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The future of music

by Giles Turnbull -- 2001/07/09

Last week, some of the best minds from the music industry got together to hammer out, in public, what the future holds for digital music now that Napster appears to be dead in the water. Believe it or not, some industry insiders are finally beginning to Get It.

The event was the Netmedia conference in London, discussing all aspects of online media and journalism.

Among the speakers in a series of seminars about music were Jenny Toomey from Future of Music, Wes Himes from the European Digital Music Association, Dave Powell from Copyright Control Services, and Pete Jenner, a recording industry legend who once managed Pink Floyd, and now manages Billy Bragg.

All of these people made fascinating and informative speeches about the state of the industry. Most of the representatives of the industry establishment spoke about renewed efforts on licencing proceedures and new technologies devoted to "wrapping up" music files so that they were secure and could not be copied or illegally passed on.

Few seemed to acknowledge that even while Napster loses millions of users and struggles to keep its service running because of technical hitches, there are probably a lot of people out there working on new software packages that will replicate its abilities.

I refer not just to Audiogalaxy and the like (reviewed by C-Net this week under the heading: Looking for the next Napster) but to the almost inevitable emergence of a product that uses, say, Freenet technology with a front-end as simple as Napster's. Such a product would be extremely difficult to stop. One speaker (Oliver Mills of Intertrust), admitted when I asked him about this that such an event would force the entire industry "back to square one again".

Dave Powell and Pete Jenner made passionate speeches calling for a radical shift in attitudes on the part of the recording industry.

Powell said:

The genie is out of the bottle and MP3 is here to stay, we had better get used to it. The industry has dropped the ball so badly, the problem is now of Biblical proportions.

Record companies are just beginning to understand the size of the problem. Before RIAA took Napster to court, it only had 250,000 users. Afterwards, it had 60 million.

A powerful industry has demonised itself and its customers. The blind are continuing to bullshit the blind. How can the industry give customers what they want? Simple. Easily downloadable music.

People will pay for MP3 hardware and internet connectivity. And for other internet services. So people will pay for music if it is EASY to download. Here are my suggestions: record companies should make content available NOW, simply. Downloading - and paying for - an MP3 should be as easy as buying a book at Amazon.

The industry should scrap encrypting. Consumers wont go for it. It should vigarously enforce blatant copyright infringers on a global scale. And it should educate the consumer. Spend real money on consumer ad campaigns.

We should never forget who the real customers are. They should be your best friends, not your worst nightmare.

Pete Jenner added:

The only people who really matter in this business are the creatives and the consumers. Everything in between is up for grabs.

The record companies are essentially plastic manufacturers. They are stuck with that structure, because now they can see that the things on the plastic are more valuable than the plastic itself.

They hoped that the internet would just go away. That won't happen, so they have made life difficult for the internet. They have attempted to control it.

Copyright is based on laws designed for printing presses. Copyright is about ensuring that the consumers pay the creatives. But over the years it has become a thing to benefit the people in between. It is an old fashioned law based on old technologies and geographies.

No-one knows who owns copyright. The record companies are now trying to muscle in on it and control the digital distribution, but they haven't a hope.

Music will be a key content stream for broadband. Widespread broadband access will change the way we look at music. Again, the industry doesn't seem to understand this.

It's not a huge industry. Globally, it generates 40 billion US dollars in over-the-counter sales of CDs. You would only need 400 million people worldwide wiling to pay 100 dollars a year, to earn the same value as the existing record industry.

People will still go on buying CDs because they are so easy and convenient. But record companies have to see artists as partners. Lets think about subscription systems. We also have to be looking at micropayments. They have to *be* micro! One or two pence (cents) per song, that is the model we must think about.

These few music industry insiders have finally understood that controlling files will not work. Even if someone does not create a Freenet browser with a Napster-style interface, or something similar, the use of Napster to date has left millions of people worldwide with huge libraries of digital music files. They're only files. When broadband access is ubiquitous, what is there to stop people just emailing them to one another?