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Secure Digital Music Initiative launched to kill MP3

Which, of course, it won't

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The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) yesterday formed the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) to define an alternative format for music downloaded via the Internet, as anticipated. The SDMI has a lot of weight behind it. In addition to the 'big five' music labels -- Sony Music, Time Warner, EMI, Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) and Universal Music Group (the recording label formerly known as Polygram) -- technology companies AOL, Microsoft, AT&T, Liquid Audio, Lucent, RealNetworks, Toshiba and IBM, and consumer electronics concerns Sony (again) and Matsushita all pledged support. The backing of the big names in the music business suggest that whatever format the SDMI ultimately comes up with is likely to be adopted as the standard. When that standard will be proposed is another matter. The RIAA said yesterday that it expects the SDMI to have reported back in time for the music industry to begin offering titles in the new format by Christmas 1999. However, almost all the technology members of the Initiative will be bringing their own systems to the table, and its going to take some doing to reach an agreement that can accommodate all of them. You only have to look at all the industry infighting over DVD and its various sub-formats to see how easily companies initially in accord can quickly fall out if others don't like what they propose. Of course, the arguments over how DVD should work took place in an environment free of alternative digital video formats (OK, there was VideoCD, but that we never really going to get anywhere) so the companies concerned could argue as much they liked -- the punters weren't going to go anywhere in the meantime. The key problem with the SDMI faces is that it's a response to a threat -- the MPEG-based MP3 format. That's well established, and the longer the SDMI takes, the more time the MP3 community has to entrench. Indeed, noticeable for their absence from the initial SDMI member list are the very MP3 supporters doing most to legitimise the format -- online stores like MP3.com and GoodNoise, and the independent record labels that use the technology to promote their bands. Those members of the MP3 community that have responded to the formation of the SDMI have universally condemned it as just an attempt by the major labels to dominate the online music market --which, of course, it is, but the MP3ers' arguments are no less political than the majors' talk of combating piracy. 'What about the artists? What about the customers?' cry the MP3ers, playing the old, well-rehearsed anti-corporate arguments. Well, artists can use any format -- MP3 isn't a pre-requisite. The only advantage it offers is its openness -- and that's more about not paying licensing fees than following standards. Artists only gain from the Internet if they control their output there, and recording contracts will increasingly ensure they don't. In short, artist power is about A&R, not MP3. The SDMI format will undoubtedly permit some tracks to be released free of charge and without copying restrictions -- that's too important a marketing tool for it not to -- so bands will be able to use it in exactly the same ways they use MP3 now. That also applies to those who charge for MP3 downloads. Again, MP3 is attractive to the likes of MP3.com partly because it has that 'not liked by the majors' indie kudos but mostly (again) because it's free. Given the RIAA is talking about issue the SDMI's recommended format on an open licence, much in the way the Red Book audio CD format is, current online music sellers are going to have no financial incentive to stick will MP3. As for customers, most of them really want music but don't want to pay for it. It's like CDs sales. Some people buy discs because they want the full package -- lyrics, artwork, etc. Others are happy to tape friends' discs because they just want the music. So, if you look ahead and see a commercial Internet-based music market dominated by SDMI 1.0 (or whatever it's called in the end), with both the majors and the minors releasing tracks in that format, and hi-fi kit containing modems and microbrowsers to allow listeners to download them without a PC, there will still be countless MP3 sites offering CD knock-offs for downloading and countless freeware MP3 player apps to listen to them on. In short, nothing has really changed beyond the online music industry growing up a bit. And about time too. If we'd have been through all this back in the early 80s, we'd still be listening to crackly old vinyl. ®

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