Free music, but at what cost?

For the past four years, one of the most pleasant benefits of being connected to the internet has been access to an unprecedented quantity of music, all for free. But surely nothing comes for free? In the case of music online, all it costs you is a little patience, the willingness to share files you own, and of course the cost of getting online. This is all thanks to file sharing networks and music storage formats such as MP3.

MP what?

MP3 is a way of storing music so that it takes up less space. The average music CD can hold up to 80 minutes of music – roughly 12 songs. A CD containing MP3 songs could hold 120!

A special player is required to listen to MP3 files. For most people this means listening through a computer rather than a stereo. In other words you will need a sound card and speakers as well as the software. Most computers these days have Windows Media Player installed. This can play MP3 files. Another good player is Winamp.

Some CD players can now play back MP3 files too, but you will need a computer in order to create CDs containing MP3 music.

Rip it up!

If you have music CDs, you can copy the music onto your computer in MP3 format enabling you to share the files online. You will need software called a ripper. Windows Media Player has a ripper built in. With Windows Media Player version 8
or above click on the Copy from CD button to get started. If you use an older version or can’t find the button, consult the help menu.

If you really get into ripping CDs you might want to get hold of a more complex ripper, such as CDEx, which offers more flexibility with the size of the files it makes.

Getting your hands on the tunes

I am sure that what you really want to do is get access to music you don’t already have and that is where the peer to peer file sharing networks kick in. Users of these networks mark which things on their computer they want to share. These files can then be seen by anyone else on that network. Users can search everyone’s files for songs by a specific artist or with a specific title, and then download them to enjoy at their leisure.

File sharing isn’t just about music. It is possible to share and find any kind of file, from software to photos to video. Rumour has it that before the film Matrix Reloaded was released it was possible to download it at DVD quality over some of the file sharing networks. MP3s are particularly suitable for sharing because of their small size – and everybody likes listening to music!

On large networks such as Kazaa and Morpheus it is possible to find almost any tune. Connecting to Kazaa today I found over 700 million files were being shared by over 3 million other users.

Joining these networks is free, but you are expected to share files as well as download them from other people. The required software is also free, although some is funded through the inclusion of annoying spyware and advertising. KazaaLite is a version of the software for connecting to the Kazaa network that has had the adverts removed. This is my favoured sharing programme. Setting it up and getting started is quick and easy. Downloading a five minute song can take as little as ten minutes although this depends on how fast your connection is – for users in Arusha with wireless connections this is certainly attainable. It is possible to download more than one song at a time meaning you can obtain an entire album in the same length of time to hunt around the shops for it. And it is free!

Moral and legal questions

How will musicians get paid if everyone just downloads for free? At present the Recording Industry Association of America has started to investigate people who share music under copyright with a view to taking legal action against them and discourage sharing in general. But surely they can’t sue 3 million people! It seems file sharing is here to stay. Events over the next few months may beat it into a different shape. Perhaps the music industry will have to rethink how it earns money from music too.

Until the situation is resolved individuals have to consider the moral implications of downloading something they haven’t paid for. It is certainly a strong temptation; particularly in Africa where it isn’t likely the copyright police will break down your door. For internet cafes creating audio CDs from downloaded files and selling them to their customers the moral question is even trickier.

Some musicians believe file sharing and the internet gives them good publicity and control of how their work is marketed. Others see it is a genuine threat to their livelihoods. Could file sharing really kill the music?

Interesting Sites

Originally published in Arusha Times 278

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