The Internet record label and store Magnatune has announced a new policy whereby uncompressed, CD-quality music purchased from its site can be legally copied and shared up to three times. While Magnatune, which now represents over 200 artists in a variety of genres, offers its music in compressed MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats, it is unusual among online music-download retailers in that it also provides the sound files in uncompressed formats (such as WAV) for download (or, for an additional charge, a packaged CD complete with artwork).
Even with broadband Internet access, downloading uncompressed music files can be a lengthy procedure because of their large size. Hence the popularity of compressed formats such as MP3 (typically unrestricted) or AAC (Apple iTunes‘s copy-protected format), which enable users to share and download easily and devices like the iPod to hold thousands of songs. But some listeners object to the loss of sound quality caused by compression, and some consumers object on principle to paying for a product that is of lesser quality than what was originally released by the artist and record company. Although some recordings and some types of music withstand compression better than others, and not all ears are equally discriminating, ultimately a compressed recording will never sound quite as good as the original version such as you find on a commercially packaged CD. Magnatune caters to those who want the option of acquiring the music without compromised sound quality.
Downloading a CD’s worth of uncompressed music from Magnatune costs less than what one would typically spend on a packaged CD – $8 is the usual suggested price, and, unlike at iTunes, the new Napster, and other download retailers, Magnatune does not sell sound files burdened with copy protection. However, while Magnatune’s MP3 versions are distributed under a Creative Commons license, which allows noncommercial reproduction and distribution, the uncompressed files are not; until now, buying them gave you just the same rights you’d have to the music you’d buy on a commercial CD, which do not (surprise!) include the right to rip and burn copies for your friends.
Now, however, Magnatune customers can legally distribute up to three copies of uncompressed music. Why? Founder John Buckman explains it this way: “People fall in love with new music by being exposed to it by others. It’s such an obvious point, and everyone knows the truth of it, yet the music industry has always fought it.” Buckman’s betting this form of grassroots peer-to-peer marketing will draw more music fans to the site and prompt more sales. Given the relatively small, boutique nature of the label – artists are hand-picked by Buckman and his small staff, with a browsably small quantity in each genre – I wouldn’t bet against him. One of the functions of a record label has always been editorial filtering, and the major labels’ failure to adapt intelligently to the digital age leaves plenty of room for small, discriminating labels – whether traditional, or entirely Internet-based like Magnatune – to step into the breach.