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Online Music

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The Internet: first came the words and the pictures . . . then came the music. The online music business today is huge, and only promises to keep growing. In September 2004, 30 million Americans accessed online music. The way they did so, however, reveals the unsettled nature of online music. 10 million visited four sites where music is purchased by the song. The other 20 million visited file-sharing networks, where songs are traded between listeners. The choices these users have is growing. There are currently well over a 100 online music sites.

Precisely how this will all develop, nobody knows, least of all the big music companies--Sony/BMG, Universal, Warner and EMI. They have so far reacted to the burgeoning possibilities of the online business in a reactionary fashion, with misstep after misstep. At first they were hesitant about licensing their content to third party providers. They feared a loss of control over the copyrights of their content. So they went for it, alone. In 2000, for example, Sony started its own service, charging an obscene $3.50 for tracks which had a built in expiration date. It failed.

Since then, record companies have been more open. Sony still has its own service, called Connect, but all the companies now license their wares to third party services, like iTunes. The development of sophisticated Digital Rights Management (DRM) software has underpinned this movement. Essentially a series of technologies to restrict the use and abuse of content by the consumer, DRM remains controversial and is not universal.

Meanwhile, record companies will continue to prosecute copyright infringement when they can. They also have a continuing grip on the physical record business, controlling the distribution and marketing of CDs. Radio, a large part of marketing artists, operates under the shadow of record companies. And every time songs are played in commercials, live shows, or in films, the music publishing division of record companies collect royalties.

A confusing landscape

Despite the growing popularity of online music, the online music landscape looks confusing to a lot of users who just want to get that song by Paul Simon, Usher or Outkast. In truth, it is. There are a host of different business models for selling music, as well as huge peer-to-peer trading networks, like eDonkey. Additionally, a small number of individual artists, like Prince, sell their wares directly to the listener with no record company in sight.

Technologically, there are a number of competing music file formats, from Mp3 itself to AAC or WMA. There are many different pieces of music software for handling tracks on a desktop and a multitude of portable players. And not all the jigsaw pieces seem to belong to the same puzzle. Compatibility and interoperability sometimes appear to be rare qualities.

In this context, the importance of a third party reseller like iTunes cannot be underestimated. It, and its hardware counterpart iPod, made online music a possibility to the wider market of consumers, rather early techno-happy adopters. Its simplicity makes it appealing. That is not to say iTunes will remain dominant. Other high quality online music stores compete for business: for example, Rhapsody, Napster, eMusic and so on.

Other ways of getting music online

Downloading an Mp3 file is not the only way of getting music online. Tracks can be heard, although not permanently downloaded for repeated use, through streaming. On signing up to Rhapsody, for example, users are offered 25 free tracks through streaming. That means you can listen to a song once and you're down to 24 tracks. If you want to hear the same track again, you can, but that's another track and you're down to 23. Streaming is a great way to test out music and see what you might like to permanently own.

Online radio is another way of hearing tracks. Again, through streaming technology, listeners can hear a huge variety of different music genres. A lot of online music services, like iTunes and Rhapsody, offer radio for free as do a lot of individual radio stations, themselves. The ability to shape (although not control) your own radio listening experience is extensive. Like many online radio services, Yahoo's Launchcast service, for example, enables you to build your own station, by genre and preferred artist.

Another way of obtaining online music and audio content is podcasting. This works by users subscribing to a specific channel of audio (and now video) files, which they can download onto their computer or portable music player. Despite the term, this has little to do with the iPod, except in that the iPod is one of many portable players that these files can play on.



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