MP3 Summit Report

NOTICE

This writeup of the conference is highly opinionated. I represent myself
only and am in no way affiliated with MP3.COM,
even if I think they’re cool. =) I also missed a few demos and one of the
panels in process of talking to some folks — my apologies to those of
you that I left out. Also, because I’m a moron who forgets everything and
didn’t take notes, I probably left out big chunks of speeches, missed big
points, and generally misquoted and misunderstood everyone at the Conference.
My apologies.

OVERVIEW

Last fall, when I was hoping to get together an MP3 audio conference,
I envisioned a day when record industry lawyers, members of the media,
MP3 hobbyists, audio entrepreneurs, and others could get together, network,
and try to figure out what the heck was happening with audio distribution
on the Net. While my conference did not go through due to funding problems,
MP3.com managed to pull off everything that I had dreamed would go into
an MP3 conference — even down to the after-hours party. There were demos
galore and heated exchanges about legal issues in internet audio (impressively
involving the RIAA, a congressman, and a representative from the powerful
and newly-formed Digital Media Association); people networked, laughed,
had a beer, and nervously chatted with their competitors. And the whole
thing was cybercast in realtime. Don’t worry if you missed it, though: the entire conference will be out on CD in a few weeks!

PRODUCT DEMOS

[players]

WINAMP – WinAMP put up a strong, if brief presentation, showing a new feature he had coded up the previous night: a plugin so you can click through to buy the CD from which the MP3 you’re listening to was taken. Like that Billy Joel MP3? Buy the CD with just a click! Very cool.

SONIQUE – Wow. I’ve never heard a crowd gasp so audibly as when they saw Sonique, a yet-to-be-released MP3 player. If you’ve ever seen a movie that features computer software that is unrealistically beautiful, smooth, and eye-catching and thought
“I wonder if there will ever be software like this?” you can lay your question
to rest. Inspired by that very question, Sonique features menu selections
that slide in and out of view dynamically, and a self-configuring and expandable
graphical interface. While processor-intensive, it is surely the most visually
gorgeous program I’ve ever seen, and I can only hope to get my hands on
a beta sometime soon. By the developers’ own admissions, Sonique’s not
for everyone: some people like a straightforward player that is less of
a CPU hog and can run in 256-color environments. But if you’re looking
for eye candy, this is it. A beta might be out in a month.

FREEAMP – The good folks at GoodNoise Productions announced they were releasing a GPL’ed player to the MP3 community, as already announced on MP3.COM — the player is crudely functional, if not very flashy, and based on the maplay engine.

AMP – The AMP engine, which originally spawned the proliferation of players we see today, has fallen off the scene, as noted by the fact that the announced release of AMP 1.0 got a lukewarm response at best from the audience — there was no substantial demo of
the new player, and they made strong effort to toot their horn about having
the fastest decoding engine; but with WinAMP’s new Nitrane engine and the
rising speed of processors out there, the contest for the fastest decoder
becomes ridiculous: on my PII-233, MP3 decoding takes up ~3% of my CPU
at most (that’s unofficial, folks).

[mp3 databases & services]

A number of services were shown at the conference that allow people
access to MP3s in interesting and diverse ways:

GOODNOISE – The first big internet-only record label, the folks at GoodNoise are hard at work, signing labels left and right, and announcing a deal with Xing to encode their music using Xing’s new MP3 Encoder. This announcement was made in the middle of Xing’s
speech as a man rushed up to the podium to hand Hassan Miah (Xing’s president)
a slip of paper for the news “hot off the press”. I’ve got more than a
hunch that the conference facilitated this deal, among many others.

MUSICMUSICMUSIC – (are we running out of domain names, or what?) Somewhat of an interactive MP3 radio station, it streams MP3 audio from their server, mixing in audio
advertisements. The streams are free, provided you’re willing to give them
all of your demographic information and your email address. The audio is
streamed at a barely tolerable 16kbps, and requires you to download their
own customized version of Fraunhofer’s Winplay3.

OBSEQUIUM – Xing showed off their proof-of-concept web community MP3 playlist engine. Powered by a linux box, it allows people to cooperatively assemble a list of songs to be played from several genres. The songs in the demo were grabbed off of CDs full
of MP3s — the system would buffer the next three songs to be played from
their CD changer to insure continuous play. Songs are then broadcast over
the net using multicast. A very slick system.

MUSICMATCH – Musicmatch is a product to allow you to rip, encode, and archive CDs locally for your personal use. As far as I was able to tell, the files were all stored locally in
a non- exportable format, making this the only product that I have heard
about for producing MP3s exclusively for personal (non-shared) usage. While
making digital copies even of your own CDs for your own personal use is
technically not allowed under the law, we have the RIAA’s word on tape
that they don’t care about people making personal digital copies and will
not prosecute you for simply making an MP3 of a CD you own for convenience’s
sake. The interface was straightforward and relatively intuitive, allowing
you to pop in a CD, rapidly rip and encode it (the two are done simultaneously),
put in information about it (including lyrics, album covers, genre, and
more) and save it into your database.

NORDICDMS – Nordic is still selling cheap music, but now they’re giving away some free music, too. They’ve been in this space for a while, arguably longer than almost anyone, but
they had little new to announce at the conference.

[hardware]

Several portable players and tethered controllers were shown at the
conference. Emerging MP3 hardware is going to afford MP3 audio the same
conveniences of traditional media: portablility and ease-of-use. The MP3
players were *tiny*.

A tethered controller was shown with the same form factor as a car panel,
with shielded wires running back to the PC: presumably one could have a
PC stored in the trunk, run the wiring back to it, mount the controller
in your car, and have an MP3 car good to go! The controller and software
will cost about $200 when it is released later on this year and should
be compatible with most MP3 players.

MPMAN – Probably the most coveted piece of MP3 audio hardware out there, the MPMan is tiny and technically impressive. Saehan, the makers of MPMan, is located in Korea and is an Asian manufacturing giant. While the speech was less than informative,
the demonstration was well worth the wait: uploads were very speedy and
the audio quality was great (for all we could tell through the environment
we were listening to: it was CD-quality). The sample audio was hilarious:
a Korean woman spoke about how irritated you must have been at having to
sit in front of the computer to listen to music before you purchased their
portable product. While the player could certainly do with a price reduction
(it’s $500 for the model that plays CD-quality audio for an hour), this
product is an industry leader, and infinitely cool. (MP3 on the beach!)

MPLAYER3 – Pontis, a German company, is also getting into the MP3 hardware market with a slickly-shaped player called “MPlayer3” (the “3” is just to be cute: this is going to be the first player they’ve made). While the player is not out yet, it will be
based on removable, standardized flash storage using MMC cards. MMC cards
of up to 128Mb are expected within the next two years, but as-is the system
will ship with a coughably paltry 8Mb, allowing you to play a whole 8 minutes
of audio on your $300 player. I’d sit and wait on this one.

REMOTE DJ – More of a solution integration than any new piece of technology, Remote DJ uses a webcam, remote presence software, and an MP3 player to allow a DJ to setup a playlist remotely, monitor the crowd for feedback, and control the player in realtime.
Looks like it’s going to be two pentiums and a webcam instead of two turntables
and a microphone. The idea of having a party DJed by someone who wasn’t
really there is a little weird to me, but that’s just my take. The technology
was pretty cool. It’s too bad a live demo wasn’t available: we only got
to see screenshots of the setup in action.

SPEECHES & PANELS

Things started about half an hour behind schedule, but with so many
exciting people around to talk and network with, it didn’t really seem
to upset anyone. After Michael’s very warm introduction to kick off the
conference, Hassan Miah, the strongspoken CEO of Xing,
got up to speak. The speech was almost revolutionary in tone, with a stirring
voice and such great quotes as “the momentum is here,” (repeated frequently)
I felt a little like a Scotsman in “Braveheart.” Seriously though, it was
great to see Miah’s passionate commitment to the technology, not paralleled
by many other companies of such weight. Xing announced their partnership
with Goodnoise to further their commitment to the industry, and “reminded”
everyone that they just released their new MP3
Encoder
for $20 — I bought the encoder on the Net myself and it’s
fast! Xing claims speeds up to 8 times faster than Fraunhofer’s. Kudos
to Xing for getting clued into the MP3 industry: may they reap the benefits.
Xing also was a sponsor of the conference and paid a small part of the
beer at the after-party; they’re well on their way to winning over the
hearts of the MP3 community, IMHO.

After some product demos Robert Kohn, the definitive pro-online music lawyer, got up to speak. He outlined with great lucidity (and speed, as we were well behind schedule at this
point) the intricate set of laws that govern audio distribution in digital
and non-digital, subscription and non-subscription, interactive and non-interactive
formats. While he did an incredible job walking us through all of the laws,
it was exhausting and rather frightening. The record companies themselves
have not yet decided the specifics and applicability of many of the laws
and it seemed as if the laws were so tangled that skilled lawyers could
easily twist them to read one way or another, applying to whatever situations
are convenient. Ech. Haven’t these folks heard of the Plain English Act?

This transitioned nicely into what was to be the most intense and exciting
time of the day: the legal panel. We had a moderately pro-online music
lawyer (Ken Hertz), a brave RIAA representative
(Steve Marks), a member of the newly-formed Digital Media Association (Seth
Greenstein), a congressman (Brian Bilbray), Bob Kohn again, and Scott Jamar
of a2bmusic. Kudos to Mr. Marks for playing out Daniel waltzing into the lion’s den, even if I have issues with the RIAA. The Digital Media Association (DiMA) was formed about a month ago as a group of the biggest hitters in Internet audio: a2bmusic, broadcast.com,
CDNow, Enso (part of muzak), Liquid Audio, and RealNetworks. DMA’s main
agenda right now is fighting WIPO, as it would make life rather difficult for its constituents.

The RIAA was attacked for all sides, and for good reason. Some of the interesting (and volatile) tidbits turned up were:

* Artists need to aggressively contact the RIAA for the RIAA to even
consider their input on Internet audio distribution.

* The RIAA’s actions to allow e-commerce on the web may be irrelvant
as far as artists are concerned, since few contracts give them royalties
on Net sales. (All the money would end up in the record company’s pockets.)

* The RIAA wishes to charge an extra fee to online, non-interactive,
non-subscription services (basically, web radio stations), despite the
fact that the RIAA is by law explicitly not allowed to collect such fees
for conventional radio stations (which already use digital technologies
all the way to the antenna).

Additionally, the RIAA hemmed and hawed on some very key matters, such
as whether or not a small buffer kept in RAM on a computer or on servers
for streaming purposes constitutes a copy of the intellectual property.
If it did, this would make life essentially impossible for Internet Service
Providers, as they’d have to keep track of what files they temporarily
buffered and pay the record label the appropriate royalty! Technologically,
this is just about impossible, and it’s also ridiculous. It was disturbing
that the RIAA’s answer was less than an absolute “no!” on this matter.

Nobody threw chairs or cutting invectives across the room, but there
was a high degree of tense energy in the conflict between the RIAA and
DiMA. This is not altogether surprising, considering that both had already
butted heads in congressional committees dealing with WIPO. The situation
got much comic relief from Congressman Bilbray, who with much hilarity
repeatedly stressed how incompetent and stupid congressmen like himself
were. While he actually showed himself to be a rather capable man, his
point was made: congress doesn’t have what it takes to make intelligent
laws for what should happen on the ‘Net. Things are moving too fast for
the US’s legal system, and it would be much wiser for Congress to just
stay out of it altogether than risk ruling wrongly and creating an artificial
monopoly. Amen, brother.

[side commentary: It seems to me that the RIAA’s goal in most of this
is to make it seem so absurdly hard to keep track of all of the required
music licenses that everyone is obliged to license all of their music through
the RIAA…who will then take a healthy percentage off of all of the transactions
and make themselves filthy rich. While it makes sense that they should
desire to be in this position, I find it digusting that they are also the
ones with the most political power. People should realize that these days,
they don’t represent artists, or even record labels: they represent themselves
as a for-profit organization. In that light, the RIAA’s actions, litigations,
and support of pro-copyright bills make a lot more sense. Beware the wolf
in sheep’s clothing. ]

After all was said and done, it was wrapped up nicely by it being pointed
out that more was learned from the debate and clash of viewpoints than
preprogrammed speeches. I’ll agree to that — and it was a good spot more
entertaining, as well! The whole thing ran way over time, but nobody really
cared: this was what the conference was all about. Interestingly enough,
Scott Jamar from a2bmusic hardly put in a word during the whole thing,
preferring to sit quietly on the edge of the panel and observe the heated
debate.

After lunch, we scampered back into the comfortably large room to see
some more product demos and hear Jim
Griffen
speak. I, among others, was surprised to hear that he had left
Geffen, but apparently he had been considering the move for some time.
Jim did the totally unexpected. He did not talk directly about legal issues
at all, but gave a visionary (some would say disillusioned) speech about
the future of music distribution. Jim claims that absolutely everything
will be streamed and that downloading merely represents an insecurity about
the availability and reliability of the network. When confronted with questions,
Jim stuck to his guns, claiming that streaming was the real way to go in
terms of being able to protect music, track who’s listening to it, etc.
While I can see that as being true for folks who are always in front of
a 10mbps drop, and it is true that ‘Net connectivity is increasing, there
are two main situations in which streaming cannot replace static content
for some time to come:

* Portable applications: Clearly, until we have absolutely universal
multi-megabaud wireless access cheaply available, you’ll want to have your
music with you in physical form when you go to the beach (or whenever you’re
in your car).

* Limited-bandwidth scenarios: Many high-speed intranets sit behind
firewalls or very slow pipes: bandwidth- and security- wise, it’s much
smarter to grab a copy from off the ‘Net and redistribute it behind the
firewall.

As was pointed out later “between now and when that happens, there’s
a few billion to be made from downloads.”

While people didn’t neccesarily agree with all of Jim’s views
on the future, Jim argued his points eloquently and professionally. Apppearing
quite liberal to labels and too conservative to the MP3 community, he is
in the interesting position of being respected, if not well understood,
by both sides. Jim’s unexpected speech left us chewing our proverbial cuds
as Gene Hoffman from Goodnoise got up and told us what he’s been up to.

Goodnoise is an Internet-focused
record label. While they do contract out CD production to allow their artists
to compete in the physical media market, Goodnoise’s hope is to really
make a smash hit happen by signing and breaking a great artist on the Internet.
Goodnoise sees this as the “critical event” for large record labels to
really get in on online distribution. Obviously, Goodnoise wants to be
the point men that everyone works with to have this happen. In taking this
unique approach of become a genuine record label (just for kicks, they’re
thinking about joining the RIAA) focused on the Internet, they set themselves
aside and offer a genuine potential for their dreams to come true. As mentioned
above, they also announced a partnership with Xing, and their free GPL’ed
encoder: FreeAMP. (Knowing what developers love, they also threw up a Quake
II server.)

I actually went outside to talk with some folks outside at this point,
meeting up with folks from Fraunhofer, SonicnetNullsoft (who does WinAMP), and Night 55 (of the incredibly cool Sonique player). Unfortunately, I missed the
excellent panel on what the Net will do for artists. If someone could please
write up a little something on what happened and post it here, it’d be
highly appreciated. My apologies for missing that — at the time I didn’t
think I’d be doing a conference writeup. =)

I came back from the lobby where MP3.COM had graciously furnished cookies
and sodas and listened in on the hardware demos, reviewed above. After
this came a semi-interesting talk on “What MP3 Must Do To Win.” I guess
the four or so hours I had gotten the night before started to kick in,
because I didn’t find that panel very compelling: basically it was agreed
that ID3V2, which Martin Nilsson is working on, was really cool. ID3V2
allows all sorts of extra information to be embedded into an MP3 audio
file, such as synchronized lyrics, ratings for a song, the picture cover
for the album, the artist’s homepage, etc. This allows music to be distributed,
but still linked back to, and packaged with the artist’s information. This
helps connect an artist with a listener very tightly: I can now instantly
go visit a band’s homepage or purchase their CD after listening to their
MP3.

Dr. Karlheinz Brandenburg of Fraunhofer IIS (NOT 115, as was written on their nametags, much to their chagrin) then got up to wrap up the conference. Dr. Brandenburg is considered by many to be not only the founder of MP3
technology, but the founder of the whole field of audio coding. As a PhD
student with a dream, he labored at and turned out, in short order, world-
quality codecs for audio transport. Dr. Brandenburg pitched AAC
as the way to go, naturally, since it is quite technically superior. He
advocated protection for audio distribution on the Internet (Fraunhofer,
conveniently enough, will license you their MultiMedia
Protection
protocol for a pretty penny), which was understandable,
given the amount of flak he received from record labels for creating an
easy-to-share format. “You’ve dropped the atom bomb on us,” he quoted a

music executive as saying to him. Uneasy with the legal battles his own
format has incurred, he said sharply, “we are not the friends of the pirates.”
He finished up his speech with a demonstration of AAC coding at an incredible
64kbps in which, over the less-than-sterophilic conference speakers, it
was nearly impossible to distinguish AAC-compressed samples of audio, speech,
and popular music from their original samples.

Throughout the whole conference, there was an interesting tension between
AAC and MP3. AAC so far has been a much more “protected” technology: while
free reference source for AAC decoders and encoders has already been released,
the source for encoding was purposefully tweaked with so as to make it
of too poor quality to be feasible to use. Fraunhofer apparently got a
lot of flak for making MP3 encoding technology too easy with their shareware
L3ENC: they are not eager to catch the blame again for unleashing AAC upon
the world. As such, it’s likely that MP3 will continue to be the technology
of choice for some time to come despite its technical inferiority. Until
AAC encoders become widely and cheaply available, AAC will not replace
MP3. Right now, the only folks encoding full-quality AAC files are at AT&T
— a2bmusic. And don’t even try to ask for their encoder: it’s not for
sale. (Yet.)

After Dr. Brandenburg stepped down, Michael quickly wrapped things
up, and we headed over to the local UCSD pub, where we munched on free
pizza (courtesy MP3.COM), drank free beer (courtesy MP3.com), and networked.
There were some good local bands there which they had paid to play, but
unfortunately for them, people were having a really good time networking
in the other room. That, combined with the fact that people weren’t allowed
to bring their beer into the room where they were playing, meant that practically
nobody actually listened to them. Ducking in at random intervals, I never
saw more audience members than band members. Well, they got paid at least,
and the rest of us had fun. After heavy networking, light drinking, and
absolutely no sleep, folks started slinking back to their respective domiciles
as the evening wore on, and by the time I left with Michael at about 10:30pm,
tearing myself away from a heated (but good-natured) discussion with the
head technology guy at ASCAP, there were less than a dozen folks remaining.

As Michael, Martin (ID3V2 guy), and I walked back to the car, I was
happy. Everything that I had dreamed about happening in an MP3 Conference
had happened. People had networked, talked, learned, discovered, and shared
their passions over pizza and beer. It was great seeing some familiar faces,
meeting some new folks, and generally getting in touch with the whole crazy
and wild MP3 community. I’m looking forward to seeing you all again at
the next conference.