Revolution is in the air one which will eventually change the way we buy our music. The principal instrument of this revolution? The Internet, needless to say. Like it or not, computers and telephonic links are going to be as crucial to home listening in future as radios and CD players are now. And those who suffer from technophobia had better start getting their act together.
Collectors have long since replaced their old, worn LPs with CDs that will never wear out and only occasionally receive a scratch of fatal degree .Sales are down and the cannier record companies are having to convince consumers that they want an ever- expanding range of music. Which is fine for those who are genuinely fascinated by the prospect of exploring complete works of Dragonetti of whoever. But for most listeners, a collection that stops a long way short of the arcane is already enough for a lifetime. So record companies have been desperate to find a new, improved format, something that would convince collectors to begin collecting all over again. Since modern CD recording is perfectly adequate for most of us, that improvement will be largely in terms of convenience. One answer already exists. It is a computer file format know as MP3 that can be stored on anything else that stores digital computer files, whether that be the CD, hard disc of DAT (Digital audio Tape), and can be transferred between them with ease. At its best, MP3 produces a high-quality sound standard and the files, though still bulky, take up relatively little space. Which means they can be downloaded and uploaded (i.e. transferred) through your telephone line via a modem.
MP3 is a development of the computer software industry and, inevitably, Microsoft has already developed a rival technology a slightly different file format which claims to offer greater protection from illegal or unlicensed copying. It may, in time, usurp its MP3 predecessor. Until now, record companies have been slow to realise the full significance of these technologies. But imagine a world where, if you want to listen to a particular performance of a particular piece of music, you simply turn on your computer and order it, paying one sum with your credit card for a single play and perhaps a larger sum to allow you to store the music on your own machine temporarily or even permanently. You might even compile your own CDs.
But a domestic copying device already exists: the Rio MP3 player. It is a self contained, specialised portable mini-computer which, once plugged into your home computer, copies MP3 files from your hard drive into its own memory and plays them back on demand. Just like a personal cassette or CD player, only with no moving parts, and therefore no jumping when the machine is jolted. Until now, the basic problem with this machine has been its limited memory, so instead of lugging a handful o CDs or cassette we have had to lug and handful of add-ons. But the new Rio 500 model, which goes on sale this month, offers twice as much memory which means half as much lugging.
Ready-to-buy MP3 recordings on solid-state memory devices are not yet in the shops. A-ha!, the astute record company executive should be saying. There is our market in new media. But as yet there are no universally-accepted standards for the physical attributes of such solid state memory devices. The Rio MP3 player uses its own design. Unless the wizards of the hi-fi industry can find a way of improving the end result, with surround sound, and the rest of those technical things which enhance the illusion of reality, it is difficult to see why anyone would bother replacing their CD collections. In any case, improvements will mean larger files, demanding more storage space and, where files have been accessed through the Internet, longer download times and more cost. Portable layers and standardised media or not, the MP3 format is quickly catching on. Already there are a number of intriguing enterprises available to anyone with an Internet account. Online record stores and an increasing number of record companies offer short, downloadable extracts as tasters for those who might (or might not) want to order a certain CD, though as yet it is not possible to download the contents of an entire CD. Many music publishers offer the same service. A quick search reveals a large number of private sites devoted to MP3 formats most, but by no means all, devoted to pop music. But beware: some sights may not be entirely legal. Record companies re suffering sleepless nights because they have no means of controlling the distribution and use of music on the net. They have joined with technology companies to form the Secure Digital Music Initiative, an open body of companies involved in digital music, in a move to ensure security of copyrighted music on the net. But the end of this year, many files will be encoded, so they can only be downloaded for restricted, personal use.
Alliances between record companies are yielding new sites to explore. In the States, Universal Music (owner of CD, Decca and Philips labels) and rivals BMG (RCA, Telarc, Conifer) have created a music site on the net for their back catalogues (www.getmusic.com) and launches a European version this autumn. EMI has joined forces with Liquid Audio, an American digital music company to sell its catalogue via musicmaker.com. So the days of downloadable commercial CDs are just about here, but download speeds will have to increase massively, to be viable.
A new company, Global Music Network, has launched itself (www.gmn.com) with an impressive roster of contracted artists and a number of original concert performances and licensed recordings. The site attempts to make a real virtue of the medium, with videos of its artists, interviews that you can year, rather than read and a neat on-screen player. So far, its online repertoire is relatively small, but its growing. It even promises to deliver custom-made CDs for a fee, though otherwise it is accessible for free. The sound, though not up to MP3 standards, is delivered to your computer by streaming sending a continuous stream of data rather than a self contained file down the line that you can save.
The same basic principle is used in the Internet broadcasting of radio stations, including Classic FM. A good-quality connection (fast modem) is therefore important, otherwise breaks in transmission are likely.
MP3 has also established a clever link to The New Grove Dictionary website, so those without the 20-volume encyclopedia can look up, without charge, any term or name and get an instant definition. Browsing is not an option. But it gives some hint of the nets possibilities. Imagine if a composers works, listed in The New Grove, were linked to downloadable commercial recordings? Come across an obscure 18th-century opera that intrigues you? Click here and enter your credit card details to verify for yourself the styles mentioned in the article. Or click to see the composers picture or autograph. Or simply click to buy. Its so easy, its frightening.