Big Blue hedges its bets

Big Blue last week showed its talent for being ever-green. IBM produced a golden-egg-laying hen in the shape of a Digital Library deal with EMI Music Publishing.

What I gather this means is that any commercial organisation, from an ad agency to the in-house corporate affairs department of a multinational, that should wish to use a copyrighted piece of music can select an item from the Library using a search facility, obtain legal rights on-line and make payment before downloading the tune onto its own system.

The mechanics have been put together by Multimedia Archive & Retrieval Systems (MARS), IBM’s UK development partner. Its improvements in the speed and efficiency of acquiring the rights to use music should, it is argued, allow music publishers to reach a wider market at lower unit costs.

It is hard to resist the excitement that attaches to such a development.

The chairman from MARS, Tony Prior, for one, gave up the struggle: “The music industry as a whole needs to organise itself to take advantage of the opportunities which exist now and will rapidly expand in the near future as music and media companies recognise and embrace the capabilities of computer digital technology on a global scale,” he declared.

“Our first initiative, making the most of the incredible array of opportunities provided by the IBM Digital Library, is to offer an alternative access system to library music for producers who are tired of the inefficiency of the present jumble of CDs and tedious administrative procedures.”he hadn’t finished: “Our clarion call to all multimedia content owners is: Digitise Now!” Note that clarion calls come with capital letters.

Fair enough. Tired creatives have the opportunity to call up and pay for music in minutes that used to take days in the copyright process, if not weeks.

Given their propensity, more often than not, to go for Carmina Burana, I wonder how ad agencies will spend all the extra time. But that’s not the point. This is a more than significant development in the business-to-business markets of the World Wide Web.

Which is not necessarily a clarion call to music buffs and popsters to start surfing digital libraries of the world with a view to downloading their fave composers – be they Kurt Cobain or Carl Orff – on to their systems.

That has not stopped some commentators from heralding the era of domestic cybernet music on demand, as though it was something that John Redwood would have introduced this week had he won an overall majority.

Digitisation, it is said, has tremendous potential for the music industry at the retail end. The consumer will, the argument runs, be able to buy a new recording direct from the record company by selecting and paying for it on the Internet.

The music will simply be downloaded on to the home personal computer to be played on demand.

Well, up to a point, Lord Pop-picker. The road to that Nirvana is strewn with stumbling blocks and speed traps in a manner that does not similarly encumber the path of business-to-business progress.

I do not just refer to technological limitations, although those are challenging enough. The quality of audio reproduction on domestic PC units has a long way to go before retailers of CDs start eating nettles.

The method of downloading is also still painfully primitive, compared with the advances in other facets of the technology. It apparently takes more than an hour to download a standard rock album.

These are technological challenges that will be swept aside in the march of progress. There is already the technology available to download such material in seconds – what has yet to be done is to produce it at prices that are realistic enough to penetrate the domestic market. It will happen as surely as chicken became cheap enough for the masses, but it takes time.

More serious is the way that the popular music market is configured and the manner in which it responds to industry stimuli.

A popular view of music marketing is that it is about much more than selling tapes and CDs to fans – it is about building a dialogue with them. This is the modern equivalent of the Gerry and the Pacemakers Fan Club. We not only sell the records and the image of the lads, we create a forum in which we discuss “issues”, from the quality of the Marsden smile and the frequency of ferries across the Mersey.

Or, at least, we did during the Sixties. But nothing has essentially changed in the marketing principle.

What has changed is the nature and control of the forum – from the staple-bound, two-colour subscription magazine to the globally accessed web site. From the fanzine to the fansite.

Record companies will want to use the latter to create that all-important dialogue with their fan bases. The initial trouble arises when the company realises that it cannot control the medium in the manner that, say, a publisher can control the content and distribution of a magazine.

I should not have to tell anyone these days that the Internet does not belong to anyone. It is not, therefore, controllable in the manner of traditional media. So, in its dialogue with its fan base, how many inquiries can a record company expect from a web site? Ten? 350? 28,000?

The implication is that such a company may require a full-time and flexibly extendible staff attached to its fansite. It is a rich irony that, in this instance, technological progress leads to greater labour intensity.

Furthermore, ill-defined legal guidelines could easily make the company liable for defamation. At least it used to be able to edit readers’ letters.

As I say, all will eventually be overcome on the path to a global and digital future. I don’t want to sound too Luddite (or should it be Ludsite?).

But, before the music media become too carried away at the prospects of marketing through the 3W, it should consider why those who, in terms of technological developments, have been here before are concentrating on private, secure networks in the business-to-business markets. Big Blue knows a thing or two.

George Pitcher is joint managing director of media consultancy Luther Pendragon.

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