Why Net music is poised to hit the high notes

Earlier this month five of the world’s major record labels – BMG, EMI, Sony Music, Universal Music, and Warner Music – committed to a test which will allow US consumers with broadband cable modem access to download 60-minute albums in less than ten minutes.

The Madison Project, backed by IBM, will make more than 2,500 singles and albums available to a panel of 1,000 consumers recruited in San Diego, California.

It seems the industry’s major players are now looking beyond the risks that online piracy presents to the music business, and are recognising that legitimate downloading could be a burgeoning sales opportunity for both labels and retailers.

As Larry Kenswil, head of e-commerce for Universal Music Group, noted at the launch of the project: “Not only will this system allow consumers to purchase popular and current recordings, but it will also open the door to back catalogue and rare recordings.”

The development of downloading presents another quantum leap in the levels of convenience and cost savings in distribution of music.

For those of us keen to avoid traipsing around Woolworths in Balham on a wet Saturday afternoon the move is exciting. And for retailers, too, it presents a huge opportunity and not just a threat.

Many consumers may prefer to continue to visit music stores with souped-up downloading services. Not all, of course, will have the broadband Internet access and downloading facilities at home to take advantage of these services. But in store, customers will no longer need to stroll around the racks of CDs.

The need for retailers to physically hold stock will be minimised as customers “interrogate” terminals in smaller retail units.

In this future world of music downloading, existing retailers may remain the preferred route for most consumers. But new relationships will be struck as record labels begin to sell directly to fans.

There remains only one fly in the ointment. Already a “Wild West” situation exists on the Web, with pirated music freely available online. Industry bodies are slowly bringing the “lawlessness” under control.

As long as this situation continues, the danger is that the online audience will become more conditioned to expecting everything online to be free, and resistant to charges. But the current state of endemic piracy at least suggests that there is demand for getting music, simply and hassle-free, online.

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