Back in early 2000 I was approached by a publisher to write a book about about MP3 audio technology; I only wrote the first two chapters before my senior project duties eclipsed book-writing and I needed to shelve the project indefinitely. 20 years later, in 2020, I’ve resurrected what I had written and am re-publishing it.
I’ve been involved with MP3s since early 1997. At the time, I was composing music in the Amiga .MOD format, an early software wavetable synthesis system, and I was talking with a friend about it. He asked me if I had released anything in “MP3” format. I had not; I didn’t know what an MP3 was! So I surfed the Web that night looking for information about this new format. (As it turned out later, MP3s are not new at all, but we’ll get to this.) I found a few scattered websites with sparse information on the topic, making allusions to this way of compressing sound. I managed to find an audio player and a few MP3 files and I clicked “Play.” I was absolutely blown away by what then happened. Music started playing from my speakers that sounded like it came from a CD. I had downloaded a small file from someone else’s server that was now playing absolutely gorgeous music from my computer. I was dumbfounded by the implications: you didn’t need to be able to hold a piece of music to hear it; you could share music with friends without giving it up yourself; record stores were no longer necessary!
I wanted to share this discovery with everyone. I showed it to everyone in my dorm, and people were soon blasting their freshly downloaded music out of their stereos. In late February 1997, I set up a website that explained what the format was in clear and straightforward terms (possibly the first such explanation on the web), had links to all of the latest players (about 15 or so), encoders, and other MP3 sites, and I also put up 120 of my favorite songs from other sites to demonstrate the quality of the format. There were around a dozen other MP3 websites at the time, so I sent off emails to the webmasters to introduce myself. One guy had to take down his website due to the amount of traffic he was getting, so I suggested for him to redirect visitors to my site. I watched my site traffic go from 5 hits per hour to over 100 hits per hour the minute he put the code on his site. I was, naturally, quite excited. I now had a popular website! I tweaked the server to focus on web serving and put a realtime graphic on the screen to show how many people were currently on the site. At night, I learned to go to sleep to the throbbing and clicking of the hard drive. I hope my roommate did, too, God bless his soul. This went on for about a week and a half. Then I got two phone calls.
The first call was from Residential Networking. It went something like this: “Hello, David. I’m one of the network administrators at Stanford. I don’t know how familiar you are with how we work here, but we keep a ‘Top 20’ list of sorts that tracks the twenty computers putting the most data out from Stanford to the Internet. Now you should understand that normally dorm computers don’t make it onto this list, just our main servers like www.stanford.edu. Well, David, your computer is on this list. In fact, it’s been on there for a while, in the #1 slot. Your computer is currently responsible for 80% of the outgoing traffic from this campus.” I gulped. “We’re just curious,” they asked, “What are you doing?” So I told them. Amused, they hung up. They had mainly been worried that I was running some kind of commercial service, which I was not.
The second phone call was not as kindly. It was from Network Security and on the same day as the first. Apparently they had gotten a phone call from Geffen Records advising them that a student was distributing copyrighted music on a webpage and that it would be in Stanford’s best interests to shut the site down quickly and quietly. The man on the other end of the line was impervious to my plea as to why this was the ultimate boon for artists. He was not very happy about the idea of Stanford getting sued and demanded the site be down in five minutes. What could I do? I took the music offline.
But I was upset. I had just stumbled across the greatest tool an artist could ever have for distributing their music online and now the industry most responsible for helping artists was shutting it down. That day, Geffen shut down the twenty or so major MP3 websites. It was not a difficult task: we were not trying to hide ourselves! We listed ourselves on search engines and linked to each other. We had been proud to be showing people a new technology. We were not trying to hide, by any means.
I went back to my website to shut it down, and as I did, I went to the chat room that I had setup on the page. Someone was there, so I clicked on him: it was Jim Griffin of Geffen Records. Jim left the chat room before he saw me log in, but I had just enough time to grab his email address. Now I had the email address of my oppressor! I sent a two-page letter explaining why I thought that he had erred in shutting my site down and how much I thought that this medium could benefit artists. I didn’t really expect to hear back.
But surely enough, Jim wrote me an email back, with his phone number. He wanted me to call. I was amazed! I called him.
It turned out that he was not as anti-technology as I had thought he would be. In fact, he agreed with nearly all of the points I had to make about online distribution being the future of the music industry. As it turned out, that week the RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America, a group representing the largest US record labels) had held an emergency meeting in New York to discuss the suddenly exploding issue of online music piracy. They had, among other things, demonstrated my site and had discussed possible “legal remedies.” Jim just didn’t want me to get sued; he had done me a favor without me even knowing it.
Realizing that there might be a possibility of cooperation between the music and technology worlds, I was encouraged. I contacted the other webmasters whose sites had been shut down and we began to talk about what we could do to promote MP3 as a legal, cool way to share music. None of us really had a patent interest in illegally copying music; we were simply blown away by the “cool factor” of the new medium. We decided to form an official quorum for discussion of these issues, called The MP3 Audio Consortium. (It was actually originally called “The MPEG-3 Audio Consortium,” until Tristan Savartier of mpeg.org pointed out to us that MPEG-3 didn’t exist and that MP3 really meant MPEG Audio Layer 3!) One of our members drew up a logo, and I set up a website and a mailing list. Nicknamed M3C, we grew quickly.
Within two weeks of formation, we had over 100 members from the Internet, audio, and technology worlds. List traffic was flowing furiously discussing ideas for how we could make MP3 viable. I contacted ASCAP and BMI about web licenses; first told they didn’t exist, I was then sent ASCAP’s web license soon after it came out. I scanned the documents and put them online. Discovering that a license from ASCAP was not sufficient rights to broadcast music, I began to put up information on the legal aspects of distributing music online. I maintained my list of audio players and included news briefs on what was going on in the MP3 world. Needless to say, it was becoming more difficult to focus on schoolwork.
Through the discussion on the list, I personally had come to the conclusion that the best way to get Internet audio into the ears of the masses would be to start a company and showcase artists on a web site, selling some pieces of music and giving away other parts. With fellow Stanford student Steve Oskoui, we set out to transform the music industry, naïve and hopeful. Our first mission was to lock down the technology that we’d need. Knowing that were we to succeed, we’d require ungodly amounts of storage and bandwidth, I began investigating storage and bandwidth solutions, asking around for solutions that could store terabytes (trillions of characters of text) and deliver gigabits (billions of ones and zeroes) per second of bandwidth. After all, a gigabit was only 10,000 people listening to CD-quality music.
At the same time as investigating the technical backend to our servers, I was in the middle of organizing a conference for mid-August ‘97. It was going to be the first conference focused on MP3s. I was going to make it cheap, $50, instead of the lucrative $3000+ charged by the other conferences. I was going to bring in panels of lawyers, artists, techies, and record label execs to duke it out, showcase new technologies, and talk about what direction MP3s should go. It was to be called NetWave. I lined up speakers, companies, and financial backing. I reserved a hotel and conference rooms. But alas, my funding from the RIAA fell through and Liquid Audio took too long to pony up their sponsorship, and the date for the down payment on the hotel came and went. I had to cancel. Conference planning had left me too busy to keep up the M3C site, which was rapidly becoming outdated. Desperately trying to delegate its maintenance to other volunteers, I was unable to sustain the site and was forced to bring it down. I was sad, but at least I could now focus on the company.
Steve and I worked out the pricing and figured we could pay for bandwidth by embedding 5-second audio advertisements in front of the music. If we could get even a penny a song, we’d be able to turn a good profit, due to the massive volumes of people downloading MP3s. On purchased music, we’d offer songs for a dollar and an album for six or seven. It seemed reasonable enough. We dreamed of becoming Silicon Valley superstars. We dubbed the company Universal Digital Media and incorporated ourselves as a Limited Liability Corporation. All we needed now was pop content and we’d be all set.
I contacted Mr. Lippman, head of Lippman Entertainment, through his son Josh who also went to Stanford. Lippman Entertainment managed big artists, like Guns & Roses. They were interested in promoting Matchbox 20’s new 3am single on the web as a bit of a publicity stunt: they wanted to be a “first,” catch a bit of press for it, and hopefully drive up album sales. Matchbox 20’s Push was already playing on the Top 10 lists across America, so I knew I had a hit on my hands. The traffic to our site would be tremendous; other acts would look to follow with us; we’d be a trusted name in the industry. Josh talked it over with the band and they gave it their thumbs up. We went down to LA to meet with Mr. Lippman and demo our solution for him.
It turned out that Mr. Lippman didn’t have an Internet connection, so we had to arrange the demonstration for a painfully slow 28.8k modem on an America Online dialup account. America Online decided to be finicky that day and the dialup was not working. It’s not easy to explain to someone that their connection is at fault and that yes, this really was something that hundreds of millions of people did easily, trivially, every day.
But we managed to come through okay, and Mr. Lippman saw the potential for distribution. He realized that if he could get another couple million people to hear his music that that would mean new sales, and that if his company was viewed as innovative and cutting-edge for adopting new technologies that artists might be more “hip” to sign with him. He agreed and we shook on it. 3am was going to be distributed on the web for ten cents a download. All we had to do was formalize the agreement.
Steve drew up a contract and we mailed it to LA. We were told we’d hear back in two days, at which time we’d launch the site. We waited patiently, and two days turned into three, turned into a week, and then two weeks. We called. Apparently, Atlantic Records was the organization that actually had control over what Matchbox 20 did, and they hadn’t so much as read the contract? Why? Because they weren’t “quite looking at getting into Net audio just yet.”
During this whole time, the press had contacted us and was very curious about what was going on. They were intrigued by the story of a “pirate turning entrepreneur,” and articles flew left and right: USA Today and then Fortune, Forbes, Wired Magazine, Red Herring, and The New York Times. It felt weird: I had almost never been in the press before and now I was fielding phone calls like an operator after an earthquake.
But the deal didn’t go through. Atlantic had turned us down. Then Geffen, after eagerly promising us pop content, also came back empty handed. “Dumb lawyers,” they shrugged, “what can you do?” We didn’t have content.
It was clear that without major label support, the vast majority of our content would have to be through small, unsigned (and unknown bands). Our company would not, it turned out, be a technology company after all, but just a small label with a very high-tech website. This is not what we had come for. Both of us had interest in and experience with technical work, and neither of us were ready or willing to drop out of school to undertake full-time work in the music industry. At this point, around February of 1998, we decided not to go through with Universal Digital Media.
I suggested to Michael Robertson of MP3.Com that he start a “NetWave” of his own. I laid out my ideas for the conference with him, and in June of 1998 Michael hosted the First Annual MP3 Summit, doing a fantastic job. Michael asked me to write a report afterwards and I did; it was subsequently posted on MP3.Com’s web site. Apparently, people liked the informal, tongue-in-cheek reporting, and I was asked to write columns for various websites.
I continued to write articles in the space and also started consulting companies as to positive directions for their Internet audio strategies. I took a class and figured out how to write my own audio codecs. A publisher suggested I write a book, and here I am, doing it! These surely are exciting times when such things can befall a hapless youth.