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Digital Music: Readers Chime In

By Charles Haddad Everywhere Internet Audio? Not in my house. That's what scores of readers wrote me over the past two weeks. It seems the biggest obstacle to this new idea, which I advocated in my last column, is music fans (see BW Online, 9/24/03, "A Wireless iPod Can Torpedo the Pirates"). They don't want to trade in their CDs to some ether-grid of digital music, available anytime, anywhere.

Yet it was equally clear from the torrent of mail I received that some form of network for music is coming. A number of the best minds in Internet technology are working on making music available across digital platforms, whether iPod or Web browser. "We believe that network services around your media collection is the next phase that will leap-frog the desktop media players as well as file-sharing apps," says Ian Rogers.

Rogers isn't just blowing digital dust. He was part of the team that created Winamp, a Windows music player, and Gnutella, one of the first file-sharing networks. Now he and his partner, Rob Lord, are working on something they call Muse.Net, a network media player.

NO OWNERSHIP. Still, even Rogers concedes that the obstacles to virtual music are impressive. The biggest may be the pervasive misconception that consumers own the songs on their CDs and iPods. "I want to own my own shoes, my pants, and my Xbox," Mark Adams, a partner in a marketing communications company in Houston, wrote. "And I want to own my music."

Sorry, Mark, you may own your pants, but you don't own your tunes. Under current copyright laws, all you own is a personal lease on that music for an indefinite period of time. That's why it's illegal to burn and sell copies of your CDs. It's this misconception that drives file-swapping. People, especially young ones, think if they gain possession of a song -- whether on a CD or their hard drive -- they own it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Everywhere Internet Audio can't take away the ownership users never had. It just changes the location of the music you lease. Instead of residing on CDs or on your hard drive, it sits on a server, which you can access at any time, from anywhere. You'd already own the rights to your collection, whether through a subscription or one-time fee.

It would be no different than a cell phone, which connects to a network every time it's switched on. And as with cellular service, an ether-music network would remember who you are, keeping track of personal playlists and recommendations.

CHEATING WILL PERSIST. This scheme offers a big advantage to the recording industry. If you didn't buy your music, the stolen property could be encoded to expire, digitally evaporate. And that would, at least for a while, slow pirating.

Is this a real, lasting advantage? Probably not, suggest several correspondents. "As long as people justify in their own minds that they aren't doing anything wrong, the black market will exist en masse," says reader David Rhodes. And others point out that pirates would soon leap in to help them cheat the system. Certainly, that has been the case with software.

Readers did raise two objections that are all too true. The first is that Everywhere Internet Audio might well tighten the stranglehold that the five biggest recording companies already have on popular music. They "would make money every time I listen to music," says Scott Snyder, a regional sales manager/engineer in Madison, Wis. "This industry would charge me for whistling a tune, if it could."

CAN'T DISCONNECT. The second objection I find even more disturbing. Ben Timberlake, a newspaper reporter in Cañon City, Colo., worries that an ether-grid of music would close off his last excuse for disconnecting from a world that's growing ever more interconnected, ever watching, monitoring everything from your e-mail to driving habits. "It's bad news for music fans who like to unplug now and then."

Everywhere Internet Audio may not be the answer to piracy and reshaping the music industry, but it's a good place for the debate to begin. Music and the way it's distributed and listened to are changing. Consumers can embrace that change and try to shape it to our benefit. Or do what the recording industry has done for so long: stick in the earplugs and pretend we can't hear the winds of change. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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