Why artists should be using Ogg Vorbis

by daniel james
  This article was written several years ago, before the launch of iTunes, but I still think the arguments are good ones. More recently it has been translated into Chinese by Shining Ray.

Computers, control and the content industry

The major record companies would like to control the way people listen to music, and they are going to use both software and the hardware that people buy in future. 'Content', known as music and movies to most of us, is a global industry, worth $billions every year.

The promise of digitized media distributed by networks which can deliver data at minimal cost has not been ignored by the content industry. However, the content industry sees the internet and other networks as a pipe going between their studio and your eyes and ears - with a return pipe going from the 'consumers' wallet to their bank of course.

With the advent of digital music, the content industry thinks that it can massively increase profits by eliminating the costs associated with conventional music distribution on physical media. But there is a problem - digital music, having been reduced to a series of numbers, is able to be copied almost infinitely without loss of quality. This wouldn't be a problem if lots of members of the music listening public didn't already have the means to make those copies - just about any computer.

So the content industry can do two things - change the digital music file somehow so that you can't copy it, or change your computer so you can't do what you want with it. The first idea is doomed to failure, because anything you do to a number can be undone as long as you know the secret method - CSS and SDMI have proved easy to bypass.

Changing your computer is the only feasible way to keep the content pipe leak-proof. They can do this with software - by persuading you to use players and formats which police your use of music - or by selling you hardware such as CPRM disk drives, which will do the same.

Let's not confuse making a compilation for a friend, or a copy to play on your portable, with the counterfeit CD and tape business that takes place in most of the countries around the world. Clearly, those people who are selling the work of artists without giving them a fair share of the proceeds are wrong. The history of popular music has often been about artists not getting paid, and not because of home copying or commercial piracy.

Free sharing vs. Pay to Play

Digital technology and network distribution has removed the middleman between the artist and the music listener, but the content industry wants to put the middleman back in place. They can do this with the help of a proprietary music format and software that they can control, with artificial restrictions to limit its potential.

The content industry tells artists that they need this control over the listener so that they can continue to pay for things like recording sessions and marketing - as well as artist wages.

Why should artists have a problem with this? After all, you want to have your music heard, and you want to be paid for your work. You'll have to participate in the content industry world on their terms - but a bigger problem is that their vision of digital music can't deliver.

a) Getting heard

The giant record companies would be quite happy to sell us all one recording at a time, since marketing costs and risk would be minimised. Listening to pop radio today, the extremely short playlists might lead you to believe that we are well on the way to this already. The content industry wants high volume sales, which run counter to musical diversity. If you're this year's band, that's great - if not, forget it.

Free downloads combined with peer-to-peer file sharing (as with the original Napster) are an extremely low-cost way to get your music heard all over the world. It might be the only way if you're an independent artist. It's bandwidth efficient, because the tracks are being passed round on other people's computers - saving you a big bill at your ISP.

But the content industry can't allow free peer-to-peer sharing, because there's no margin in it for them. The claim that it's because it damages CD sales is demonstrably false - by the same logic, they should seek to ban music on free-to-air radio and TV in case people might hear it.

Record companies have tried to protect CD sales by only releasing digital tracks as short excerpts, or in very low quality formats. This doesn't encourage people to share them, but does it actually encourage anyone to buy a track or album? It's lame, especially when you consider that the whole track can be heard in full quality on the radio or TV - assuming that the content industry rates your marketing potential high enough to get you on there.

b) Getting paid

Let's look at the existing CD model, and assume the record label is going to pay you 10% on each $10 CD sold, although in reality you probably wouldn't get anything like that much after expenses have been deducted. Let's say there are ten tracks on the CD, so you get ten cents per track.

In the content industry's digital model, let's assume you get the same deal of ten cents on each track downloaded. To support this, the record company charges the same to download all ten tracks as it does for a CD, or a dollar a track.

But where's the incentive for the listener to buy downloaded digital tracks? They use up bandwidth to download, they can't be freely transferred to other computers (since this would enable sharing) and they probably can't even be backed up. If your computer develops a fault, or you just get a new one, say goodbye to your record collection.

People don't mind downloading digital tracks if they are free - Napster proved that. But CD's are more resilient, highly portable between devices and easily shared amongst friends. Paid downloads would have to be very cheap to compete effectively with CD's - and then where would the margin to pay the artist be?

Far better to offer official downloads for free and encourage people to share them. Listeners will appreciate the chance to hear a track properly before they buy your CD, and you'll save a lot of your own time - and a ton of money - on promotion.

What's wrong with MP3?

So why not just use MP3? It's popular already, and listeners can easily share it. The problem is that the people who created MP3 compression want to get in on the content industry act, and have positioned themselves as another middleman. Free encoders for the MP3 format have already bitten the dust, as the owners of the technology demand royalties for making software that uses it.

Although originally touted as a free format, and associated with no-cost music downloads, the technology behind MP3 was always proprietary. In classic 'free lunch' marketing, a product was given away free until it became popular, at which time the owners transformed it into a commercial product.

As an artist, the royalties on MP3 mean that you'll have to pay a flat fee on every single track of your own music that's downloaded. It might only be a few cents at the moment, but the people who control the technology will be able to charge you whatever they like in future. And this will mean you won't be able to give away free tracks even if you want to - unless you pay the MP3 royalty yourself.

Ogg Vorbis is a direct replacement for MP3, without the technology tax - it's completely royalty free, and will stay that way thanks to its free software licence. Ogg files are already supported by a number of software players such as Winamp, and the encoders are freely available. With its variable bitrate technology, your music in Ogg format should sound even better than MP3 at the same file size.

The Ogg Vorbis format is outside of the control of the content industry. They can use it, but they can't stop you from using it. And if you want to let people listen to music which you own the copyright of without restrictions, or share it with their friends, you can.

But the Ogg format won't take off unless artists make the files available. So if you want to support freedom in music, download the free encoder from www.vorbis.com and put some .ogg tracks on your web site.

Please send comments on this article to daniel at mondodesigno dot com

Related articles can be found here:

Interview with Jack Moffitt of the Ogg project

The Personal Music Licence