Friday, March 25, 2011

MP3s, planet-killing asteroids, and the RIAA...

Initiated in 1999, Distance to Jupiter is an experimental music project.

The following article was taken from the Distance to Jupiter information page at, and it focuses on and how it was ultimately destroyed by the RIAA (an "industry group" that clearly views the digital distribution of music as an Earth-bound planet-killing asteroid). It was last updated in 2009, but the kernel was written long before, in a time when the iTunes Music Store was still a fantasy. I am posting this here because rumors continue to circulate that Apple will soon unveil a cloud-based music "locker" and it sounds a lot like's disastrous "Jukebox" initiative that ultimately destroyed them. I make this point not as a warning, but as a simple observation of irony. Clearly the situation has changed. Clearly, the RIAA has figured out how to survive in the 21st Century—they must become the asteroid.

It's 2009, and the RIAA continues its struggle to adapt to the digital music distribution model. This is telling. In case it isn't already obvious, the RIAA is the Recording Industry Association of America, a group which supposedly represents the recording industry in the United States. I think it is important to take a look back at one of the true casualties of the RIAA's greed: No matter what you may think (or rather, thought) of, it is undeniable that they unleashed—and gave power to—a legion of creative individuals. By removing the need for the RIAA entirely (the recording industry itself was bypassed), and giving musicians a means of production, artists were allowed to produce what they wanted to hear, regardless of "market need" or genre concerns. A small percentage of users were already well-established in the music business, but they participated because they recognized the power of the paradigm. Scorn's Mick Harris comes to mind (he's been creating rhythmic, hypnotic drum and bass since '91 or so). Harris offered rare tracks and new productions on, giving him direct access to his fans. But the true foundation of was the world of the "unknown" artist; the bedroom-based knob-twiddlers reigned supreme. Every genre of music found its way onto's servers. This was technology that offered us an outlet for a creative impetus we didn't understand, nor cared to analyze; all we knew was that we loved making music, and the ability to get it heard—for free—was intoxicating. Those of us who really embraced did so because we had no choice. We were tired of consuming the mediocrity that littered record store shelves. But we all had our inspirations—we all had artists to emulate—and we all began to grow in creative ways. became a thriving boutique of music never heard, in styles beyond comprehension. was a cheap, efficient means of production for people who would otherwise toil in obscurity for the rest of their lives because the RIAA—and especially the record labels—had no interest in pushing envelopes or cultivating innovation.'s mistake, however, was their "Jukebox" idea (later branded as ""). It made sense: If you owned a CD, you inserted it into your CD-ROM drive,'s software identified the disc via its serial number, and magically, a copy of that CD (from's server) was placed in your online "library"—a digital warehouse of music that you could access from anywhere, using your Web browser. The music never left's servers. But to the collective hive-mind of a greedy industry, the potential for abuse was monumental.

The RIAA balked, to say the least. The RIAA showed—in the legal crush that followed—what they truly thought of their consumers. We were all assumed to be criminals. No critical thought was ever applied to that assumption. What followed can only be interpreted as panic. The irrational scenarios that must have played themselves out in the vapid minds of those in power at the RIAA will never truly be known. We can guess, of course, about the supposed wrongfulness of people borrowing CDs from their friends, or the looming threat of someone nefariously using's Jukebox functionality to amass a collection of music they didn't actually "own"—but the reality was simple: the RIAA and its legal juggernaut became a modern re-enactment of a species trying to avoid extinction. was an asteroid—and it was heading straight for the RIAA.

The end result was that was forced to change. Their legal costs grew. And that growth was passed on to us - the artists who had sought only to be heard. We were told "If you're serious about your music, you'll upgrade to our Premium Artist service for $19.95 per month." Like the RIAA, had sunk into irrationality and greed instead of just being honest about the battle they were losing. At what point had I—as an artist—become less serious about my music? How did's legal woes change my attitude towards my music? How would paying a monthly fee make me any more serious? The assumption made by in the guise of a marketing slant to cover their legal costs was nothing short of a slap in the face. rapidly declined. There were still plenty of users—addicted to the crumbling paradigm—who paid the fee. But these so-called artists were also aggressive marketers, obsessed with being famous. For most of us, artfulness was the key. We weren't making the music to make money. We were making the music because we had no choice, and because we wanted it to be heard. is now gone. It vanished, and in my case, it vanished silently, and without a word. I was surprised to learn—upon attempting to order a batch of Distance to Jupiter CDs—that had disappeared. What was left of it—and all the music of all the artists who ever used the service—was sold to CNET. What they do with our music remains to be seen (or heard, as the case may be).

UPDATE (3/30/2011): Amazon decides to place itself in the path of the RIAA asteroid...