Digital Music Gold Rush Confuses Consumers

Why too many digital security formats spoil the music

Recorded music hasn't been around that long, but it's sure been repackaged a lot. The upgrading alone -- from cylinder to vinyl to tape to CD, and now to a slew of Net-based formats -- has been hard enough on consumers. In addition, every time a new medium is introduced, the record industry worries aboutpiracy once again, especially when there are home recording options. And now, sadly, with every major Net-based music breakthrough today there seems to be a security issue just waiting to confuse eager music fans.

Last week was a perfect example. There were two big news announcements: David Bowie will be offering a whole new album for digital download, and secure-music distribution company Liquid Audio will be introducing its 5.0 system. At first, these seemed like easy-to-digest digital developments. Bowie is doing the cyber-pioneer thing, paving the way for others to offer whole albums online. And the new Liquid Audio format lets music fans listen to MP3 files (finally) -- and will be included in an upcoming portable MP3 player from Sanyo.

It should be a win-win-win for artists, labels and fans: More music, more ways to sell it, more ways to hear it. Instead, we're forced to read the fine print time and again, because every announcement is tied to different formats/devices-and you have to make sure your player/gadget/song is "supported" if you're going to personally enjoy these so-called coups. The result: You need a scorecard to keep track of what you can and can't do every time an artist posts a new song online.

Specifically, it's great that Bowie album will sell his album online in its entirety, but note that it will be available in two downloadable formats only: Liquid Audio and Microsoft's Windows Media. Music fans should realize that not every MP3 player supports both of these formats. So you may have to download a new software player -- and pray it doesn't muck with your default settings, audio playback and prior software players. In addition, your portable MP3 gadget may not support either of these formats. So you could be stuck listening at your computer, not in the gym or on the bus, etc.

Now let's look at Liquid Audio's latest offering, Version 5.0. The company has finally added MP3 support at the same time that they are trying to get folks to support something called Genuine MP3s, essentially a digital watermark embedded in files that would verify the authenticity of an audio file to prevent the spread of pirated music. It's nice idea (EMI liked it enough to commission Liquid Audio to digitize their whole catalog), but do we really want to introduce yet another format, more jargon and yet more computer tasks for consumers have to learn?

Liquid Audio's CTO Philip Wiser told Rolling Stone that "It's not a Liquid Audio proprietary thing; it's really about allowing people -- primarily artists -- to stamp the music. To say, 'Hey, this came from me.' [Fans] can go and look at this thing and say, 'Hey this is the real McCoy.'" Let's be honest here: Music fans aren't clamoring for this; it's the record labels and artists who are. It's getting to the point where every company that wants a piece of the digital music pie justifies their inclusion by telling us how much artists and fans are asking for protection.

I'm all for making sure that artists get paid, but it's maddening to see companies scramble to address the need for anti-piracy measures by releasing a new format every other week, and then saying we asked for it. Yes, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and its Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) demanded it, but that didn't have to spawn dozens of competing copyright and security solutions.

Even Mr. Wiser, when explaining how SDMI compliance works, admitted that it's all quite arcane. "It's very complicated, that's why it's so confusing," he said. "At some point down the road, companies would be embedding watermarks in their content and if you went and ripped the CD from this new content, your ripper would detect that and say, 'Wait a minute, this is copyright-protected content and you can't just download this onto your portable device.'"

For the record, most hardware and software will be able to play the MP3s you downloaded or ripped off CDs in the past. That's one reason that Liquid Audio 5.0, RealJukebox and Microsoft's Windows Media Player 6.0 all support the MP3 format. It's how songs are protected in the future, with or without any these competing security formats, that's at stake these days. All of which really makes me appreciate the fact that my turntable can still play records from fifty years ago, no problem.