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By Eliot Van Buskirk
10.15.07 | 12:00 AM
Tech pundits and music columnists have predicted for years that digital rights management would die, record labels would crumble and artists would sell music directly to fans.
Now those predictions are beginning to come true -- witness Radiohead's revolutionary album launch last week -- and music fans should rejoice at the unlimited options the future holds.
Fans are the direct beneficiaries of the music industry's general move away from digital rights management, or DRM. It means that if they want to support an artist or avoid the wrath of the music mafia, they have a legal way to purchase the music without consigning it to playback on only certain supported devices.
Perhaps most important, as DRM schemes fade away, software developers will be freed to focus on ways of making music fans' entire libraries available to them for their listening pleasure -- anytime, anywhere.
The big losers in this industrial evolution are likely to be the music-subscription services. One reason people pay for Napster and Rhapsody is so they can listen to their music from multiple locations. Both companies see the cell phone and other connected devices as a key growth area that will bring them closer to offering the "celestial jukebox," capable of playing any song in existence at a moment's notice.
But as developers react to the potential DRM vacuum, setting up remote access to personal music collections will be a ripe business opportunity. Whether through an online server or one located in the user's home, a system that competes directly with subscription services' remote-access features will be a winner.
Essentially, DRM could give way to DIY, with users maintaining, streaming and sharing their own music catalogs. Software developers -- unencumbered by current DRM restrictions -- will be more than happy to help.
MP3tunes, the online service that provides an MP3-storage locker, recently added a new feature called TuneWatch that looks for any unprotected music a user has recently purchased (or downloaded) and automatically uploads it to the user's locker. From there it's accessible using any connected device with MP3 support.
According to Michael Robertson founder of the service, the music industry's focus on DRM has held back the development of next-generation music services.
"Over the last decade, the many different DRM schemes (Windows Media, ATRAC, iTunes, Madison Project, Liquid Audio, SDMI, Real, a2b, etc.) promoted by so many large corporations have created confusion in the marketplace and soaked up hundreds of millions of dollars in development," he said. "The resurgent focus on MP3 will mean future dollars can be focused on building compelling new ways for the consumer to first get and then enjoy their music."
One problem with managing your own celestial jukebox service is what to do if your hard drive dies.
With a subscription service, you'd be able to log in and restore your songs and playlists. With a hard drive, you're on your own. And, according to Robertson, "it is probably unlikely that Amazon, Best Buy or any of the other (DRM-free) stores is going to provide you with a back-up copy." MP3tunes (and other services like it that are almost certainly on the horizon) solve that problem for the DIY crowd by storing the songs online.
Another option is to forgo the online service and deploy the music directly from a home computer, which users would presumably back up in order to avoid losing an entire lifetime's worth of music. Tech-savvy types have been serving themselves music from home for years, but developers taking advantage of a DRM-free development boom will make this something anyone can do quickly and easily. In fact, some have already made progress in that direction.
The latest version of AOL's Winamp audio player includes a feature from Orb Networks that lets Windows users play unprotected music on their home computers from all sorts of connected devices for free. According to Sam Weber, business director for Winamp, AOL implemented the feature because it is now "purely an audience business" -- AOL is no longer in the racket of selling DRM-protected music.
If the trend away from DRM continues, subscription services will be forced to focus on online radio and figure out a way to incorporate users' own collections into their offerings. Meanwhile, music fans can look forward to a flood of new next-generation music applications once developers are able to take advantage of a stable, DRM-free music landscape.
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Eliot Van Buskirk has covered digital music since 1998, after seeing the world's first MP3 player sitting on a colleague's desk. He plays bass and rides a bicycle.
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