If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. That tired old mantra seems to be the new slogan of the recording industry, which last week lifted the curtains on a new effort to take back control of digital music distribution through the Internet.
Actually, "take back control" may be a misnomer, since one could argue that they never had it in the first place.
In their most concerted effort to date, record companies have banded together to develop a new digital standard that the industry hopes will win back ground ceded to MP3, the digital music standard that currently reigns the grass-roots business of sending digital tunes through the Web. The effort has been named the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), which includes the likes of BMG Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group.
For those unfamiliar, music distribution over the Web has become a small but annoying problem in the eyes of music executives. Advances in computing power and storage, as well as the falling price of computers, has made it possible for just about anybody to download and play digital music over a PC. For less than $300, hobbyists can buy CD writer-drives, nicknamed "burners," and record music taken from the Internet onto blank CDs, which now cost less than $1 each.
This is possible through software like MP3, which takes a digital music file and compresses it down to less than 12 times smaller than its original size. Music fans can encode their entire CD collection and, if they desire, place it on the Internet for anybody to download and keep -- without a dime going to the artists or their labels.
Understandably, this has made the industry nervous, and the solution so far has been to sue Web sites that offer pirated music to Web surfers. But MP3 also has legitimate uses, which proponents say the music industry has tried to bury. For example, MP3 allows smaller bands that may not get backing from a major label to have a method to distribute music to the public.
But record companies say if there is to be a digital standard for music distribution, it should be one that can be controlled by distributors to prevent abuse. To achieve this, SDMI wants to have a new standard on the market by next Christmas.
"New technology is going to have an enormous impact on our future and I think protection is absolutely of paramount importance," said EMI president Ken Berry during the SDMI announcement.
Interestingly, SDMI's announcement did not quite stir the anger of MP3 enthusiasts. Michael Robertson, president of MP3.com, a San Diego-based Web site that offers MP3-only music for sale, says the fact that the music industry has taken such a bold step signifies that they are finally embracing at least the idea of digital music distribution. The only trick now is to make sure they don't write MP3 out of the loop, according to Robertson.
"SDMI clearly announces to the world that the music industry is serious about online music," Robertson said in an online posting on his Web site. "Disavowing proprietary systems and recognizing that, despite the might of the recording industry, it is not in a position to 'impose a new standard' is a significant milestone. MP3 is the only open high-fidelity audio standard in place today and indeed that is one of the key advantages it possesses."
It seems highly unlikely, however, that the music industry would adopt MP3 outright, at least not without making some major changes. Music companies want a system that will allow them the ability to limit the number of playbacks for a certain track and watermarking to trace bootlegged copies of albums. These capabilities may come easier with a system they develop themselves, with the side benefit that distribution capabilities will be limited as well.
But the Internet can be a tough beast to tame, and it's doubtful that, after years of holding back, the music industry will be able to reassert control over the medium within such a short period of time. Some bands, in the spirit of the Grateful Dead, have even taken to distributing free MP3 tunes over the Web despite the industry's objections. For a business built on rebelliousness, towing the company line may prove to be too tall an order for music buffs.