A short history of my part in the early MP3 scene

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Title: A short history of my part in the early MP3 scene
Date: April 15, 2011

Categories: Personal, The Internet
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Ok, after we got onto the subject of hacking, warez and later mp3 distribution, I spent a typical drunk night reminiscing about my days in the MP3 scene, and since noone was even listening other than the IRC bot, and these stories are starting to get the point in my memory that I’m struggling to remember the key names, I decided to write down some stuff about the history of the origin of the mp3 scene as I remember it, so here goes. If you’re a legal person, fuck off, this is all bullshit and heresay.. and if you’re not.. well.. I was there and this is all from the horses mouth, so take it as you will.

UPDATE: I got one of the names wrong in this history, accidentally crediting the RollCall song to Sir_Jinx instead of resident DJ Icy_J. I decided to see if I could track some of the guys down, and I joined the old IRC channel and was surrised to find it alive, and filled with a large botnet. I wasn’t sure if there was anyone alive, so I just said a few words and started idling, and by the next day, a couple of members that I wasn’t familiar with had spoken up and welcomed me. I asked about Al_Capone and was told he had given up IRC, which was shocking and disappointing to learn, because I’m sure I’ll be on IRC until the day I die. The current owner of the website even asked if I’d be interested in forming a new mp3 group out of old RNS members which was pretty funny, and I can’t say I’m not interested, but I don’t know if we have the resources, since neither of us really have easy access to CD’s.

A couple of days later though, an oldschool member from the same era as me by the name of krupt showed up who I knew well because we used to run bots together, and he dragged in one of the old site-ops, Alkivar and we all had an awesome time reminiscing and bringing up old names and events. Alkivar directed me to a great site by someone who’s trying to document the history of the scene which was full of interviews and articles with the old members, but sadly the site is still private and password protected at this time, so I can’t reveal it to you, but I assure you, the contents are pure gold. I’ve also uploaded DJ Icy_J’s “RNS Rollcall” song from the heady days of 1997, because it’s a great piece of mp3 history and hearing those names again brings back so many memories, so I guess if you want proof that I was there, that song is it. You can find it at the end of this article. Now without further ado, here’s the story.

I was always into music compression.. from when I got my first sound card in my 386SX (a Sound Galaxy BX) back in 1992, I had experimented with the awful compression methods available at the time such as ADPCM and ULAW etc. They were pointless for music and rendered it unlistenable. So I guess I was active enough in the audio community to be aware when Fraunhofer’s new audio codec based on the mpeg family called “mp3″ became known. While it was released in 1995, it wasn’t until 1997 that Winamp was released, which became the popular method for playing these songs. Until that point, the encoding of mp3 files was somewhat academic, since initially they could only be decoded by the same obscure command-line software, but later, audio players began to support the codec. I guess I discovered it sometime in late 1996 during my first year of university when I was studying literature, but it wasn’t until the start of 1997 when I was studying multimedia that I stumbled across other like-minded people who were taking advantage of this awesome new codec.

I don’t recall how I discovered the scene because it was so long ago but I certainly didn’t discover it from a release I’d downloaded. I may have figured it out from a channel list, or I may have been referred by someone else… but I think I stumbled across the group by accident. The group ? Yes.. “the” group. I somehow found myself among the pioneers of the MP3 scene, Rabid Neurosis, known to many simply by their abbreviation “RNS”. I don’t know who the original founder was, because he had departed around the time I had joined so I don’t remember him at all, but I do remember his successor well. It was a young kid of only 15 years old named Al_Capone. I’m not sure how he stumbled into the job, because there were many people more qualified and older in the group, but Al_C was passionate and was willing to put in the hours despite having no specific background in the music industry or the warez scene, so he became the leader, and an amazing job he did. I mean, as an older person of 19 or 20, I was giving this kid advice on how to date girls and how to deal with his parents, and when he later ran away from home and started couch surfing, I helped him deal with some of his worries and issues about how he was going to survive in life.

One of the earliest things I remember about the group was being in awe of our amazing FTP site, “World Domination”. It wasn’t exclusively ours mind you, and served many groups over the years, but we were by far the primary contributor, and the two sysops Nitecrew and Greaser were both honorary RNS members, and I consider them, and especially Nitecrew to be some of the most important people in the MP3 scene, because back in 1997… this was virtually the only place to get your music online. I’d like to imagine that the site was hundreds of gigs in size, but to be honest, I think it was lucky if it was 120 gb at that point. But in the days of 20gb hard disks.. when a whole album was about 30 mb.. that was bloody huge.. and looking at the directory listing for the first time inspired nothing short of awe that so much music could be available at your fingertips. Having access to World Domination was like being a kid in a candy store. You had more music right in front of you than the biggest record store.. and it was all there for free. If you were into the music scene, it was an amazing time to be alive, and having access to WD via anything but the public login on which you would have to retry about 5,000 times before you would get in was a badge of honour.

At that time RNS were using the free “reference” encoder from Fraunhofer called “l3enc” to produce their music files. Since the default bitrate suggested by Fraunhofer was 112kbit, that’s what they used, from their first release of Metallica’s “Ride The Lighting” back in 1996 to when I encouraged them to increase it later. I didn’t have connections in the music industry like many of the guys in the group, nor did I have the ability to supply the pre-releases that made the group famous, so the best I could offer was technical assistance, but I was still proud to be listed as a “senior member” on many of their NFO’s due to my contributions. The main one of which was when the much older DJ “Tricksta” from Las Vegas, who used to listen to my crazy rants late at night encouraged me to pursue the issue of bitrate with the group, and I did some of the earliest subjective listening tests on mp3 bitrates and decided that the best trade-off between quality and size was at the point of 160kbps rather than 112kbps and I wrote a lengthy document on the differences and encouraged everyone to switch to this bitrate. Another member, Zeuss however, insisted that 192kbps was the go, and that eventually became the agreed-upon standard for many years. Oh well, my standard may not have been adopted, but my advice was, and it was great to see the group move towards a higher bitrate. Personally I still think that 320kb is excessive and unnecessary and if you want that sort of quality, you shouldn’t be using MP3 in the first place and should switch to FLAC or something, so I still encode my mp3′s in 192kps to this day, because I guess Zeuss had it right… that extra 32kbps was worth the size increase.. I just had a very slow modem at the time lol !

Being in RNS was a heady experience that I didn’t appreciate the magnitude or significance of at the time. We didn’t really know how amazing what we were doing at the time was.. Sure, we were spreading MP3 to the masses, but at that point.. the “masses” were a small bunch of highly technical geeks smart enough to be able to use command-line encoders, have access to elite FTP sites, and know what something like a “bitrate” meant. But it was like the warez scene in that to some extent it was done for the joy of the notoriety, though we also all had a passion for music and believed strongly in the freedom of musical exchange. Terry Matthew from housemusicdaily.com said this:

“If the average pirate receives a vicarious thrill from providing free MP3s and seeming “in the know” to his peers, to organized crews like RNS the reward/reputation benefits must have felt like a hit of angel dust to the back of the brain.”

And yeah, sure, it was a big thrill.. but we, or at least I didn’t really think about that at the time. We were on the cutting edge and were as much about raising awareness of not only this great new codec, but the benefits of online distribution of music. We weren’t thinking about how cool we were, although we were acutely aware that we were cooler than everyone else in the scene. We just wanted to share music with people.

Some will claim that RNS was deeply ingrained in the music industry and that we had sources at the highest level, but to my knowledge it wasn’t true. Yes, we had a couple of guys who worked in factory-line jobs stamping CD’s, and some of the group were music producers or otherwise involved with the industry, but I really think most of our pre-releases were donated to us by people outside the group. I guess some of just had contacts, and those contacts cared about the free and early distribution of great music, so they supplied us with the releases. I wasn’t part of that aspect of the group so I don’t really know. I did technical stuff and ran bots and such because I was a unix nerd, as well as being Al_Capone’s personal mentor in life, because even back then, I was a shocking IRC addict who spent every waking moment glued to IRC chatting about stuff I was passionate about.

To this day, I consider some of those friendships I formed in that group to be some of the best I’ve ever had, although I am no longer in touch with a single member. But it was a community like no other. Some rave about the close bonds of the “warez community”, but I don’t think it really compares. Noone in the MP3 community ever turned on their buds and sold them out to the cops when the shit went down like happened so often in the warez scene such as with the infamous Drink or Die busts. We were tight and we cared about what we were doing for more reasons than just fame. We wanted music to be free (as in speech, but also as in beer).. both “gratis” and “libre”. One of our resident DJ’s Icy_J did a great shout-out song to all the members at the time. It wasn’t the sort of music I was into, but it was awesome to have all our names immortalised in a song about the group that later became known as the pioneers of the mp3 revolution and I’m glad I still have a copy of that song to this day.

For some random facts, while noone in the group really knows because we didn’t keep those sort of records, outside sources say that at our peak we released more than 6,000 albums per year, and more than 25,000 over the course of the group’s history. This is a phenomenal effort when you consider how few members we had (the IRC channel would have been lucky to have more than 40 residents) and just shows how hard we worked and how much help we had from the industry itself, even though the majority of albums were paid for out of members’ pockets when they reached the record store shelves. I would love to say that I was responsible for more, but I would have been lucky to have ripped more than a dozen of the group’s releases, although I distributed many more via my IRC bots, and I dutifully released music I had absolutely no personal interest in, because others considered it important, and ultimately, RNS favoured American rap and hip-hop styles which I didn’t personally enjoy, although as they progressed, popular rock became more their staple since that’s what the public wanted.

Because I was passionate about exposing Australian music to the world, and RNS were mostly concerned with American rap music at that time, I decided to spin off my own group. There was another Aussie group at the time, the well known “OzMP3″ group run by a personal friend of mine, Cybacolt, but they were sorta disorganised and weren’t a very public group, mostly just being a couple of guys releasing stuff behind the scenes, and I wanted the sort of awesome community that RNS had, so I decided to establish my own group with the other Australian mp3 fans I knew from the warez scene. I struggled with a name for hours, and eventually saw the word “DREAM” printed on my alarm clock, and managed to come up with a really cool acronym for it – Digital Rapists Exporting Aussie Music, which I felt summed up our goal and the ideal I wanted to convey perfectly. We were music pirates, hence the “Digital Rapists”, but our goal was to promote Aussie music to the rest of the world, hence the “Exporting Aussie Music” bit.

Dream had a small core of members, but we did alright. We were enthusiastic and active and we put out a bunch of releases and had our bots in the offer channels alongside the RNS bots and others, so our releases were more widely available than those of Ozmp3 at least. While I am reluctant to admit this lest you go “ewwww”, I personally did some radio rips ! I used to record the oz music show on Triple J, and I remember being totally floored by this new artist called Cordrazine with the song “Crazy” that I had to release it on its own, and I remember some people coming into the channel just to rave about what an amazing song it was, which is what I felt we were about… promoting new Aussie music that otherwise might not get heard by a lot of people. I had dreams (pardon the pun) that we would one day go legal and help promote Aussie music properly, but things sorta went in the other direction as I’ll get to.

We did one non-Australian release. My good mate Prophet_8 somehow acquired the entire set of The Prodigy’s upcoming album Fat of the Land. He said that a friend of his had hacked their personal computers and stolen it, and maybe that was true, I dunno. What they amounted to was well recorded live bootlegs, but whereever they were from, noone had heard them before, so if so, it must have been a very special private show, or else they did indeed come from the artist’s own computers. Anyway, I packaged that up and naturally it went off like a frog in a sock when I released it on IRC, and got a good bit of attention for the group despite the fact that it wasn’t “our thing” since it wasn’t Australian.. but hey, if someone handed you a pre-release of a major group’s highly anticipated album months before its release, would you turn it down ? I suspect not.

Everyone was still using the command-line encoder l3enc because it was simply the only thing that existed, but I had got wind that Fraunhofer were about to release a much more advanced 32-bit windows-based encoder called “MP3 Producer Pro”, for which they wanted the princely sum of about 650 US dollars, or well over a grand to us Aussies. I had a young fellow in my group by the name of omletteboy who was into the carding scene and I mentioned I really wanted this app, and he obligingly found me a credit card with full details. I was pretty eager to do this thing, and I only took basic precautions to protect myself. I obtained a free shell account on some guy’s private server in Pennsylvania and I fired off an email to order the application using pine (an early email client on unix systems). Sure enough, a few days later, the application was emailed to me and I quickly downloaded it, tested it, and did the obvious thing – I wrote up an NFO saying how great it was to be doing this for the scene and how much they were all gonna love this app, and thanking the guys in my group for supporting me, and I put it on my xdcc bot.

I didn’t have to promote it or anything. It carried the named Fraunhofer, and news of the application spread like wildfire and I had hundreds of thousands of downloads within weeks and the application quickly appeared on warez sites all over the planet, with my NFO attached. Every group immediately abandoned l3enc and switched to this new, more superior application that was easier to use and supported batches etc. But Fraunhofer were none too pleased that their expensive new application was being downloaded by the whole world for free and they sent spies onto IRC to check us out. I have no idea who they were, but I know they did it because they told me so. They quickly found my xdcc bot and traced it back to me as I had had to provide my driver’s license to the shell account provider, which obviously wasn’t too smart in retrospect. They insisted they wanted to talk to me and arranged a time to call me, during the day my time, which meant that a bunch of lawyers would have been sitting around a speakerphone in the middle of the night, which cracks me up to think of. Before the call, I rang the Australian Federal Police and explained what was going on and asked for a little advice. The fact that they thought it was pretty funny and basically told me to tell them to get stuffed just shows how little the police cared about copyright theft in those days, but I asked them about the legality of recording the call and they said it was fine because in Queensland you can record someone as long as at least one party is aware of it, being me.

So, I dismantled my phone handset and wired it up to my computer and started recording when the phone rang. The lawyers talked for a while and basically said I was totally busted and that they wanted me to appear in court in Pennsylvania where the crime had occurred, which I chuckled over and said that wasn’t going to happen. I was pretty evasive and didn’t really admit to anything specific but it was a bit irrelevant because they knew they had their guy. Eventually things got boring and I told them I was recording the conversation, at which point they sorta freaked out and said they were ending the call immediately and stated they would be “in contact again”. Naturally the first thing I did was encode the conversation with their own mp3 encoder and put it online for the rest of my group to chuckle over.

I moved out of that house soon after and I sorta thought that that might have been the end of it because I didn’t hear anything more for at least six months from memory. Then one day I was having a shower and when I got out, one of my housemates said “Err, man.. there’s a private investigator at the door to serve you”. I got a little scared at that point and went and spoke to him, but he knew nothing about the case, he had just been hired to track me down and serve me, so I took the thick wad of paperwork and thanked him and he left. The paperwork was hilarious. I hope I still have it packed away in a box somewhere at my parents’ house but it may have been lost in the sands of time. They were pinning 12 different charges on me, none of which really had anything to do with copyright theft. Among the funniest were that they wanted to charge me under the RICO act (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations), and some other mafia-related law which of course cracked the guys in RNS up and Al_Capone gave me major props for that. They also wanted me on Civil Conspiracy (awesome.. spies !) and there was another even more classic charge who’s name escapes me right now, but it was tantamount to treason, although had I had been a US citizen, I’m sure they would have chucked that in too. One of the other amusing things is that they were pinning a lot of stuff on me that I hadn’t done, such as the distribution of the software on the web by a group called Sharewarez. The funniest part about that was that the head of Sharewarez was not only an Australia, but he lived a few suburbs from me and our house was full of CD’s that he burned for us. When I next saw him I told him that I was being blamed for distributing pirated software as a member of his group and he thought that was pretty funny and made some comment like “Cool, better you go to jail for my shit than me !”.

Anyway, needless to say I did not fly to the US to face the music, and fortunately extradition for computer crime was simply unheard of in those days, but I must say I lived in fear wondering what was going to happen next and I thought the best thing to do was to disband Dream and ask all the members to disappear, which we did. It was a shame to have to break up a successful, active group like that, but I had no idea how far this stuff was going to go, so I retired the bots and locked down the channel and we all fled back to whence we had come. I remained an active member of RNS though, and I guess I wasn’t too scared, or else was too stupid to be, because I continued running offer bots for them for years to come from my university shell account, which was pretty funny because I did it for almost a year and they never caught on to the fact that their tiny /tmp partition was full of illegal mp3′s. Eventually more paperwork came, this time of the judgement. I had been found guilty in my absence, charged of all crimes, and was to be fined a bit over $453,000 US dollars.

It was at that point that I understood that it was simply a moral victory for Fraunhofer so that they could tell their shareholders and directors that they had stamped out the piracy and that the offender was duly punished, which of course was a load of crap, because I never paid them a cent, and the software continued to be distributed even more widely by other groups, who sadly were a lot more famous for it than ours, despite us being the first. I still don’t know for sure what would happen to me if I stepped foot into the US, or Pennsylvania specifically and I’m not about to find out, so that country is definitely off my list of places to visit. It’s a shame that the group and I don’t get mentioned in any little footnotes on Wikipedia or any of the great articles about the scene such as this one on housemusicdaily.com but we weren’t doing it for the fame, so who cares ? If you read that article (as I’m sure you will since you’re reading this one), it’s funny to note that the author describes Al_Capone’s “letter to the scene” as sounding like it was “written by an angry 17 year old”, which is amusing, because that’s precisely what Al_C was when he wrote that !

Anyway, that’s my little story. I wanted to get it down on paper (so to speak) before the details and names become too hazy to remember, and so that I don’t have to keep re-telling it on IRC late at night when I’m drunk and trying to impress some other scene kiddie with my involvement in the scene’s history. I like to jokingly say that I helped kickstart the whole mp3 industry, but in truth, if I hadn’t released MP3 Producer Pro, someone else would have at some point. I just happened to be the first, and I’m proud of that, as I am also proud of being a part of RNS in those heady days before things like Napster and MP3.com came about and everyone finally cottoned onto what this “mp3″ thing was. Now, it’s a whole industry on its own and has made Apple one of the most successful companies on the planet. (Am I getting that cheque in the mail soon Steve ?) My dad is a mad mp3 consumer.. hell, my grandmother listens to mp3′s. They’re just a part of life now. But it’s great to be able to say that I was there way back when it all started and was, in my own humble opinion, an important part of making it all happen.

So when you click play on that latest Eminem song, stop and think for a second what life would be like without Mp3′s and where they came from. Because had groups like Rabid Neurosis not existed, it’s entirely possible that the technology would not have caught on as it did. Piracy was what brought the mp3 scene into existence, and you should all give RNS a big thanks for making that happen for you. I’d love to give a huge list of shout-outs here, but I’m afraid that I would accidently leave some important people out, so I’m going to leave it to one. Al_Capone, I hope you’re doing well man, you should be proud of what you achieved. Same to my bros in Dream.

Peace out !

DJ Icy_J’s RNS Rollcall

Here’s a great historical song by member DJ Icy_J in which he shouts out to all the members who were on IRC that day. It’s odd that he doesn’t mention Al_Capone, coz surely he would have thought to mention him even if he wasn’t present on IRC that day, but maybe Al_C asked not be mentioned, I have no idea. It’s not my sort of music, so if you’re not into RnB, skip ahead to the 8:40 mark when the shout-outs start. My name can be heard at 10:02, so there’s my proof bitches.. I wuz there ! Enjoy !

DJ Icy_J’s RNS Rollcall

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