The Digital Beat: Digtial Industry Continues to Prosper

November 26, 2001 12:00 AM ET

As 2001 comes to a close, digital music isn't just surviving the tough times, it's thriving. Despite the Napster crackdown, the Dot Com bust, and the post-September 11th crash of consumer confidence, recent developments suggest that MP3 is more than just here to stay.

The first encouraging bit of news comes from Apple, which is wowing the marketplace with its snazzy new iPod MP3 player. The sleek white and chrome machine is as sexy as it is powerful, able to store up to 1,000 songs and burn an entire CD in under ten seconds. Since Apple honcho Steve Jobs launched it last month, the iPod has become the Britney Spears of music gadgets -- a pop hit wrapped in a candy-wrapped package.

It's just what the industry needs. After all, up until now, there's been tremendous consumer confusion over just what the hell a digital music player is in the first place. As a result, the shelves have been flooded with seemingly indistinguishable devices. The iPod not only stands out for its killer looks, but it's made with the most newbie user in mind. Plug it into the computer using a FireWire cable and it will automatically suck down all one's new MP3 songs and, just as nifty, recharge its own battery. Already, a company called MediaFour is developing Windows software that will make the iPod compatible with PCs.

Such innovations promise to grow the market for digital music players from its current state of 3 million units shipped to a whopping 9 million by 2005, according to a new report by technology research firm Cahners In-Stat. Considering that there were essentially no digital music players in existence just a few years ago, this is remarkable news.

Ironically, digital music players are finding their stride just as Napster finds itself getting a boost from the most unlikely of people: recording artists. A posse of musicians led by Don Henley is essentially backing Napster by filing a brief against the Recording Industry Association of America. The brief came after the RIAA sued Napster for violating the copyrights of songs owned by the recording industry. Henley and others are arguing that the RIAA does not in fact own these songs at all.

Jano Cabrera, a spokesperson for the RIAA said he found the brief "baffling" because "artists have as much at stake in protecting copyrights online as do record companies." But it's really not that baffling at all. Henley and the other musicians don't want anyone claiming ownership of their music, particularly the RIAA (which is currently under an antitrust investigation by the Department of Justice with regard to its various online machinations).

What's particularly notable is that that these artists are not buckling to the anti-Napster pressures and aligning blindly with the RIAA; instead, they're empowering themselves. And with more wired artists and snazzy hardware like the iPod, the best of digital music could be yet to come.

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