MP3? WMA? We don't care says music industry

The winning format will be simple with a level of built in security that doesn't complicate things too much

Software companies may be fighting tooth and claw to establish a dominant format for digital music, but the message from the music industry is clear -- it just doesn't care. The only thing it's worried about is catering for the fundamental change in our listening habits without losing out.

We've known since the first MP3 hit the Net that the music industry is set to undergo massive change and with the recently announced AOL Time Warner deal and EMI tie-in set to hasten the adoption of digital distribution models things have moved up a gear. The UK music industry is readying itself for this paradigm shift, heralding revolutionary new methods of music distribution.

The musos agrees that one of the most important routes on this new road will be a form of streaming audio listening and purchase. One thing that is clearly of no importance is the future of the existing digital formats, such as MP3 and WMA.

There could be no clearer example of this than the recent conversation between a music industry source and the head of one of the big five record labels, traditionally seen as waging war on the MP3 format. "We're not scared of MP3, we don't give a damn about it," he told the source, "We just don't think it will be a problem."

This view is echoed throughout the UK music industry. It is the method of distribution that will important in the dawning of mainstream musical delivery, not its technical composition. Jon Davis, founder of the UK's foremost dance music download site Crunch, says "there are going to be a number of formats tried over the next couple of years, the winner will be a simple format with a level of built in security that doesn't complicate things too much."

With AOL's new access to Time Warner's huge music catalogue and fat pipes, the company is keen to push the take-up of streamed content pumped into homes in a pay per play format. The tie-in with EMI further illustrates the size of the roll that AOL Time Warner is expected to play in determining the future of the digital distribution of music.

Martin Brass, director of new media at the Media Research Information Bureau and former record producer, is convinced that all of this points to a future where streaming audio becomes the dominant format. A future where we will be able to choose to rent, lease or buy music as best suits our purposes. He believes that "there is this market for music that doesn't yet exist," one that consumers will come to quickly understand and appreciate.

"I've got around 20,000 albums at home, about 30 percent of which I've never opened and probably only 10 percent that I listen to regularly," he says, "Why would I pay £15 for an album that I only listen to once if I could rent it with an option to buy."

This is a point of view heartily endorsed by Ernesto Schmidt, president of Peoplesound. He reckons that "MP3 is a flash in the pan."

"There is less and less need for physical carriers for music," he says, "In ten years time there will only be content aggregators who will distribute music on demand in a streaming format.

Davis predicts a number of different streaming music distribution models appearing over the next few years, such as pay per play or subscription based services. However he points out that there is still a lot of back end work to do in educating the traditional music industry to these new business models.

Artists and record companies understand the concept of a price per track model, he says, but it becomes more difficult to account for the artists when moving to these new payment methods. "This is a new marriage between new media and music," he says, "And like any marriage you have to work at it."

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