In Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, Paul Du Gay introduces an approach to studying culturally significant topics that is described as the “circuit of culture”: any aspect of culture must be studied through its Consumption, Identity, Regulation, Representation, and Production for its analysis to be considered adequate. Over the last three decades, the evolution of the internet and its expansion of our reach has allowed cultural phenomena to have an impact on the national or global scale. Due to the speed and ease with which people can share information on the internet, it has now become the primary platform through which people express their cultures. Therefore, the circuit of culture can be applied to any such website or internet phenomenon, providing a great amount of insight into the website’s content and the reception of it.
One such piece of internet history that is of cultural significance and interest is the wave of mp3 file-sharing platforms that emerged from the late ‘90s through the early 2010s. Specifically, we will be studying MP3 Lycos using the circuit of culture. MP3 Lycos is an mp3 file search database that was created in 1999, as a result of a collaboration between Lycos, a search engine founded in 1994, and FAST, an mp3 search program. By using MP3 Lycos, users were able to search for mp3 audio files uploaded to the database by name or artist. Although MP3 Lycos was one of the biggest websites that offered mp3 file sharing, it was one of many. Throughout this study, we will how the illegal distribution of digital audio files caused a back and forth between websites such as MP3 Lycos and the parties who owned the rights to the music being shared on their platform. Furthermore, we will also look at the ramifications of this conflict on MP3 Lycos’ evolution, as well as how it led to the current model for music distribution. As we progress through the elements of the circuit of culture, the lines will be them will blur as we show how interconnected they are.
A service cannot exist without a consumer for that service. In the same way, a form of cultural media is made to be consumed, even if by the producers themselves. Consumption creates demand in the market, and those who are able to fill in the gap resulting from this demand become successful. As such, consumers have a great influence on the kind of content that is produced on the internet; those who want to be successful either learn what consumers want or anticipate what they may need and cater their products to that.
As more users “went online” in the late ‘90s, they grew more aware of their ability to upload and download digital copies of the music they like to listen to, to and from the internet, and although there were many consumers who created their own mp3-sharing platforms to make it easier to attain music from others on the internet, none of them lasted as long or had the renown that MP3 Lycos grew to have. A number of things distinguished MP3 Lycos from other mp3-file sharing services: 1) Stemming from Lycos, an established search engine, gave it credibility that made potential consumers less hesitant to try it out. 2) It was an online website, rather than a peer-to-peer network, meaning that users didn’t need to download anything to their computer other than the mp3 file they needed. 3) The FAST database made the search process simpler and more convenient than for other mp3 websites. 4) It remained in operation for a long time (seven years) by avoiding legal retaliation, making it a consistent choice for the music pirate of the early 2000s (McCandless 1999).
Above all else, however, what truly made MP3 Lycos succeed was that consumers had no digital option that was at least as convenient as it. Regardless of how easy it was to pirate music, or how loosely enforced anti-piracy laws were at the time, the fact that it was illegal (or at least pseudo-legal) was still a barrier that would have had to been overcome for the consumer to use MP3 Lycos. The fact that those who owned the rights to distributing this music failed to capitalize on the demand in the market is what ultimately contributed to MP3 Lycos’ success.
Indeed, a failure to produce a legal form of consuming digital music is what led to the growth of MP3 Lycos and mp3 file sharing as a whole. Therefore, the first mp3-sharing services were made by those who wanted to attain online music but did not have a means to do so, such as with the internet site Fresh Kutz. Interestingly, the success of these initial projects relied on the ability of the consumers to also become producers, in that they would need to upload mp3 files in addition to downloading them for this model to work. Despite this, the model was massively successful and brought about a cycle in which more users were brough into the online space and file-sharing networks to exchange music with other online users. MP3 Lycos was different in that it was created as an extension to a search engine by a large corporate entity. As a result, it was able to optimize this model to make it simpler and better designed. Moreover, the fact that it was run by a large entity is what kept it from being taken down for so many years.
Whether or not mp3-file sharing websites were legal is unclear; it was undeniably illegal to upload mp3 files to the internet without having the right to its distribution, implicating most users of MP3 Lycos. However, MP3 Lycos itself is not implicated by this fact, since they are only providing a means to share music by hosting the website. Moreover, it would be too costly and inefficient to find and hold the thousands or millions of usually anonymous users accountable for the illegal distribution. The only reasonable way to ensure that the rights to music distribution were protected was by holding the host website responsible.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is in charge of enforcing artists’ distribution rights, and in contrast to the owners of these rights, the RIAA was quick to react to the emergence of online mp3-file-sharing services. They made it clear to the public that these websites were illegal and threatened to pursue legal action against them. Initially, they were true to their word and filed lawsuits against mp3-sharing websites. In 1997, Fresh Kutz was sued for illegally distributing music, and the pressure from the lawsuit caused the creators of the website to take their platform offline, leading to the case being settled, despite the creators never appearing before court (Jeffrey 1997). What followed was that the threat of legal action from the RIAA was enough to make the creators take down their websites. Many of them were hobbyists who just wanted to create an audio sharing network, not wanting to deal with the hassle of legal trouble.
Therefore, when MP3 Lycos first launched, many people were certain that it wouldn’t be here to stay due to the RIAA’s purge on other websites (Kirchofer 1999). As expected, shortly following MP3 Lycos’ launch, the RIAA did issue a statement in which they threatened legal retaliation. However, it appears that a lawsuit was never filed. If this is true, one may speculate on the reason for this. It would not be hard to believe a situation in which unlike other file sharing services at the time, MP3 Lycos, being backed by a corporate entity, had the resources to go into a legal dispute, and while the RIAA were willing to threaten Lycos, they did not want go head-to-head against a large entity, when they weren’t exactly guaranteed to win.
MP3 Lycos were free to continue providing mp3 search and sharing services to their users. Over the course of seven years, the website evolved to offer music-related news and music videos in addition to their music sharing service. The user interface adapted to make MP3 Lycos more than a file sharing service, but a hub for all things music-related. However, in late 2005, the option to download music suddenly vanished from the website. If it wasn’t legal pressure that directly led to this change, then what was it?
Identity & Representation
At this time of legal ambiguity about how people were to be charged with online piracy, users of websites like MP3 Lycos chose to be anonymous and were mostly silent in their support for mp3 file-sharing services. Interestingly, though, MP3 Lycos was well-received by news sources. Only a year after the launch of MP3 Lycos, the Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper based in Melbourne, provides a guide for their readers on how to use MP3 Lycos to download music for “easy listening”. Moreover, when the RIAA threatened MP3 Lycos with legal action, Wired News released an article called “RIAA Rains on Lycos’ MP3 Party”, in which the title in itself takes a stance. It is important to note, however, that Lycos was in the process of acquiring Wired News at the time the article was published, because it makes it easier for Wired News to justify the position they have taken. Regardless of the situation, a neutral reader who comes across the article may have had their opinion swayed in favor of MP3 Lycos, and because of this, it is important to highlight how the inner workings of journalism and parent companies affect the representation of these websites in the eyes of the public.
As stated previously, MP3 Lycos were technically free to continue operating without fear of legal consequences, allowing them to cater to their consumers. As time progressed, they attained a larger consumer base, which further improved the website as more files were uploaded and made available to their users. At that point, offering additional features such as song lyrics and music video streaming legitimized MP3 Lycos in the sense that it was now one of the best sources for engaging with music. This change in identity from a file-sharing service to a music community was gradual, but what followed was the acquisition of MP3 Lycos by Kakao, a South Korean internet company, in 2004. I don’t doubt that the original creators of MP3 Lycos added new feature to improve their users’ experience, but I can also see how doing so would make the website more appealing to potential buyers by diversifying the services they are offering.
Regardless of the creators’ intentions behind MP3 Lycos’ progression, when Kakao purchased it, they slowly phased out the option to download mp3 files through their website; it was gone by August 17th, 2005.
By April 7th, 2006, mp3.lycos.com had been taken down completely and reborn as lycos.globe7.com. The term “reborn” is used loosely here, as the two websites are almost entirely different in terms of what they offer; the music-based identity of MP3 Lycos was scrapped, and Lycos instead decided to repackage their mp3 search database in the form of an mp3 player that was offered as part of a phone service. It is reasonable to speculate that the motivation behind this seemingly drastic shift in branding was that Kakao were hesitant to commit to something that was in a “legal grey area” and had wanted to wipe their hands from this dirt for some time, and that the pressure from viewing competitors such as LimeWire get shut down forced this change through.
What is fascinating about the circuit of culture is that it can be restructured into a cycle that drives the production of content. Consumption and regulation drive the production of cultural phenomena, but the way these phenomena are received by the public and are represented by the media alters the content that is subsequently produced. With MP3 Lycos, we see that the creators saw a gap in the market and capitalized on it. Their ability to continue operating without being subject to serious legal action allowed them to tune their website according to their consumers’ needs, giving them the identity and public recognition as one of the most convenient ways of listening to music online. However, as the producers changed, their priorities did as well, leading to a change in the model through which they offer music services. One can move forward in time to the emergence of streaming services, or backwards in time to when the Walkman was released, and the way with which the circuit of culture describes changes in music distribution models during those eras works the same.
Paul Du Gay, Stuart Hall, Linda Janes, Anders Koed Madsen, Hugh Mckay, and Keith Negus. 1997. Doing Cultural Studies : The Story of the Sony Walkman. Los Angeles ; London: Sage. http://vbn.aau.dk/da/publications/doing-cultural-studies(8474f8f8-358a-4239-b637-2bfa02a4e7c0).html.
Multimedia News – AM Newswire. 1999. “Lycos and Fast Rock the Web with the World’s Largest MP3 Internet Music Directory,” February 1, 1999.
McCandless, M. 1999. “The MP3 Revolution.” IEEE Intelligent Systems 14 (3): 8–9. https://doi.org/10.1109/5254.769875
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia). 2000. “Fast Track for Easy Listening,” June 14, 2000.
“Lycos Music: MP3 Search.” 2000. Web.archive.org. February 25, 2000. https://web.archive.org/web/20000225235718/http://mp3.lycos.com/.
MCA Records, Inc. v. Internet Site Known as FTP://Parsoft.com/MP3s, Case No. 97-CV-1360-T (N.D. Tex., case filed June 9, 1997) (settled January 1998)
David R. Johnstone, “The Pirates Are Always with Us: What Can and Cannot Be Done about Unauthorized Use of MP3 Files on the Internet,” Buffalo Intellectual Property Law Journal 1, no. 1 (Summer 2001): 122-145
Jeffrey, Don. 1997. “Downloading Songs Subject of RIAA Suit.” Billboard, June 21, 1997. https://books.google.com/books?id=KBAEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA3#v=onepage&q&f=false.
“Lycos, Jajah Launch Internet Phone Call Services Today.” 2006. Los Angeles Times. March 27, 2006. https://articles.latimes.com/2006/mar/27/business/fi-phones27.
Report, Wired News. “RIAA Rains on Lycos’ MP3 Party.” Wired, http://www.wired.com/1999/02/riaa-rains-on-lycos-mp3-party/. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.
Kirchofer, Tom. 1999. “A NEW PLAYER in MUSIC DISPUTE / LYCOS IS OFFERING EASY ACCESS to MP3 FILES ONLINE, EVEN as the MUSIC INDUSTRY TRIES to FIGHT BOOTLEGGERS.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 2, 1999.