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IBM's Project Madison: the music industry's Manhattan Project?

Big Blue's music delivery system set to completely transform the way we buy music

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Analysis Further details have emerged about IBM's Project Madison digital music delivery system, announced yesterday (see Big Blue, Big Five to unveil Net music system). It's clear the scheme is much more far-reaching than at first thought, and has the potential to change not only the way digital music is currently provided but the whole music retail business too. Madison is based on what IBM describes as an "open technology architecture" called the Electronic Music Management System (EMMS). EMMS manages not only the e-commerce transaction between online retailer and customer, but it also handles all the various duplication rights and royalties incurred. That's pretty much what current music-oriented e-commerce systems allow, but EMMS appears to go an important stage further by acting as a clearing house for the music itself, enabling retailers to offer music stored in recording companies' databases of digitised tracks. In essence, retailers no longer need to store music locally, which is likely to be a major storage issue once the major labels begin to offer the 2000-2500 albums that the Project's trial run in San Diego will ultimately take in. This immediately widens Madison's reach beyond Internet-based retailers to High Street stores. Instead of carrying only a relatively small selection of available albums -- the restriction imposed the shop's floor space -- stores can offer the full choice via in-store album selection terminals and bulk CD-R facilities. Music technology pundits have been predicting such a future for a number of years, but only with Madison has the necessary e-commerce, rights and distribution infrastructure been put in place. It's important to bear in mind that the initial Madison trial run will be aimed very much at domestic downloading and that neither IBM nor its music industry partners -- Sony, EMI, Bertelsmann, Time-Warner and Universal -- have described such a retail system in their comments on Madison. But it's clear that the technology (at least in principle) can easily be extended that way. In fact, Madison actually makes more sense as a retail-oriented system, since relatively few music fans will be keen on buying a CD-R to punch out discs and printing downloaded album artwork on their cheap colour inkjet. For many listeners, getting the whole package of sleeve notes, lyrics and cover art is as important as the tracks themselves. And the best way of obtaining a high quality package will be through the more advanced downloading, disc duplication and printing technologies that only retail stores will be able to afford. While the numerous predictions of the size of the Internet music market over the next few years all vary in their optimism, they nevertheless all concur that the bulk of music sales will still come through traditional outlets for the short to medium term. Madison -- at least as far as the companies concerned are willing to say -- allows that sector to take full advantage of the flexibility offered by current suppliers but offer a far wider range of titles. Finally, it's interesting that the music companies involved in Madison used IBM's announcement to reiterate their support for the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI). Whatever music format and anti-piracy system the SDMI eventually backs will be added into the EMMS infrastructure, either alongside IBM's encryption and protection mechanisms or in their place. That's a neat move on IBM's part that keeps its own work separate from the 'MP3 vs the music industry' debate and ensures that continued conflict there doesn't hold up the development of the infrastructure that the company hopes will deliver all music in the future irrespective of its format. ®

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