Your Music on the Web

Ways, Means, Rights, and the Old West: New Concepts, Paradigms and Fears

by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

May 10, 1997

Note: This is an archive essay. Information has changed since May 1997.
Copyright ©1997 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

Should you put your music on the Internet? Yes. No. Yes.

Why yes? It's the first worldwide vehicle composers have for distribution of music. Why no? It's the first worldwide vehicle for losing control of your work of art.

New Concept: The World Wide Web reaches users everywhere with computers that range from simple text readers through advanced graphic displays, from no sound to full studio-quality digital reproduction, from slow near-Teletype-speed connections to blazing-fast lines capable of receiving full-screen video. How your music is received depends more on the receiver than on the sender.

Paradigm shift: You are no longer in control.

New Concept: The World Wide Web is like the Old West. Rules change. Tracking royalties is all but impossible, and widespread cooperation is not on the near horizon. Copies spew forth from websites like roadsalt onto a winter highway. As Internet connections get faster, high-quality copies of your latest compositions are only a mouse click away.

Paradigm shift: You are no longer in control.

Part I of this article takes a look at getting your music onto the Web. Part II looks into ways of deciding when, why and how to put your music on the Web--and what you can do to protect your rights.

I: Internet Music and Sound Primer

Putting your music on the Web means making musical compromises. Web technology and thinking are new. The techniques to transfer digital sound across the Web are scarcely five years old. That means lots of choices--and playback that ranges in quality from high-end CD gloss to shellac 78 noise!

The Sound is Out There

Look first at ordinary digital sound storage. For a compact disc, the original sound vibration is converted into a changing voltage signal, then the voltage is examined (sampled) every .00002 seconds. That sample is converted into a number representing its voltage at that instant, to an accuracy of better than .002%, one part in 16 binary digits (bits) or one part in 216. Recording in stereo means two such sets of samples. That's 44,100 samples per second, times 16 bits, times 2 for stereo ... 1,411,200 bits per second. But that's not all. With overhead (error correction and data formatting), the total rises to nearly two million bits of information for every second of high-quality stereo signal.

The quality of sound on the Web hangs on how files are transferred; it is very different from a CD. Some user in Lithuania wants your digital sound file. That user's computer (the client) sends out a request that wends its way to the computer where your sound file is stored (the server). The sound--digitally encoded and compressed--is converted to small 'packets', tagged with the client's location, and sent off by the server. The packets travel from computer to computer across the Internet, making their way to the client where they are re-assembled in the correct order, decoded, and uncompressed to recover the original information. Minor errors are corrected where possible, and seriously garbled information is requested again. It's a complicated situation.

The present Internet connection of choice is 28,800 bits per second (28.8Kbps)--less than two percent of the speed needed to reproduce CD quality in real time on the Net.

So compromise solutions are inevitable. One involves describing the musical activities rather than the sound; the other involves compressing the sound itself.


The Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) evolved from an ad hoc attempt to standardize digital instruments nearly 15 years ago into a full-fledged set of techniques for creating complete musical performances in electronic form. MIDI specifies notes, patches (instruments), durations, volumes, and dozens of control parameters such as portamento and pedaling. These MIDI control parameters are applied by hardware and software to a collection of electronic 'instruments'. The instruments might be samples of the sound of actual acoustic instruments, nicely formed algorithmic approximations of actual instruments, or just crude imitations little better than the beeping video games of yore.

With careful crafting of MIDI parameters and a good playback instrument, though, extraordinarily realistic and convincing 'performances' can be created.

So what's the problem with storing all your music on the Web as MIDI files?

First, you need to create a MIDI file for your music in the first place. If it's a keyboard piece and you're a good player, you can simply play an electronic keyboard connected to a MIDI recorder. The stored MIDI information will retain most of the sensitivity you play with. But if the music is an orchestration, you have considerable work to do: playing in instrumental lines one at a time, or typing them in and adding expressive elements. You can also create MIDI files from various musical scoring or sequencing programs.

The real problem with MIDI on the Web, though, is that you can't predict what MIDI equipment your listener will be using. Your carefully-wrought sound creation may sound like a buzzy mess on a cheap computer sound card. Similarly, you might have created a handsome orchestral score--but your listener has a system that can only play ten voices. Or you may have designed clever instrumental changes to produce a wonderful effect on your own system, but still need to rewrite the MIDI file specifically to use the standardized set of instruments called General MIDI.

Digital Sound

Digital recording of sound is not yet a gratifying solution for composers on the Web. Perhaps when the world uses high-speed optical connections capable of transmitting CD-quality sound in real time, that will change. For the moment, the majority of listeners still do not have 28.8Kbps connections to the Internet.

There are two compromise possibilities, then. The first is to let the listener receive (download) the entire digital file before playing it. The second option is to stream the audio to the listener, so it plays as it is received.

You can see the dilemma in the first choice. To receive CD-quality audio, it would require more than a minute to download each second of sound--say, half a day before someone could hear your lovely, 15-minute string quartet movement (as well as 150 megabytes of disk space). It's not really an option.

Enter compression, a technique that removes or alters the sound file to make it smaller. The math is frightening (as are some of the results), because it attempts to take into account psychoacoustic phenomena such as the ear's response to certain frequency ranges, and the tendency to mask quieter sounds. Some applications of compression are subtle and successful, such as the recordable minidisc; others are downright heavy-handed and disastrous for musical applications.

Compression not only reduces the size of the file (and the time it takes to receive it), but also permits one more twist: streaming audio. If the sound file is squashed quite small, the average Internet connection will be fast enough to keep up with decompression and playback in real time.

So here's a look at some of the technologies as they stand today.

Audio Technologies

RealAudio. This is the most popular form of audio technology on the Web. RealAudio comes in myriad forms, from streaming (a license fee is required for the server) and non-streaming (license-free) audio from 14.4Kbps connections on up. The encoder itself is free, so anyone with a recent, powerful home computer can prepare RealAudio from a live input source (and the 28.8 mono version of RealAudio3 streaming sounds pretty darn good). A 5-minute tune in RealAudio3/28.8Kbps is a 600K file, and in lower-fidelity RealAudio2/14.4Kbps it's 300K. RealAudio is available for most major computer platforms, and the playback software is available as a browser "plug-in". Playback can sometimes be buggy.

TrueSpeech. This is a dog, but it's free in its streaming version. For music, this compression makes acoustic 78s sound good by comparison, but it comes as part of Windows 95--crank up an existing sound file, and save it in TrueSpeech format. Done. TrueSpeech works best with single lines of music. A 5-minute clip is about 300K in TrueSpeech. It's available for PC and Macintosh platforms.

MPEG. This comes in various layers and compression levels, and is difficult to use, with a variety of competing and costly encoders and just as many incompatible players. Some streaming versions are available (usually with special hardware), but MPEG is mostly reserved for downloaded files. The sound quality is quite good. With MPEG1/L2 files compressed at 11:1, quite listenable music can be had, and the recent appearance of MPEG1/L3 is even more of an improvement. A 5-minute piece in MPEG1/L2 11:1 compression is about 1200K. Most major platforms can use MPEG.

QuickTime. This format is frequently found on CDs with video content, but also has a lesser-known audio-only feature with very good quality. Players are available for most major platforms, but the encoder is Macintosh-native. Browser "plug-ins" are also available. Playback can sometimes be buggy. (I don't have file size information for QuickTime.)

Shockwave. This format includes animation, video and other features, does permit streaming, and requires an expensive encoder as part of its development system. Audio is not a Shockwave specialty, but it's adequate. The playback is done with a browser "plug-in".

Uncompressed formats include .au, .aiff, and .wav files in 8- and 16-bit versions at various sampling rates from about 8Khz to 48Khz. They are Unix, Macintosh and Windows respectively, but most browsers and sound editors today will play these files. These are reliable formats if your listeners will be doing further editing, but they are large files and usually reserved for very brief excerpts on the Web.

(Parameter-based MIDI also has a browser "plug-in", but does not offer a streaming capability; replacement plug-ins such as Crescendo do stream Midi.)

Creating Files for the Web

This is really the subject of a whole book, but the process can be summarized this way:

  1. Decide what music you want to present.
  2. Determine if the 'orchestration' may be in the user's hands (i.e., MIDI is acceptable) or in your hands only (requiring an audio file method).
  3. If it's to be MIDI, craft the re-orchestration from your original work of art to play back well on the cheapest of systems in General MIDI format.
  4. If it's to be an audio file, decide what level of quality you need. Be sure to do considerable work on normalizing and equalizing the sound (as well as adding some subtle reverb) before you send it to an encoding system.
  5. If the quality must be high (i.e., sound quality is inherent to the music, as in certain electroacoustic genres, not merely because it sounds better), choose a downloading format (MPEG or QuickTime compression, or uncompressed .au, .aiff, or .wav files)
  6. You can also use a high-quality streaming format (such as RealAudio3), and if spatial elements are important, choose the stereo version, even with its lower sound quality.
  7. Try to avoid low-quality formats such as RealAudio2 or TrueSpeech unless space and download time are at an absolute premium.
  8. Always remember: your listener is in control--and may "click off" if your file takes too long or you haven't done a good audio workup.
  9. Finally, make sure the final sound file is something you would want to hear. Now you're ready to scare yourself.

II: Internet Rights Primer

Prepare to be scared. Everybody's scared about the Internet if they're fanatical about their intellectual property rights. But once again, here's the World Wide Web mantra: You are no longer in control.

Why is this so true? Because the World Wide Web portion of the Internet was invented with openness, accessibility, portability, and lack of barriers in mind. It did not come with a lock and key. Everything posted on the Web flows right into the user's machine, where it can be captured in toto. Even the Web's native tongue (HyperText Markup Language, or HTML) is a transportable and platform-independent technique that displays to the user's taste, not to the Web page designer's liking. The images display as the user likes them. The music plays on the user's system. It can be text alone, silent and graphics-free. It can be read by a text-to-speech system. You are no longer in control.

Performance rights groups and composer licensing agencies have fought a battle for the better part of the 20th century to secure intellectual property rights. And just as those rights have been bolstered by near-universal acceptance of the Berne Convention, along came the World Wide Web. It is only one of the many Internet protocols--the software and hardware that organizes and distributes packets of data via thousands of interlinked computers--but it is the most accessible. Its purpose was to bring to life the concept of non-linear information, of meandering through concept searches and thought links without following a pre-determined pathway.

A little history helps sweeten the understanding. While the Web was just getting underway, other forms of Internet traffic had already begun to mature. Email had usurped the office copier for distributing messages and copied texts. Usenet was the home of rough-and-tumble posted conversations on tens of thousands of topics. Live Internet relay chat could be cordial or blistering. Electronic bulletin boards were everywhere, some replicating their contents and forwarding it to other bulletin boards. And they all had one thing in common: almost complete lack of interest in intellectual property rights. Text, photos, music, and software were exchanged. The users were very few by comparison to the world at large, and publishers ignored them. Publishers were absurdly ignorant of the whole electronic arena. Finally, a powerful "Wild West" subculture existed where the powerful could dominate and the quiet could survive. A 'netiquette' evolved, but ever so slowly.

Meanwhile, commercial services like the veteran Compuserve and upstart America Online developed tightly controlled content and established strict rules of conduct. Millions of occasional users began to sign up for their easy-to-use features, chat rooms, and forums (which alienated experienced Internet jockeys--even today, AOL users are regularly told "get a real Internet service provider" when they show up on Usenet). Still, intellectual property was at best a formal concept way off in the digital corner, even on commercial Compuserve and AOL.

And then, in the European Particle Physics Laboratory, the Web was born. The non-linear information concept with its simple presentation and its hyperlinks made access to information easy and multi-layered. The mouse-click soon replaced heavy typing. Publishing on the Web became simple with a few hours study of so-called 'markup language'. Internet users jumped on the Web. The commercial services finally opened their gates two years ago. Millions were talking--and trading. (Big business blustered in badly, but that's another story.)

Lost in the fray--and dismissed by many--was ownership of intellectual property. Publishing on the Web was considered tantamount to giving away the store. 'Copyleft' and 'Free Art' gurus preached a gospel of freedom from copyright. Texts, images, music, software, and entire websites were pinched.

And that remains the state of the Web today. Music licensing agencies such as ASCAP and BMI have concluded agreements with some commercial services, but it's old thinking in a new world. And composers need to get ready.


There is no question that copyright subsists in material published on the Web. Despite philosophical differences and outright disagreement with the principle itself, few dispute that Web materials are covered by the Berne Convention. Internet copyright law centers have been established.

But that's where it ends. Music, images, and text--all hypermedia--are nearly impossible to hang onto, and jurisdiction is nightmarish. If someone in the U.S. emails an anonymous music file that's been downloaded by clicking a link to a server in the Netherlands, which is a mirror of a site in Canada, and in turn is linked to the file itself stored on a server in Brazil, and then stops briefly on several computers before actual reaching the client machine, where is the jurisdiction? Who is the distributor? And if that file is someone's MIDI arrangement of a copyrighted tune, how is intellectual ownership split?

In the past, these issues were handled by a combination of good (and sometimes bad) will, strikes, court action, and legislation, but the Web is immune to a great many of these pressures. Besides, the copyright treaty never required registration, and the issue is further complicated by a recent change in the convention which no longer even requires that notice be placed on the work of authorship. Copyright subsists from the moment of manifestation, and registration and notice are mere niceties. The Web isn't nice.

Things are clouded further. Recently in Scotland, the courts barred one newspaper from providing links to another, ruling that the information offered by the links was owned. In Germany, strict laws have pitted Compuserve against the government over whether the company is a provider of a communications service vs. being a provider of the content itself. One New York composer recently found his music backing up the antics on an international sex site--and they hadn't even stolen the music, they had merely provided an active link to his own website!

What You Can Do

You can avoid posting your music. However, the Web is the best distribution method for contemporary music in the history of civilization, and if you want a hearing, it's the place to do it.

If you do post your music, however, consider it gone. You can't protect yourself. So-called 'digital watermarking' is years away, and even when implemented, it does little more than identify the copyright holder. The Web is an open structure. That's why it works. You are no longer in control.

But there are ways of presenting yourself as a good netizen and kewl person, too. Posting your music gets it heard, and asking nicely that credit be given goes a long way on the Net. In my experience, people actually respect a real person behind the music.

If it still makes you skittish, realize that MIDI files are the easiest to snag because they're small and portable--meaning they'll play on just about any system. They are also transmitted in the MIDI format, which can be edited and re-worked; even scores can be produced from MIDI files. Some websites archive tens of thousands of files, and many of these sites do their best to identify copyright owners and get permissions ... many, but not all. If you include MIDI on your website, and it's very interesting and especially if it's clever and poppish, be prepared to see copies of it circulated.

Raise awareness by posting copyright notices both near the MIDI link and inside the file, just for identification--even though they're easily stripped out. (Though I'm offering warnings, I have 55 of my own compositions posted, and don't worry much about it ... probably because of an email I received from Sweden stating simply, "I hate to say it but your music stink.")

Audio files are less of a problem. Huge, uncompressed audio files, which sound as good as CDs, won't often be downloaded. Compressed files are good to listen to, but hold little interest in the trader's world because of size and sound quality. Still, a copyright notice with and inside the file helps always raise intellectual property awareness.

Musical scores are a different issue; ordinary Web graphics are unsatisfactory. Several transportable file formats exist, so it's possible to publish a complete score as part of a website. The Enigma Transportable Format of Finale not only provides the complete score, but also a library of MIDI information embedded with it: That's really giving away the store. A little less risky is Adobe Acrobat, a popular document viewing and printing program that's very effective for offering high-quality pages of music, text and illustrations. Several commercial publishers now present score excerpts in Acrobat format. Other methods include PostScript files for printing purposes, but these are large and of limited use.


If protection is impossible, then what options are available to the composer?

Few viable possibilities have presented themselves, but in a series of brainstorming emails last year, Laurie Spiegel and I came up with some interesting ideas, some based on technical issues, others based on the original idea of intellectual property--that economic reward is merely a formalized bribe to encourage more creation, not compensation to the artist for an intangible.

In the end, more availability may mean more performances (unless your composition is electronic/electroacoustic). For acoustic composers, it may be akin to the free bread display in the local store. It may be the continued life of the musical art in a consumer age. Composer Gilles Yves Bonneau has always talked of the composer as an isolated flower--"the violet in the woods"--but these woods are being paved by the infobahn. How we think of ourselves in this world will determine how we continue to survive, grow, and even prosper.

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