Tracks of freedom

Why should open source be limited to computer programs? The same logic could unleash a world of creative, personalized music.

Published May 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Anyone who listens to music obsessively has strong opinions. And the deeper we listen, the more likely we are to think we know -- as well as if not better than the performer -- how we would handle some element of the music differently, if only we had the power.

What if we could act on our notion that some Coltrane solo would work better if he waited eight extra bars before he came in? As the open-source movement in computer software continues to strengthen its influence, frustrated music producers everywhere may get the chance to show that they, not Puff Daddy, know best how to manipulate the mixing console.

As is usually the case in the music industry, getting this sort of power has been a lengthy struggle. If you're old enough to remember the Rolling Stones' "She's a Rainbow" before a formerly cool computer maker inserted it in a TV ad, there's a good chance that your first record player had no tone control. When your thick 45s landed on the pad, you were stuck listening to them only one way -- the way the record-player manufacturer wanted you to.

Over time, record-player manufacturers have gradually given their customers more and more control over what they heard: first volume, then tone, then separation. Today's CD players let you choose what songs you want to listen to, in which order, and in which of many preset surround-sound settings. Recordable CD players take that even further.

This is much better than having no tone knob, but you still have to listen to the music pretty much the way it was recorded. Unlike printed material, you can't annotate it easily. If you're a big John Entwistle fan, for example, you can turn the bass all the way up and the treble all the way down when you listen to the Who, but that's not the most pleasant listening experience. What if you want your copy of a song to be yours alone, different from all others?

Like it or not, much of our pop culture is built around the ability to customize. Our favorite long-playing music companions tend to be the car tapes we make ourselves. We use everything from bumper stickers to Garfield stick-ons to make our cars feel individual. The promise, as Burger King puts it, is that you can Have It Your Way, every day. You can see this working out on our computers, too. Wallpaper and desktop designs help people define who they are as surely as the Dilbert panels they tack to their cubicle walls. Which MP3 file are you showing off on your desktop?

The most impressive manifestation, so far, of this urge to customize the computing environment is the open-source movement in software. Those with the talent, the inclination and the free time can pick apart programs or whole operating systems and reassemble them in ways that suit them best.

But why limit the notion of open source to computer software, which doesn't move most of us the way art does? Only programmers can take full part in the software customization process, not those of us more adept with nouns and verbs than zeros and ones. The Net has changed the way we communicate, but more than that, it is changing the way we view ownership and authorship, in all forms of business and art. Our browsers store our own bookmarks; our word processors execute self-written macros. As the open-source concept becomes more established in the software market, it can't help spreading to other varieties of intellectual property.

Today you can send a friend a perfect digital copy of a favorite song in a number of formats. But why limit yourself to the music as it was originally recorded? The current hemorrhaging at major record labels (due in large part to Universal's ingestion of Polygram) will lead inexorably to a new class of performers: too popular to go back to their day jobs, but not popular enough to score the seven-figure investment often necessary for a major label to break a record.

One way for these medium-level bands to differentiate themselves is by delivering, with their sound files, the musical version of source code: multitrack information.

If you were a big fan of a band but thought their bass player was terrible, you would be able to remix your personal copy of their record so it sounds the way you want it. Maybe you'd push down the bass; perhaps you'd record a new bass line. You'd be able to do anything you want with your personal copy. That's the key concept: personal copy. You wouldn't be able to sell your revised version; you might not even be able to post your revised version publicly.

The record industry today is desperate to find new ways to sell music, now that the reissue boom is over (everyone who wants to spend $30 for a scratch-free "Frampton Comes Alive" has done so). It should consider this open-source approach as a new avenue. For some this will be a marketing gimmick; for others it will be an avenue toward a new kind of art.

One can score accidental hits this way. Suzanne Vega's 1987 album "Solitude Standing" began with an a cappella number, "Tom's Diner"; a pair of New York remixers called DNA added a dense rhythm track, secured Vega's permission and released their version -- which became a pop-radio smash. Without this unexpected outside intervention, her song wouldn't have attracted such a large and diverse audience. The addition of a new person's inspiration to the project resulted in something different and better.

This approach to musical open source doesn't mean "free" in the Richard Stallman sense of the term: artists would retain all rights to the intellectual property they created. I couldn't remix "Tom's Diner" and sell it without Vega allowing me. But whatever I did with my personal copy of "Tom's Diner" in the privacy of my home studio would be up to me.

I spoke to five executives at the remaining major record companies about the possibility of multitrack information becoming free. One said the idea was "nuts"; all said it could never happen. But these are the words of an industry that is circling its wagons, taking time out from threatening lawsuits against various new digital formats to rail against possible advances.

Take a step away from the major labels and you'll find less fear of change. At CD pioneer Rykodisc -- a medium-size label that made its name salvaging the David Bowie and Frank Zappa catalogs and has now moved strongly into MP3 distribution -- the reaction is different.

"The idea of distributing multitrack information is not nuts," reassures Lars Murray, Rykodisc's director of new media. "What you're talking about is almost a new art form, though. It's not going to replace the passive experience of listening to music. When it's introduced, who knows where it can end? If it's introduced to 12-year-olds now, they'll grow up expecting to be able to do it anywhere, just like we consider sampling. It wouldn't surprise me if you saw a very active community of trainspotters and geeks doing this."

"It might be inevitable," says Mark Pucci, who runs music publicity company Mark Pucci Media in Atlanta. "People are downloading these songs in digital format anyway. Why not let people mix them?"

As with other technological advances, open-source music is likely to happen regardless of whether the record companies bless it. Indeed, it's happening already. Mixman provides a set of tools to let nonprofessionals produce their own music. Some recent CDs from the hip-hop label Tommy Boy include rudimentary multitrack information that can be manipulated and posted to the Web. Next month, startup N2IT will debut Final Scratch, a product that lets DJs "scratch" MP3s and save the personalized results by connecting a traditional turntable to a computer. And Res Rocket is already anticipating what will happen when multitrack information is widely available: The company offers software that lets musicians collaborate in real time over the Net.

The technology and the bandwidth necessary to drive it are on their way. The question is whether executives at record companies will be smart enough to embrace the future before this opportunity, like so many before it, passes them by.

By Jimmy Guterman

Jimmy Guterman runs The Vineyard Group, Inc., an editorial consultancy in Massachusetts.

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