Rykodisc, the recording label that represents such major artists as Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and Mickey Hart, has begun selling a significant portion of its catalog in the MP3 format, marking a milestone in the short history of digital music distribution. The independent label now offers over 200 songs from 65 artists on the site of MP3 distributor Good Noise (http://www.goodnoise.com/), for 99 US cents a piece.
Rykodisc isn't the first label to offer more than a few promo tracks in MP3, but it's the best-known. The New York-based independent label SpinART has been offering its entire catalog for sale on Good Noise for months.
"This is a big sign-off on downloadable music," says Good Noise CEO Gene Hoffman. "It brings some valid and legitimate content to MP3."
"We think there's a lot of consumer demand out there that's not being met by legitimate content," says Lars Murray, director of new media for Rykodisc. "We've reached a point where we think the medium and the format is too big to ignore. We want to make sure our artists are getting paid, and begin to change the perception that online music is free."
According to Murray, Rykodisc had been watching the MP3 space for a year. The label finally decided to make its move when Diamond Multimedia's Rio player -- a portable Walkman-like device used to download and play MP3 files -- went on the market.
Rykodisc has historically taken risks with its distribution. The company was founded in 1983 as the first CD-only label. (The word "ryko" means "sound from a flash of light" in Japanese.)
Despite the disapproval of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents the five largest record labels, MP3 is becoming the de facto standard for digital music distribution on the Web. "MP3" is the second-most popular search term, according to SearchTerms.com, and Diamond says that demand for its Rio player has exceeded supply.
Despite the cooperation of "legit" labels like Rykodisc, the recording industry tends to associate the MP3 format with pirated content -- an association which sites like Good Noise and recently funded MP3.com are actively trying to erase. In addition to the Rykodisc deal, Good Noise this week also partnered with the Harry Fox Agency, a trade group representing songwriters, to initiate a standard for the payment and collection of royalties on the sale of MP3 files.
Earlier this week, Lycos drew heat from the RIAA for launching an MP3 search engine that failed to distinguish between legitimate and pirated material. The company quickly pledged to police the engine.