2000 / Music / Technology

Online Music: Is That Your Final Answer?

Find Out About Internet Radio, Music Piracy And Listen.com

Photo: Steven Key

Photo: Steven Key

In the past two or three weeks, I’ve had an epiphany.

During that time, I’ve researched the issues surrounding music and the Internet, hoping to answer and explain what is happening and what might happen. I have interviewed experts, read legal documents, perused dozens of online FAQs and done a lot of surfing.

What I’ve learned: Things are moving way too fast.

Every time I think I’ve got the issues down, our questions answered and our territory defined, a new lawsuit is filed or a new competitor has entered the arena. It’s been a constant game of catch-up.

As an example, after I had already spoken with Christopher Jones, Wired.com’s music and technology reporter, news broke about a new software deal between the Recording Industry Association of America, Microsoft and www.com to allow streaming versions of Microsoft’s Windows Media on a pay-per-download or pay-per-view basis. As part of the deal, artists and record labels would get royalties for artists whose work is downloaded.

As you remember, MP3.com and the RIAA are currently battling over something very similar in court (See previous column).

As for what impact this deal will have, that remains undetermined. So I’m only going take things step by step. In a future column, I will keep you updated on how things have progressed.

That said, in this column, we will continue to get some answers and opinions from Jones.

Listen.com

An interesting fact that emerged after the My.MP3.Com lawsuit was the announcement in early February that all the major record companies — BMG, EMI, Universal, Warner Music Group and Sony — were investing in the San Francisco-based site, Listen.com. (See the official announcement).

According to its Web site, Listen.com says it is a digital music directory, akin to Yahoo or most search engines. It points you to “legitimate” downloadable files, in various formats, of the songs you want.

In addition to music reviews, Listen.com categorizes more than 50,000 artists and “links to their legally posted work.”

With the major labels all agreeing to support Listen.com (which is a landmark achievement in itself), Jones said he believes that the majors’ intentions are to turn Listen.com into a promotional engine for their artists.

He said it could evolve into a relationship similar to how the majors interact with retail chain stores, like Wal-Mart or Tower Records.

“They’ll be official outlets of the major labels’ music,” Jones said.

Music Piracy

As we discussed last time, MP3 is probably the most popular music format on the ‘Net. The reason for that is probably its ease of use and its open specifications, which allow almost anyone to encode something and allow almost any player to play it.

With that, however, has followed the issue of piracy. For the sake of clarity, we’ll define piracy to mean albums or songs analogous to bootlegs that you’d find in a record store or posted sound files of albums that are commercially available, but are downloadable without official permission.

Trading sites like Napster allow users to swap and download MP3 files, or other music formats, with others.

Jones said trading sites have become especially popular on college campuses, where students have access to high-speed Internet connections free of charge. In several cases in the western United States, students have had their Internet privileges revoked, and in one instance, a student was arrested for posting MP3s. These instances stem from charges of violating artists’ and labels’ copyrights.

As a result, the RIAA is asking colleges to monitor their services for pirated material, Jones said.

And how prevalent is piracy online in general?

“There’s certainly a lot of it,” Jones said, though he adds that he believes that piracy has always been something against which the industry has had to battle.

He said that out of $40 billion industry, he believes that only 5 to 10 percent of revenue is pirated.

He added that although new methods of selling music online might increase piracy, it will also increase revenue overall by giving Internet consumers what they want — the ability to download their music.

“I think you’re always going to have piracy,” he said. “It’s a matter of developing business models that are attractive enough to consumers that they’re also going to buy music.”

As to the legality of downloading music on your computer and then “burning” it onto a CD, that is another murky issue.

Jones said the industry has not yet entirely defined what the rules are in regard to burning downloadable music, but he warns that the industry could face problems if it over-regulates the process or makes things difficult for customers.

“These are areas that the music industry is really going to have to look at closely and decide how much they’re concerned about protection and giving consumers what they want,” he said.

Online Music: What’s Around The Bend?

As you might expect, this question is hard to answer.

For the foreseeable future, Jones thinks Internet radio could be the “next big thing.” He said some companies already are beginning to market their products.

And what is Internet radio?

Jones said it looks roughly like a boom box that could be plugged into a phone line. It would allow listeners access to the thousands of Internet radio stations online.

“There’s some really interesting content out there,” Jones said.

Recommended Links

Here, I asked Jones about some of the sites that he visits to get information and music. I also added a few of my own.

Also From The Score …

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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