TCS Daily


Fast Forward

By Sonia Arrison - June 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Online music circles are abuzz that Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, and AOL Time Warner are preparing to launch services that compete with the overwhelmingly successful Apple iTunes store, an a la carte menu of downloadable songs for 99 cents each.

This just might be the most interesting Internet music news since Madonna sent files to peer-to-peer networks that looked like illegal versions of her new songs but actually contained a rather barbed denunciation from the Material Girl herself. Madonna's outrage aside, people have been illegally downloading music off the Internet for years, using services like Napster and KaZaA, thus robbing intellectual property holders of their deserved rewards.

The battle over how to stop music "pirates" continues to rage, with proposals falling into three main categories: technological fixes, more laws, and new innovative services from the music industry. For a long time, it looked like the music industry only recognized the options of law and technology, but recently they've been warming up to the idea of actually changing their business model for the digital age.

Indeed, many online chatterers are saying that the industry is finally doing its part in ushering us closer to an Internet-induced music nirvana. Much depends on what happens next in the marketplace, but it is exhilarating to see new online services with wide-ranging selection even if accessing and manipulating the songs can still be annoying.

For windows users, Listen.com's Rhapsody and Roxio's Pressplay are two intriguing services. Both are user-friendly and offer additional stuff that you can't get on KaZaA. For instance, while searching for a song by the Tragically Hip, Rhapsody found a song by Glam-band Poison called "Tragically Unhip."

During the song, the service provided information like a photo of the group, a link to their web page, and delightful little trivia-bites like "Poison somehow convinced middle America that make-up and big hair were masculine." Now that's entertainment.

Pressplay was fun too, as it provides a list of top hits for every year dating back to the 1950s. After looking up my birth year, I quickly dropped the idea of playing that year's music at my next birthday party.

Although the music was easy to sort and sample, when it came to burning it onto a CD, things became difficult. Pressplay's service only supports certain brands and models of CD burners, and mine didn't fit the bill. As for Rhapsody, the service kept trying to burn, but never made it down the home stretch. Maybe I need a new CD burner, but it's tough to know which one to buy without checking the many services out there and making sure the one I get will be compatible.

These problems hearken back to the days when word processors were incompatible and you needed to find out what program and version someone was using before sending a document. Fortunately, standardization and network effects have fixed our word processing issues, and that will likely happen with the online music industry too.

But if standardization is on its way, antitrust accusations won't be far behind. Therefore, some words of advice to whomever excels in this market: be wary of government regulators who might get a thrill out of shooting the next technology-driven giant. And if some in the music industry thought pirates were a problem, they should examine what some left-leaning academics and activists are proposing.

Instead of dealing with the problem of piracy through advancing technology and innovative new services, it's been suggested that government force record companies to license their songs to anyone who asks in return for a fee set by the government. Many who advocate government control of prices, strangely enough, are the same people who oppose government control of technology standards. Why would someone who believes government can't get technology standards right think that government could correctly guess market prices?

Perhaps this blind spot comes from an underlying desire to socialize music, and therefore culture. Maybe the argument would go something like this: culture is for everyone; therefore government should control access to it. But this argument is destroyed when one examines what happens in countries where government controls access to "public spaces." It's not a pretty sight.

Yes, the Internet has disrupted the sales and business models of the music establishment. The way to deal with the disruption is through markets and technology. Music fans can be upbeat because major Internet firms are now getting seriously involved in what is sure to be the biggest communications revolution in years.
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