MP3 Underground, Ron & Michael White

Que, 2000, 279 pages, C$38.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7897-2301-8

So near, and yet so long ago…

It’s a well-known fact: Things move quickly in the computer field, and even more so when it comes to Internet technologies. What is true now may not be useful in a month or so, as companies merge, products are replaced, stocks crash and people upgrade to newer things. Anyone who dares to write a technical book must accept this fact of life and be prepared to accept near-instant obsolescence. While I can pick up a novel from 1995 and read it as if it was published yesterday, computer books tend to mold in place only a few months after their publication.

MP3 Underground is such a book. Read barely two years after initial publication, it has already outlived its useful half-life. Technologies explained in this book have been upgraded, stopped or supplanted. Napster was destroyed by the RIAA when The Industry feared it was losing control of music distribution channels. CDex has replaced Audiograbber as the MP3 ripper of choice. One can now buy MP3-CDr players at the local Walmart for less than 100$Can. The static object that is MP3 Underground has been left behind in 2000 as the rest of the world has evolved.

Still, there’s no denying that the heart of MP3 Underground was -and remains- at the right place. One can still read the opening chapter to understand what “the MP3 revolution” is all about. This reviewer’s personal experience matches what father/son Ron and Michael White explain: It’s not about ripping off artists. It’s not about piracy or thievery or plain old adolescent mischief. It’s about taking control. It’s about listening to music you really like rather than being subject to the manipulation of The Industry. It’s about listening to music you like at home, at work and anywhere else without lugging stacks of unwieldy CDs. It’s about identifying the good from the bad without wasting your money. It’s about fostering a sense of community between people who like the same things. All of this and more is acknowledged by the Whites in the opening pages of MP3 Underground. They recognize that you want free music, but they also treat you like responsible adults; there is no need to paint all users with the same brush, as the RIAA is prone to do.

The rest of the book, predictably enough, doesn’t hold up as well. There is a quaint nostalgia at reading “how to use Napster” instructions, given today’s state-of-the-art Kazaa and WinMX networks. The other “how to” recipes all suffer from a similar impression: There are newer software products available out there to do it all without that many complications. Sure, it’s nice of them to have included a CD with all sorts of fun software on it, but we can do better now, thanks.

It gets worse in the last half of the book, which is a listing of the “Top 101 Internet Audio Sites”. As you can guess, most of the sites have now either been shut down, or have redesigned to become something other than what is described. Pure Internet-link rot, hideously visible even after two years. Heck, even the book’s “official” site,, doesn’t even exist anymore!

But in some ways, MP3 Underground is a time capsule of another time, a reminder of a technology’s difficult beginning. In a few years (and it might only be a few, at the speed things are going), well after the RIAA is disbanded, voluntary micropayments have been made easy and popular music has found a better business model, we’ll look upon MP3 Underground as the chronicle of the beginning of a truly modern era. The techno-hordes were knocking at the barricade, ready to help those stuck inside the walls. It’s a far-away vision of the future, and yet so close…

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