By CRAIG HAVIGHURST
Staff Writer - Tennesean.com
A small Nashville record company is poised to release what it claims is the first audio compact disc ever marketed that can't be duplicated or uploaded to the Internet by consumers.
Music City Records, a new independent label, is working with Phoenix-based SunnComm Inc. on a new CD by country music legend Charley Pride, slated for sale April 17. The disc is embedded with a special digital code intended to stymie would-be music pirates without compromising the rights or convenience of legitimate consumers, say record company representatives.
''It cloaks the CD and protects it from copyright infringement,'' said Music City Records board member Peter Trimarco yesterday from Phoenix, where he was overseeing the final testing of the new discs.
The CD plays in any CD player, but it cannot be duplicated with a CD burner or converted by a personal computer into MP3, the unencrypted file format favored by users of Napster and other music-sharing networks. It will cost the same and appear the same as a regular CD.
Consumers, however, can acquire MP3s of the music from the Pride album. When the disc is placed in a computer CD-ROM drive, it connects the consumer with a Web site. Once the user registers, he or she can store the album in MP3 form on a computer and download the tracks to a portable MP3 player.
At first, consumers won't be able to burn those files onto a recordable CD, but that capability will be available next quarter, according to SunnComm Chairman John Aquilino. Those files will be as secure as the original disc, he added.
SunnComm, a company of only about 13 people, was formed last summer to market technologies that protect optical media like compact discs. The Pride disc takes advantage of SunnComm's first product, MediaCloQ, which Aquilino says is the first of its kind.
''We're the only people rushing at this in a big way,'' he said. ''Everyone else has pretty much (focused on encrypting) Internet downloads, which is fine. But it's not how the music industry makes its bread and butter. They sell discs. And until that changes, the Internet will only be an add-on to what they do.''
Country Music Association senior director Jeff Green agrees that most digital encryption efforts have been focused on Internet-based music and said that it was ''a little surprising'' there hadn't been more of an effort to secure the recording industry's staple medium.
Trimarco says the Web-site approach to acquiring MP3s increases the opportunities for Pride to interact with his fans by offering special content for registered CD owners.
''This isn't clamping down'' on the consumer, he said. ''This is an opportunity for us to provide the consumer with even more. We're going to have a tour schedule, which we'll update continually. Or let's say there's a new single coming out. We'll have that for people who own the CD.''
As for Pride, he seems destined to always be a pioneer. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, he broke through racial barriers in the 1960s to become country music's only black superstar.
Music City President Bob Heatherly says Pride, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, has been extremely concerned about music piracy and that he was enthusiastic about being part of the first copy-protected CD, called A Tribute to Jim Reeves.
Heatherly said it was important to go forward with secure CDs, though Napster, the leading forum for the trading of copyrighted music over the Internet, was recently severely curtailed by a federal judge. ''Even if Napster gets stopped, there will be other Napsters,'' Heatherly said.
Aquilino said SunnComm was in discussions with several of the five major record companies about larger deals. He added that he could not be certain hackers won't crack the code behind the cloaking technology eventually, but that SunnComm would continue to refine and change the technology over time.
The CMA's Green said record companies that pursue technology like SunnComm's should carefully monitor consumers' reaction to the new limits, because the ease of Napster and the convenience of CD-to-CD recording machines have set expectations quite high.
''Consumers may presume that when they buy a CD, they will be able to manipulate it at will. If the CD is not marked as encrypted, they may be in for a surprise,'' he said. ''It really comes down to how well the label markets these features, because forty percent of households still don't have computers. And those that do might not be comfortable putting the CD in the computer and going through the effort required to access this (downloadable) content.''
Craig Havighurst covers music and the music business. He can be reached at 259-8041 or at [email protected].