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With a blanket license, will CDs get cheaper?

Or dearer. Or disappear?

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So we know how big the market it is, and we roughly know how many downloads take place with no compensation to rights holders. What emerges is that the CD, so long marked for death, remains extremely enduring.

Apple itself now seems to acknowledge the enduring world of the physical, by reminding us of its value. It made an interesting addition to its iTunes software jukebox this year, giving users the ability to browser their music collections as if flicking through a stack of records. When the album art stops moving, click to play. This is a tacit admission that browsing through long lists of textual information isn't always a lot of fun - even if you're an accountant. It's also a reminder that music has physical associations - the object stirs the visual imagination.

And although the music industry has appeared at times to make its physical product as unappealing as the product inside - with cheap and nasty jewel cases locked by strategically-placed adhesive wrapping - there are signs it's learning.

Two obvious kinds of customer will continue to value what physical product - and they're not mutual exclusive: people who want the music to look and feel good, and people who want the music to sound good. More box sets than ever before will be sold this Christmas, and great written material and booklets help turn what would otherwise be a cynical rehash into something worth having. Then there's the audio quality.

Your reporter sometimes wonders if the compression (both analog and digital) that Bob Dylan castigated on the launch of his most recent album - ("atrocious... like static", said the Zimmerman) was preparing us for the lo-fi wonders of digital downloads. But that would credit the labels with too much foresight.

Nevertheless, we only tend to notice how much we're missing from lo-fi compression once we move the music away from the computer. When Verizon, and BT begin to attach hard disks and wireless chips to their set-top boxes as a matter of course, and the music is piped over a superior hi-fi, the dismal quality of today's downloads will be cruelly exposed. In other words, once digital downloads move away from the PC and into the living room, the sound quality will have nowhere to hide.

Now cable companies will some day wake up to the fact that they're music dispensers, but given their track record of innovation, it may not be for some time. And given their reputation for pioneering good taste, they're bound to make a lousy job of it too. All of which makes the "convenience" of a superior audio physical product not too much of a burden to support. The CD breathes again.

Or something like a CD.

We need to remind ourselves that physical product is merely a container for rights - and this container may take many formats. Looking at the rise of superior quality packaging, the book may well be the container that record companies adopt for premium product.

Two years ago in Manchester, I reminded music executives of this simple fact, and gave a practical example. In a few years wireless chips will be so cheap they'll be easily embedded in books. Add that to a discovery system such as UPnP, Jini or Bonjour (formerly Rendezvous) and the book will be able to find the nearest pair of speakers, and start playing the book.

Rights holders are typically the last to innovate like this, but after the introduction of a blanket license, they'll really have no choice. They'll be obliged to make the art valuable and attractive - so we keep buying those containers.

So to answer Sava's question with a cop-out, the answer is: "We don't know." But there's every reason to believe the convenience and attractiveness of physical product will continue to find a market. How it's priced will depend on how much we want it. ®

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