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Digital Music Chaos
By Jim Seymour, PC Magazine

The downloadable digital-music scene is still screwed up, and given the myopia of the big record companies, conflicts of interest out the wazoo, rapid advances in technology, and the ever-more-fully-established presence of such powerful (if flawed) standards as MP3, I'm not optimistic that we're going to get this straightened out anytime soon.

I'm not alone. Over the course of dozens of conversations with musicians, record people, and would-be music-Web-site entrepreneurs at Austin's annual South by Southwest (a.k.a. SxSW) music conference in March, I heard similar frustration over the conflicts of interest, self-dealing, and delays that are hobbling the future of downloadable music. There were lots of hopeful things, too; nearly all the folks in the music business not just a few computer types seem to be bubbling with enthusiasm about the potential of downloadable music. But they're also mad and often cynical about how soon this will play out in some reasonable form.

Taking Sides

On the record-company side and among a fair number of musicians, the big themes, of course, are theft and security. Record companies, music publishers and copyright owners, and composers and performers are worried that the over-the-moon financial success that has been possible in the pop-music business over the past 50 years will go away overnight literally if today's "unprotected" digital-music downloads keep proliferating.

I have news for them: Yes, that potential for making huge piles of cash could go away, with dazzling speed and in fact that may happen. And if the present boom in downloads continues? Surely they're kidding, I told them at SxSW: Downloading's not only going to continue, but its growth accelerates every day.

On the tech side, they are either cynically dismissive of artists' and publishers' rights the copyright-violation problem or they have a little piece of code in their vest pockets that would solve the whole problem overnight if the music industry would just adopt it.

The "that's too bad, eh?" snickering has gotta stop, I told the tech-types. And I pointed out that they knew perfectly well that any digital encoding system created by man will soon enough be defeated by man. Including each of their own clever little schemes.

You're thinking that made me kinda unpopular with both sides? You bet. Was I speaking the truth? You know it.

Learning Lessons

One of the complications that's becoming evident lies in the new digital-music playback devices starting to appear. Until now, hardware like Diamond Rio players has been unfettered by copy-protection issues: They merrily play any MP3 file you throw at them.

But with the advent of the true second-generation playback devices, such as the new Sony Memory Stick Walkman , such problems are coming to the fore, because some of the new hardware and embedded operating systems try to be compliant with the hopelessly confused Secure Digital Music Initiative copy-protection specification and in the process hobble buyers of these devices.

That's a shame, because the Memory Stick Walkman, for example, is one of the most appealing electronic gadgets I've ever seen. It's the right size and shape, and it uses the innovative Memory Stick recording media. Ah-hah, yes but only if you use the special Sony MagicGate Memory Sticks, which have the SDMI entanglements.

For me, that's a deal-killer. The Memory Stick Walkman is one I'll pass by. Sony's not going to get my $399 for the privilege of making my life more difficult.

On the software side, "music-finders" like Napster are clearly going to become even more prevalent. I'm not a fan, but it was naive of college IT managers to try to block student access to Napster: A world of back-door and redirection sites appeared, faster than they could be blocked.

In that failure lies the real lesson for the music business: In the Digital Era, trying to sustain exploitative business practices is hopeless. The day of the $15.95 pop-music CD is over. Whatever digital walls your guys can build, my guys can tear down. Sometimes overnight.

The impact of the digital revolution on the recorded music business ought to be a wake-up call for other businesses. Those who hide behind physical-distribution barriers to protect inflated prices will face exactly the same kind of disemboweling coming in the record biz.

I'm not shedding any tears. Let me know what you think in the talkback below.




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