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Spinning Tunes on the Web

MP3 Music Revolution Cranks Up the Options

November 09, 2000|JON HEALEY |

More than a decade after compact discs dethroned the vinyl LP, a new digital revolution is liberating music from its plastic prison.

Capitalizing on the upheaval caused by MP3, a technology now embraced by tens of millions of Net-savvy consumers, upstart music companies are readying a slew of Web-based services that can push the technology to the next level.

Want to buy an unlimited supply of music for a flat monthly fee? Request virtually any song from a giant Web jukebox? Tune in to a personalized Web broadcast with instant purchasing and delivery of the songs you like?

All of these services are coming. In fact, they'd already be here if not for the music-industry establishment, which is keeping the brake pedal down on new technologies for fear of torpedoing its nearly $40 billion in worldwide sales.

Disdaining MP3 files, which can be easily copied, they've adopted a variety of incompatible, encrypted formats that can glue songs to a single computer or memory card. They've pressed the makers of portable devices to take the same approach, resulting in a crop of expensive music players that can't play all of what's available on the Net.

Still, the revolution is picking up steam, largely because the labels have warmed ever so slowly to technologies they can't stop.

A key driver in the MP3 phenomenon has been the free "player" software that lets people transform the bulky song files on their CDs into compact MP3 files on their computers--a process better known as "ripping." These programs also let consumers mix and match tunes from their collection into custom playlists, which a rapidly growing number of music fans are recording onto CDs and trading with friends.

In the latest wrinkle, the players are becoming gateways not just to the music on a user's computer but also to what's available on the Internet. For example, RealNetworks' RealJukebox taps into an Internet database to offer information on each artist in your playlist. It also can download free music to you when you're online but not tying up your full Internet connection.

MusicMatch of San Diego is going one step further, attempting to learn users' tastes by watching what music files they play (with permission, of course). Its new jukebox software can not only offer other downloadable songs they might like but also send a personalized stream of music--in effect, a customized online radio station.

Eventually, said Chief Executive Dennis Mudd, people listening to these personalized streams will be able to click their mouse and keep any song they like, provided they pay.

MusicMatch has the technology to do that today, Mudd said, but it hasn't gotten the licenses it needs from the labels and songwriters. What's holding up the licenses, he added, is proof that the approach won't somehow lower profits.

More, more, more

Consumers have clambered onto the MP3 bandwagon not just because they like to make their own playlists but also because so many MP3 files are available for free--often in violation of copyrights. And that's precisely why so many industry insiders are wary.

Napster, one of the most widely used methods to share MP3s over the Internet, is under legal attack from the major labels and music publishers. Yet it recently found an influential supporter in Bertelsmann, parent of the BMG labels.

If Napster can find a way to satisfy the copyright holders' demands for compensation, its service could emerge next year as a rich, industry-sanctioned source of downloadable music. But unlike the phenomenally popular Napster of today, the new version won't be free, and users are likely to face a number of restrictions on the files they download.

Meanwhile, the major labels have begun to give consumers an alternative source of downloadable tunes, hoping to win them over with sound quality and reliability.

The first efforts--offering a few hundred songs and CDs to download, priced at 99 cents to $3.49 per song--haven't come close to Napster in terms of ease of use, flexibility and selection. Not only do consumers have to download extra software to unscramble the songs, they often aren't allowed to copy the songs they buy onto more than one computer, a recordable CD or a portable player.

Emusic of Palo Alto is offering a far less restrictive deal, letting consumers download an unlimited number of its MP3s for as little as $10 per month. The price is right for anyone who likes Emusic's roster of independent-label artists and has a high-speed Internet connection. Otherwise, the selection is limited, and the time spent downloading can be draining.

They call me the seeker

Napster users often say that they'll go out and buy the CDs to match the songs they download for free. The main appeal of file-sharing, they say, is it lets them try something before spending $13 or more to buy it.

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