Dispatch from the Russian Heartland

Editor's note: For months now, we've been reporting about the the problems and dilemmas created by audio formats such as MP3, which are often used to pirate and illegally distribute music over the Internet. Correspondent Leonid Korostyshevski offers a decidedly unique Russian spin on the situation. His previous stories are here and here. Photos were taken last week by Leonid Korostyshevski

Following the economic and political crisis in Russia last August, audio recordings have reached the highest prices seen in the last couple of years. Original audio CD costs are now at a point that even pirate copies have become very expensive. Shops (and the departments in audio shops) where original CDs were sold are almost all closed. In US dollars, CD costs haven't risen; it is the exchange rate to rubles that kills our music lovers. The rate has fallen from $1 = 6 rubles to $1 = 23 rubles, which makes the cost of one US audio CD in Russia very easy to estimate: one half of the regular working man's monthly salary. A pirate CD costs about $2.50, making it, too, prohibitively expensive.

So it is here that Russian music fans send their best regards to the Motion Picture Expert Group. Russia may be the best place for MPEG compression: here, the melody of a song is more important than its sound quality. Russians have not had to deal with the audiophile "illness" of looking for ever-better quality. The sound of mini-components sets the mark for the best sound we have heard. Therefore, the sound of cheap plastic computer speakers is suitable---even exciting.

If you want to understand why "bad" Russians are doing things like breaking copyright laws, you need to know a little about the attitude of Russians toward the law. Before perestroika, Russians made typewritten copies of the books restricted by the government for ourselves and for friends. We made samizdat copies of these dangerous books with old photocopiers, and added missing parts by pen. Russians also made tape copies of LPs, or recorded songs from the radio. Seva Novgorodtzev from the London BBC was a musical guru for the entire country. As you can see, it is not the usual way for entertainment products to be distributed.

Playing with government rules is deep in the Russian blood. If our government says, "Don't touch without my permission" about any creative work, usually people say in a chorus, "Yes sir!!"---and then do the contrary. If an average Russian wants something and it's strictly prohibited, he or she doesn't forget about it. Our history shows us the way: go the other road and copy it from a friend, or buy it cheaper than the official offer. We've done it before many, many times. Nothing new.

With the miracle of MP3 compression, you can have all of the Beatles' albums on one CD-ROM, including all of the lyrics and a lot of pictures. In fact, the first MP3 CD-ROM I'd ever seen was The Beatles. You can buy a collection of songs from bands---including Dire Straits, Electric Light Orchestra, Aerosmith, and Guns'n'Roses---for US$2.50: "CD-quality" sound, album covers, all lyrics, and even the chords for playing the music on guitar.

As usual, all this stuff is selling right on the street. Rain, snow, dust---nothing slows the CD-ROM sellers. On a mobile rack you can find not only MP3 CD-ROMs, but a lot of software and games too (all CD-ROMs are PC-based). An MP3 player (Winamp is the most popular), and small programs that upgrade your operating system to playback MP3 audio files, are included with each disc. Software is bundled in collections: Programmer collection, Hacker collection, Art designer collection, etc. Salesmen don't bother with how much the originals cost---all CD-ROMS are US$2.50 each.

Right now, business is doing amazingly well! The sellers are starting to open departments in shops, which are warm, dry, and very nice. You can even observe the CD-ROM you want to buy---computers are here too. You can learn about new games from magazines lying on the counter. If you aren't satisfied with your purchase within two days, you can get your money back---unexpectedly, a very civilized market. While the US and Europe are considering what to do about MP3, Russians are enjoying its benefits. The question about upgrading an operating system to Windows 98 is not heard in Russia---it's already been done, 6 months ago.

But if an average Russian starts to receive an income bigger than usual, he or she starts to buy original CDs, good audio equipment, and begins to respect the copyright. I know many examples of it. On the other hand, if pirates do not sell this stuff in provincial parts of Russia, how would we know about Suzanne Vega or Bon Jovi, about Microsoft and Adobe? Ask yourself if maybe this is the new, successful way to promote these products in Eastern Europe.