by Richard Menta, 12/01/03
Back in the 1995 I was one of the founding members of the New Media department at Prentice Hall, the educational publishing arm of then parent Simon and Schuster. Our goal in those days was to invent ways to utilize the burgeoning Internet to create new learning tools for students and staff. It was an exciting time of experimentation and I was part of it. This included not only new ways to facilitate learning, but new ways to deliver products.
The Rio Karma is listed on Amazon.
As a group we kept close tabs on the latest Web technology and it was there that I first tested an application developed by a company called Progressive Networks that streamed music over the Internet. Progressive Networks later renamed themselves Real Networks and I became an early adopter of digital audio and later video technology.
I remember my first thoughts when I first read about Progressive's technology. "Wouldn't this be a great tool for music classes"? Rather than just read about Mozart or Louis Armstrong in the text, students can now call up specific song passages on demand and hear for themselves what the author described in his or her analysis!
Over the next few years I did my research into other digital media formats, playing with each to find their strengths and limitations. It was during this time I first experimented with the MP3 format as an audio delivery mechanism for music education courses.
I had toyed with producing a digital media news site early on, mostly as a site to chronicle the latest technology and techniques. I was particularly drawn to the MP3 format, which had a then cult following among individuals who used it as a digital form of the mix tape, trading tunes with one another to open their musical horizons.
These were the pre-Napster days and the record industry was already upset that users were digitizing their CD collections and placing these files on their personal web pages for anyone to download.
MP3 Newswire is born
The dismantling of MP3.com news section with the Vivendi acquisition in 2001 made us the oldest still active MP3 news site. CNET's recent purchase of that URL and the closure of the original MP3.com site (including the impending destruction of all the music collected) makes us one of the very few pre-twenty first century sites solely focused on digital music. The dot com bust can be thanked for this and quite a few sites from Riffage to NetRadio to MyCaster are long gone. Survival may be a better word for us.
So how did this all get started? Well, what finally pushed me to start the site was the success of first Diamond Rio MP3 portable.
Released in September of 1998, this basic unit was actually the second MP3 portable to hit the market (the first was the MPMan from Eiger labs). It held 32MB of memory - enough for about 8 songs at standard compression rates - and came bundled with 100 songs from a startup called Goodnoise who later changed their name to EMusic. It sold for a healthy $250.
Despite the cost, the Rio was an immediate hit as we entered the Christmas 1998 season. The facts were clear to me that digital music had more than just a cult following and within days my procrastination ended and the site was up.
MP3 Newswire debuted in December of 1998. I don't remember the day, just that it was before Christmas. Initially, the site was a depository of links to articles of others, but as the controversy around digital music swelled I began to write.
Some of these initial stories were straight objective articles, but almost from the beginning our discourse of product announcements and events turned into commentaries. The regular news sources did present the facts, but in those days few tried to figure out what it all meant.
So I did. It was not my original intent, it just happened that way as I openly wrote about my own struggles with the ethics of file trading and the actions of the record industry. I questioned what was happening, looking at both sides of the issue and how each interpreted the wide gray area between fair use and copyright ownership.
Looking back, I very well may be the first digital music columnist, though I can't say for sure. MP3.com had started earlier that year with a news site that ran early commentary (including mine), but they were one shots as opposed to regular columns.
Lee Black at the defunct Webnoize and Eric Scheirer on the pages of MP3.com and later Forester Research wrote early on. CNET's John Borland has written many articles on digital music, though I don't remember when it became part of his regular beat.
Either way, opinion pieces in this niche were few and far between before 2000. MP3 Newswire became that commentary site and built a quick following. It drew other writers who wrote about their viewpoint on these pages.
These writers included Helen McGovern who detailed a first timer's foray into digital music in her Adventures in MP3 Column. My brother Robert Menta who offered his two cents and Colin Stoner supplied reviews of P2P applications to complement my own reviews of MP3 portables. More recently, MP3 Newswire (now called MP3newswire.net) has showcased the talented contributions of Jon Newton of P2Pnet.net who sees digital music through the eyes of the artist, Tom Mennecke of Slyck.com and George Ziemann and his research on the pre-MP3 history of music and technology.
A most pleasant surprise came last year when one afternoon I browsed through the next-to-last issue of Yahoo Internet Life. I picked it up at a local newsstand to check out their "50 Most Incredibly Useful Sites" and was shocked to find MP3newswire.net named among the 50. We were never notified about the honor and so it became one of those unexpected and exhilarating shocks that we as humans will always keep. YIL had a circulation of over 10 million readers and their recognition was validation that we were making an impact.
This could never have happened without the people above who wrote for us. To all of these contributors, as well as those who I have not named, I offer a heart-felt thank you.
As for the next 5 years I see digital music simply becoming a mundane product. Just like the CD and the aging cassette it will be treated matter-of-factly by the next generation of music lovers. This is good news. Over time the legal and legislative controversies will have worked their way through. Evolution will slow as digital music matures and the market that will dictate how the medium evolves.
As the controversy subsides there probably won't be a need for a site focused on MP3 commentary at that point, though MP3newswire.net has already evolved to include digital media of all varieties and formats. In that case, the site will have served its purpose as a forum for debate and thought. When it can no longer evolve it will bow out gracefully.
One of the fun things about doing this site trying is to prognosticate what will happen in the coming years. I was re-reading a few of the early articles on these pages and it is very interesting to look back in hindsight and see how close - and far off - we were with our predictions. None of us has a crystal ball, so it is a pleasant surprise when our musings turned out prescient. Equally as fun is to look back on these stories only to exclaim "What Was I thinking!"
Below are a couple of those old articles with comments. They are not necessarily the best ones, just those I found interesting in today's light. I hope you get a kick out of them as much as I did.
Wanna be a Cyber
DJ? Home Webcasting in 10 Minutes. November 15 1999
Net radio promised to lower the barriers of entry to radio by vastly reducing cost of operation and expertise needed to broadcast music to the world (significant as terrestrial radio is limited regionally due to the nature of radio waves). With MyCaster, grade school kids could easily have their own station and we saw this as the future. The DMCA thwarted that dream. Though personal radio DJ-ing is alive in other countries, it is on respiratory in the US.
First MP3 Portable
with 128MB Built-in Flash. December 7 1999
The AVC Soul was mediocre in this early MP3 portable review, but it had four times more memory than the leading players of the time, hinting at what would soon appear. We called it a Ford Pinto with a V8 engine. AVC would go on to manufacture the first Rio CD/MP3 portables.
RIAA Sues Music Startup
Napster for $20 Billion. December 9 1999
Where we first suggested that killing Napster would only cause other services to flower in its place. That is exactly what happened. KaZaa alone is today is twice the size of Napster at its peak.
1200 Song MP3
Portable is a Milestone Player January 1 2000
Our fourth MP3 portable review was a unit that invented the jukebox style portable player. We predicted it would change the industry. It did. Without this player, there would be no iPod.
Is MP3 Music a
Perishable Product? February 2 2000
One of our first extended explorations into the digital music phenomena, it was published before the big price drops in CD burners made them affordable for the home. Mostly it was focused on why consumers would be willing to purchase a CD even after they had downloaded some or all of the tracks online for free. This formulated our theory that file trading was akin to radio and thus a minimal threat to CD sales, sales which had grown under the first remakable year of Napster. Some of the theories don't carry over today, but some did..
Priced to Lose?
Labels Sell Music Online. August 2 2000
Why the record industry should have let MP3.com and Emusic sell tunes for them back in 1998. Instead they waited for iTunes to prove it to them.
Take Radiohead's New Album to Number 1? October 28 2000
I still say it did.
The Top 10 Tested
MP3 Portables For Xmas. November 27 2000
Here just to showcase an early generation of MP3 portables with photos. Most of these manufacturers are gone now. A curio cabinet of parallel port technology.
Dies.October 10 2001
An obituary. Not of a company that was probably as mismanaged as the record industry is misguided, but of an industry that never materialized, American Net Radio.
The iRiver iFP-195T is a 512MB Flash unit and is available on Amazon
Other MP3 stories:
MyTunes Turns iTunes into File Trade Service
Online singles are booming
CDs and the Scarcity Principle