Sunday, March 30, 2008

Amazon's Music Store on Ubuntu Gutsy

Unfortunately, there are some CDs that are so obscure nobody is seeding them on BitTorrent. One of these happens to be Hicksville by Celtic Cross. I decided to give the Amazon Music Store, where this CD is available for purchase, a shot.

On Ubuntu Gutsy, there are a few things you need to do to make this work. The first, of course, is to download the .deb package from this page. Install that with sudo dpkg -i amazonmp3.deb or sudo dpkg --force-architecture -i amazonmp3.deb if on a 64 bit system. You're also going to need a few Boost libraries: sudo apt-get install libboost-date-time1.34.1 libboost-thread1.34.1 libboost-iostreams1.34.1 libboost-signals1.34.1 If you're on a 32 bit system, launching the /usr/bin/amazonmp3 binary should now work (it also inserts an entry in the GNOME panel under Applications->Internet).

But for all you 64-bit'ers out there, there's a bit more work to do. Launching the binary fails with the message "amazonmp3: error while loading shared libraries: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory". This is because amazonmp3 needs 32 bit libraries, not 64 bit ones (see this thread). Download getlibs, a bash script which installs 32 bit versions of libraries on 64 bit systems. Install the package with sudo dpkg -i getlibs-all.deb and then run getlibs /usr/bin/amazonmp3 to install the 32 bit libraries. The program should now run without error.

The application, by the way, is quite minimalistic. I don't know why they put users through this trouble and don't just send you a tarball of the music files. I guess there might be some reason on other platforms where it integrates with other applications... not on Linux, though!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why NIN's "Ghosts" Release Matters

Nine Inch Nails ushered in another landmark event in the slow march towards freedom of digital media recently when it released its newest work for free (gratis and libre) on its web site. NIN band member Trent Reznor has frequently been at the forefront of innovation in music and the surrounding areas and it is not at all surprising and very pleasing that it is him to be the first high-profile artist (to my knowledge) to release a major work under a Creative Commons license. However, not everyone seems to grasp the significance of what has happened here. In fact, not even the article that the Slashdot article links to reports the fact that the album has been released under a CC license and many other news outlets have neglected this important point as well. In this article, I'll give a summary of the events surrounding NIN's release of Ghosts I-IV and an analysis of its significance.

First, some history of the band: Nine Inch Nails has never been a conformist where promoting its music has been concerned. The history of their original ideas is impressive: breaking off from their label and releasing their work independently; encouraging fans at concerts to "steal" music; hiding USB drives for fans to find with new, unreleased songs on them; performing surprise concerts as part of an elaborate fantasy world constructed for fans and releasing Garageband samples for others to remix.

There is precedent for releasing music free (both gratis and libre) online. Most artists now have a myspace page or other limited Internet presence where one can listen to, but usually not download (or only download a small piece of) an album. Many low-profile artists have been releasing their music online for years under various licenses. Radiohead, arguably, has been the most famous band to release an album free of charge online (with In Rainbows last year). Radiohead allowed each customer to specify their own price for a full download of the album off of its site, even $0. It is estimated that Radiohead made many millions of dollars with this tactic.

Next, the facts about the Ghosts release. From the Nine Inch Nails website there are a variety of options for downloading the album, etc:
  • Free: The first 9 tracks from the Ghosts I-IV collection available as high-quality, DRM-free MP3s, including the complete PDF.
  • $5: All 36 tracks in a variety of digital formats including a 40 page PDF.
  • $10: Ghosts I-IV on two audio CDs in a six panel digipak package with a 16 page booklet. Pre-order, to be shipped April 8, 2008. INCLUDES immediate full download in a variety of digital formats.
  • $75: Ghosts I-IV in a hardcover fabric slipcase containing: 2 audio CDs, 1 data DVD with all 36 tracks in multi-track format, and a Blu-ray disc with Ghosts I-IV in high-definition 96/24 stereo and accompanying slideshow.
  • $300:

Nine Inch Nails also uploaded a torrent to the Pirate Bay of the first 9 tracks of the album (out of 36 total) with the following message:
Hello from Nine Inch Nails.

We\\\'re very proud to present a new collection of instrumental music, Ghosts I-IV. Almost two hours of music recorded over an intense ten week period last fall, Ghosts I-IV sprawls Nine Inch Nails across a variety of new terrain.

Now that we\\\'re no longer constrained by a record label, we\\\'ve decided to personally upload Ghosts I, the first of the four volumes, to various torrent sites, because we believe BitTorrent is a revolutionary digital distribution method, and we believe in finding ways to utilize new technologies instead of fighting them.

We encourage you to share the music of Ghosts I with your friends, post it on your website, play it on your podcast, use it for video projects, etc. It\\\'s licensed for all non-commercial use under Creative Commons.

We\\\'ve also made a 40 page PDF book to accompany the album. If you\\\'d like to download it for free, visit

Ghosts I is the first part of the 36 track collection Ghosts I-IV. Undoubtedly you\\\'ll be able to find the complete collection on the same torrent network you found this file, but if you\\\'re interested in the release, we encourage you to check it out at, where the complete Ghosts I-IV is available directly from us in a variety of DRM-free digital formats, including FLAC lossless, for only $5. You can also order it on CD, or as a deluxe package with multitrack audio files, high definition audio on Blu-ray disc, and a large hard-bound book.

We genuinely appreciate your support, and hope you enjoy the new music. Thanks for listening.
A little while after the release of the album and the spreading of the news, the NIN website got overloaded with requests, prompting Trent Reznor to post the following message there:
Update: The response to this album has been overwhelming, causing our website to slow to a crawl. We THOUGHT we were ready, but...
We've been adding more servers to accommodate the unexpected demand and we expect to be running smoothly in the next few hours. In the meantime, if you've had any problems with downloads from the Ghosts site, don't worry - you'll be able to use your download link again when the site is more stable. Thanks everyone for making this such an immediate success.

posted by Trent Reznor at 5:47 PM pst, from hong kong.
So why is the release of Ghosts significant? Because it's the most visible release of art under a Creative Commons license to date (by-nc-sa 3.0, to be exact). This means that Trent Reznor can not take you to court for distributing the music on, say, the Pirate Bay; it explicitly permits this kind of activity. All the license mandates is that if you use the work, you must credit the original author and you must release your new work that incorporates NIN's art under the same license. The license also prohibits any use of the work for financial gain by a third party (no selling the album on the street for five bucks a pop). This is in marked contrast to Radiohead, who did not specify the license that In Rainbows was under, so because of this ambiguity we must only assume that it is under a traditional copyright license. This means that Radiohead CAN take you to court for distributing the music if one day it decides that suing its fans is fashionable. Releasing art, especially music, in this fashion is going to become increasingly prevalent as more artists realize the benefits of instantly sharing art with the world via the Internet in preference to traditional distribution channels such as record labels. With computer technology, how fans use music is increasingly out of an artists' control. It is a much more amicable arrangement for the artist to indulge fans by releasing music in a way they find convenient (and, also, not sue them).

The release of Ghosts also establishes BitTorrent as a recognized distribution channel in which established artists can release their music. Frequently, the BitTorrent protocol and its users are denigrated in the media as "pirates" or "thieves." The fact that a respected artist is using BitTorrent in preference to direct download or a record label-sponsored distribution will legitimize this method of sharing in the eyes of many and heighten the profile of BitTorrent generally. Using BitTorrent was also a good move simply because it is a superior protocol for large files, as the slowness of the NIN website showed. Also, it is more convenient to use than having to click through the kind of omg-it's-free messages (or, more generally, an unfamiliar interface) that Radiohead made users weather to buy In Rainbows. Being so in touch with how music fans want to acquire their music definitely doesn't hurt NIN's publicity, either.

Reznor also proves that it is wholly possible to make a lot of money off of a free product on the Internet, something that many ill-informed pundits think impossible. Slashdot reports that the most expensive option sold out in about a day, netting Reznor $750,000. This is to say nothing of any of the other purchasing options, which also likely brought in a significant amount of revenue, possibly much more than the $300 dollar option. So why are people paying for something that they could more or less otherwise get for free? A few answers can be found in Kevin Kelly's essay Better Than Free. Kelly claims that the Internet has made copyable material infinitely abundant, and therefore impossible to charge money for. What can be charged for are what Kelly calls "generatives" -- things that can't be copied. He suggests 8 generatives from which money can be made in a world with Internet technology: immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage and findability (convinience). By autographing records, NIN provides authenticity and personalization. By offering downloads off its site in a variety of digital formats, NIN makes money off of findability, accessibility and immediacy. And, of course, being an artist offering up works for free under a CC license NIN reaps the benefit of patronage: listeners loving what they are seeing and hearing and willing to pay for more of the same.

Another important point about this event is that all the data on NIN's site will eventually find its way out from behind the wall of authentication and payment and onto public networks. That is, users that paid for enhanced versions of the product will upload them to a BitTorrent tracker: here already are the ($5) FLAC versions of all 36 songs and some extras. It is often repeated that information wants to be free, as we can see here. What is not often repeated, but equally true, is that information wants to be convenient. Fans of In Rainbows proved this yet again when they uploaded the album to BitTorrent (humorously leading some ignorant columnists to castigate users for "stealing" it -- how can you steal something if it's free and able to be infinitely copied?).

In conclusion, the experimental release of Ghosts on the Internet under a Creative Commons license and for free is a milestone event for a variety of reasons. It is the first high-profile musical release that is free, both as in freedom and as in beer. It made NIN a whole lot of money, proving that artists can survive in the Internet era (even without performing). And it enhances the profile of the BitTorrent protocol as a distribution mechanism and reinforces some well-understood properties of Internet-based information distribution. Hopefully other artists will follow NIN's example and release their work in a similar manner.

Further reading:
  • Reznor decries fact that people see Radiohead as first to release free online, says industry won't follow his lead anytime soon because it's inept. (Link)