Purchasing Music Through On-Line Services
by Mark Avsec, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law
Last July, the Geffen record label participated with CompuServe and veteran rock group “Aerosmith” in a bold new experiment. Head First, a previously unreleased song which lasts three minutes and sixteen seconds in length, was made available to consumers--not via retail stores or direct mail, but exclusively through computer modem. “Purchasing music through on-line services is one of the alternative music delivery systems taking shape,” declared Deborah Wilker in The detroit free press. Conceivable consumers in the not-too-distant future will regularly purchase music in this fashion, i.e., simply request titles from on-line services and download them onto their hard drives (or some other storage system); album are work and credits would arrive later under separate cover.
Marketing music through on-line services may not be welcome news for CD and audio tape retailers, but it is going to happen once the technological and copyright issues get resolved. The major players are the record companies, the recording artists whose work will be proffered in this fashion, the songwriters and song publishers who earn mechanical royalties from the sale of their music, and of course, telecommunications companies like CompuServe and Prodigy who will charge a fee for the service.
The technology required is actually pretty basic: a modem, adequate computer hard drive space (or on some future storage system), a telephone line (or other transmission medium), a sound card installed in one’s computer (together with an additional audio port if one wants to hear the acquired music through a home stereo), and a subscription to a telecommunications company like CompuServe or Prodigy.
To be a viable alternative, however, the technology must improve. Right now, a song like Head First fills 4.3 megabytes of space on a hard drive and, depending on modem speed, can take up to full ninety minutes to download. “It’s unrealistic to expect most music fans to spend hours downloading audio material,” observed Ms. Walker. Moreover, the quality of the music captured now is merely “broadcast quality,” not “CD quality.” “And don’t even think of shifting it to a floppy disk to give to a friend unless you have compression software.” Even with the compression software, in point of fact, a three minute song would fill three floppies.
“Giving” the music to a friend is, of course, one of the major concerns of all of the major players in an industry “that already loses $1.5 billion or more annually to unauthorized home recordings” according to The wall street journal. Once one consumer downloads music’s hottest new “thing,” (s)he can potentially give perfect digital copies to everyone else on the block. That is, of course, copyright infringement. This is not an insurmountable barrier, though; the industry recently resolved a similar problem regarding Digital Audio Tape (DAT) machines which could make perfect one-to-one digital copies of CD’s. A similar proprietary code, or perhaps even utilizing methodologies currently employed in other software industries could conceivably be employed here in order to strictly limit the number of copies that could be made from any one original. The copyright issues will ultimately be resolved.
Other problems, though, include the fact that charges for access time are currently between $10 and $15; it simply takes too long to download music.
This new marriage of digital technology and telecommunications will happen. Moreover, it certainly may be ill-advised to invest in conventional CD retail outlets today: they may be going the way of the dinosaur. The inevitable analogy will be made to “digital book publishing.” This analogy may be strained, however, because there is a fundamental difference between listening and reading. A consumer may prefer to own the physical “book” as opposed to merely capturing its digital transmission. (S)he may simply like curling up on a couch in front of a roaring fire to personally engage in the tried-and-true ritual of turning pages; not necessarily so with CDs.
Technology is advancing rapidly. Steven Ross, a Columbia University professor, avers that the “IUT, an international standards organization for the computer industry, is about to announce a major change in standard modem speed. By the end of the year, Ross said, the standard speed will be increased a second time, meaning that a song costing $10 and taking an hour to download today could conceivably be downloaded in 15 minutes for about $2.50.” That would, incidentally, be cheaper than the current $2.99 cost of a cassette single at Tower Records. One more technology advance like that and we could have CD-quality transmission in less than fifteen minutes. Once the consumer has adequate storage space available in order to accommodate the concomitant plethora of data, purchasing music through on-line services would be a legitimate threat to conventional retail sales.