SAN DIEGO -- The state of digital music is indeed in a state.
For evidence, look no further than the "MP3 Summit,' convened earlier this month at the University of California at San Diego.
Ostensibly a gathering of the premier thinkers in the field of digital music distribution, joined by an assortment of technology nabobs to show off the audio devices that will populate this new entertainment medium, the summit crystallized one "vision' of this musical future --fractious, unsettled, premature and loaded with potential.
The debates among panelists during the two-day meeting, which was hosted by digital music provider MP3.com, addressed pressing issues that are evolving as music-buying migrates beyond the silvery compact disc: wireless distribution of musical data, dominant formats -- or codecs in technospeak -- for that distribution, and digital music beyond the personal computer. With rare exceptions, the debates -- rowdy, irreverent and noisy at previous MP3.com summits -- were subdued, often self-serving and invariably civil -- too civil, in fact, to be especially stimulating.
When Rick Dube, an analyst with research company Webnoize, kicked off the proceedings by predicting that consumers aren't interested in paying to download music to a cell phone -- he did, in fact, suggest that wireless distribution of digital data is nowhere near prime time --not many in the sparse audience blinked. And when Dube further forecast that mass adoption of digital music services - those that "reposition" a listener's music library in a cyber-locker, and those that offer a comprehen sive catalog of new songs for download -- were five years out, some in the audience appeared to snooze.
And while many of his fellow panelists from industry stalwarts like Verizon and Qualcomm extolled the virtues of a wire-free, fee-based musical online future, Gartner Group researcher P.J. McNeely bluntly defused the concept, reminding them that "this is something that doesn't happen overnight. A music service has to be real, compelling, with real value. There is hope, but it's really early on.'
What seemed not in dispute was this: The compact disc is the mainstay of recorded music in 2001, the record labels are firmly in control of the compact disc and the musicians who make them, and the ghost of Napster -- the free-swinging, let-'em-loose Napster of its heyday -- hovered relentlessly over nearly every speech, presentation and argument.
MP3.com chief executive Michael Robertson, who took the opportunity to flog a new subscription service of his called Plus, opened his speech by announcing that "mass communication is dying,' and went on to explain how digital music services should seek revenue streams by striving to complement the compact disc, not to bury it.
Robertson, whose company was recently acquired by French media giant Vivendi Universal, also stressed the need for ease of use and accessibility in listening devices, both PC and non-PC. He said other content that some thought might make digital downloading more attractive to consumers, in fact, would not. "We don't have to throw in bonus tracks, backstage interviews. The customer says, Hey, I want the hit song!''
Swirling around the summit were discussions of copyright protection, the inevitable lawsuits instituted in the name of copyright protection, and the Napster fallout.
Temple University law professor David G. Post referred to the "smuggling' of Charles Dickens' books from Britain to the United States in the 19th century, when it was "perfectly lawful' to sell his works here with no remuneration to the author.
"Go to Canada,' Post advised the Napster crew. "Can U.S. law reach across the border? I don't know." Like the questionable legality of Americans gambling online on Web sites based outside of the country, "this is a problem exclusive to cyberspace,' Post said.
Beyond Napster, what was also painfully obvious was the decline in attendance at the fourth annual MP3 gathering.
The lecture hall at the university's Price Center was lonely. While MP3.com folk put on happy faces, there was one panel, called "What Happened to the Revolution?' Made up of smart entrepreneurs whose digital music businesses had failed, the group was often mean-spirited, sometimes bitter and supremely unfair to the lone "dissenter' on the panel, Karen Allen of the Recording Industry Association of America.
MP3.com executives attributed the low attendance to the demise of dot-com start-ups in recent months, and the slow but sure consolidation by the major record labels in digital music distribution.
But at least one participant was caught up in the spirit. Performing with her guitar in a booth on the product demonstration floor, Cindy Alexander made some joyful noise while singing the praises of MP3.
"I'm one of the highest downloaded artists on MP3.com,' said Alexander, who is signed to Trauma, an independent label. "I get over 3,500 plays a day, and I sell well on Amazon and I tour in Europe because of my exposure on MP3.' she said. Then she went back to singing.
There's little question that Alexander's view of an online-music future is relevant: Earlier this week, Net researchers Jupiter Media Matrix forecast that consumer spending on online music will grow from $1 billion in 2001 to $6.2 billion by 2006. Music subscription services, like pressplay and MusicNet, will dominate online music sales by then, Jupiter says.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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