Fans to labels: Give us visual music

Since the advent of Napster, a constant refrain has been leveled at the recording industry: Give fans more than music, and they might keep buying CDs. Now new software might do just that.
Written by John Borland, Contributor
Since the appearance of Napster and its many clones, a constant refrain has been leveled at the recording industry: Give consumers more than just music, and they might keep buying CDs.

Some early tangible signs of that idea are now beginning to come to market, as the record companies start exploring ways to revitalize and protect their flagging CD business.

For some time, occasional CDs have shown up with digital goodies like screensavers or links to secret Web sites included. Next month, taking the idea a little farther, Universal Music Group will release a handful of compact discs that include MP3 files specifically coded to let people play DJ on their computer, remixing and making digital playlists of songs.

This type of interactivity has been a feature on Web sites for some time. On Universal's GetMusic site, for example, one of the most popular features has been an area where fans can create their own music videos from a pre-filmed set of scenes. Little of this has found its way onto mainstream CDs, however.

Analysts note that it's not something consumers are demanding at this point. Earlier experiments with interactivity on CDs gained little traction, in fact. But with a much larger number of people using computers to listen to music, and with many DVDs now coming loaded with extra scenes and commentary, the market might be ripe.

"You can see the potential demand for this on the DVD side," said P J McNealy, an analyst with the GartnerG2 research company. "Consumers will grow to expect more."

The moves, tentative as they are today, are part of an early attempt by record companies to take back control of the way consumers think about buying and consuming music.

Over the industry's history, it has always been the companies themselves that have determined the speed and timing of the release of mainstream new music technologies, from the long-play vinyl album to cassette tapes to compact discs. Not every new format innovation has taken off--witness the cool reception to "enhanced CDs" which saw relatively few titles.

But with the onset of MP3 digital music, and the further spread of file-swapping software programs like Napster, the labels lost control of much of their distribution process, at least online. They're trying to stem that flow by shutting down file-swapping services and adding anti-copying technology to the CDs themselves. The new goodies being added to CDs are intended to keep people buying discs even as new limits are placed on their use.

Many of these are links to Web sites. The new Gorillaz album, for example, is associated with an elaborate cartoon Web site and fictional back story about the band, and contains links to a part of the site not publicly advertised.

Other discs, such as the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou", contain extras such as screensavers associated with the music.

The PC DJ application being distributed by Universal Music goes farther, however. Separate songs in MP3 format will be contained on the CD, along with individual drum and instrument tracks that can be remixed into different versions of the songs.

All of this will be encrypted, or digitally scrambled, so that the tracks can only be played inside the Visiosonic PC DJ software player that is also included on the CDs. The software was initially included on the soundtrack for "Rush Hour 2", but will be added to another six titles in the United States before the end of the year, a Visiosonic executive said.

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