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Sony Music backs MS' digital delivery format

Coup for the Great Satan, or sign of online music's multi-format future?

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Sony has selected Microsoft's Windows Media Technologies (WMT) to drive its first foray into digital music distribution, due to go live this summer. Sony Music Entertainment, the Japanese giant's US-based music and video subsidiary (it's dominated by Americans because it used to be CBS Records), will initially offer singles for the same price as US punters pay in stores -- around $3.49. Sony didn't specify whether the singles will ship online first, and appear in stores later, or whether releases will be made in parallel. Of course, Sony took the opportunity to point out it will be the first major record label to sell purely digital products -- a dig at Universal, which plans to move into digital distribution before the end of the year. You can expect Sony to be bullish about this, but since music fans buy on the basis of artists, not recording companies, you can't help wonder if Sony, like Universal, is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Sony didn't say which artists will be represented in the digital world. Microsoft is guilty of this too. It claimed that Sony's choice will encourage many more users to download its software. The trouble is, no amount of Maria Carey singles on MS Audio 4.0 will encourage Marilyn Manson fans to download WMT. The choice of Microsoft technology is interesting, given the music business' general distrust of the Great Satan of Software. However, it's clear Microsoft made some moves to allay fears that it wants music executives' jobs, primarily by allowing the Sony some input into the level of security the software provides. At the same time, of course, Sony's hardware arm has its own music security system, MagicGate, which is being made to interoperate with IBM's WMT rival, Electronic Music Management System (EMMS). Sony Music is itself working with IBM by providing content for the EMMS public trials due to take place in San Diego, California next month. The point here is perhaps that Sony Music realises that there will be multiple formats and multiple delivery technologies -- at least for the short to medium-term -- and it needs to embrace a number of them if it's to get its music out to the maximum number of potential buyers. With the Secure Digital Music Intiative (SDMI) set to supply a series of guidelines that 'legitimate' digital music distributors will want to follow, multiple interoperable solutions would appear to be the order of the day, until both music and technology companies can finally agree on a single format and copy-protection, dsitribution and right management frameworks to back it up -- the online music equivalent of the CD Red Book. At the very least the digital distribution business will need universal players, applications that can handle every format. No one, after all, would put up with a CD player for Sony's disc and another for EMI's titles, and increasingly users will become equally averse to multiple software players. And goes double for fans who want to download music not via PCs, but their hi-fis. Much will depend on the SDMI's recommendations, due in draft form in the same timeframe as the Sony online launch. ®

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