already pay a fee of about 3 percent for each blank tape and CD we purchase for our own use.
In a way, it makes sense. The RIAA had just gone after Diamond the previous year and were not keen on the format, so I suppose MP3.com were trying to keep on their good side and stress how bad things could get if you grubby little fuckers didn’t behave yourselves. (It didn’t work. The My.MP3.com debacle still got the startup eaten alive–see my first post for that.)
In other ways, it’s the most dated and absurd part of this book. We have 25 years of data to suggest that the industry was fine and prospering in the wake of the MP3 revolution, iTunes would be around the corner to provide a better service than the pirates (the way it’s actually done), and in fact, in the wake of streaming, the labels have never done better.
It’s also the most tone deaf part of this book. Michael Robertson sets himself up in chapter after chapter calling exactly how things would play out, but on the legal effects of digital music, it’s a swing and a miss after swing and a miss. Strange, but also kinda fascinating. MP3s were a brand new thing in 1999 when this book came out, and no one was quite sure how the industry’s war would play out–not even the people calling the MP3 the future of music.
Becoming an MP3.com artist
I’ve saved the best for last! All the juicy, gooey MP3.com stuff to close us out of this post. Given the obscurity of the site and given the lack of web spider access to all of MP3.com’s backend, this section is a godsend for any of us curious how the site worked behind the scenes. There will be many scans for screenshots, yes.
Signing up as an artist and uploading your music are covered as separate steps, so I’ll cover them separately as well. The book is very keen on reminding all those new indie bands that signing up for MP3.com is effectively signing a record deal with a label (yessir, more lawspeak) and to read all the fine print, etc etc.
For song uploads, the MP3 was expected to be in 128kbps, 44.1KHz, stereo (any form, simple or joint), and to not exceed 10MB in size. The book warns against encoding your MP3s on a Mac because of “errant ID3 version 2 tag information”; I’m guessing it’s a data/resource fork problem without any extra details, but either way, add “Windows-encoded” to the list of requirements. Only the MP3 was required, though you could also add song lyrics, a 70×70 album cover, credits, and other such metadata.
Apparently, MP3.com had staff to verify the MP3’s encoding, meaning this was a manual process and not something their uploader checked for. They also make mention of a RealAudio song preview being generated. I’m gonna guess that was for internal use only, though I could be wrong.
If all that’s too much work, MP3.com also offered a service called We’ll Do It for You where you could instead mail them $20 and an audio CD (no cassettes, digital or compact, and no CD-ROMs) and they would, well, do it for you. Depending on connection speed (remember, even 56k was faster than what some people had back then), if you wanted to make a whole DAM CD out of a bunch of tracks, this was likely the less patience-testing option.
And speaking of DAM! The process of making one of those fancy on-demand CD-Rs is surprisingly simple, and actually kinda basic, at least at this stage. When this book was written, DAM didn’t even let artists use their own artwork, so you’re effectively just choosing which songs out of the ones on your account should go on the disc, their order, the CD name, and the CD price (out of a dropdown, you couldn’t punch in $200 or something). The book recommends buying a copy of your own disc just so you can make sure it all works correctly.
MP3.com also offered artists some pretty neat and detailed daily statistics on their site and chart performance. (Remember, MP3.com had Billboard-like charts for all songs–and bands–featured on the site.) You could see how many people visited your page, downloaded your songs, where you stack up on the global band popularity chart. There are graphs, because everyone loves graphs. Individual songs could be checked for similar metrics.
Some artist profiles to end on
The chapter, and thus our dive into this book, ends on a pair of MP3.com artist profiles from two oddly similar names, a Michael E. Williams and a Chuck E. Baby and the Allstars. Michael’s is a pretty typical “the traditional industry left me in the dust but MP3.com got me out there” story, while Chuck touts his appearance…on The Real World (ain’t that a timepiece), and then some MP3.com stuff as almost a footnote.
I can’t find much on Michael anymore, but the Allstars seem to mostly be a variety cover band playing locally in Arizona these days rather than doing any of the original music mentioned throughout his profile. I do recommend watching their demo video, though, because the transition from “Play That Funky Music” to “Uptown Funk” will slap you in the face like a fucking trout and you’ll feel it for the rest of the day.
Ah well. With the MP3.com dump out there and accessible now, you don’t need me or this book to show you where all the good music’s at. You can dig for it yourself.