Once members of the record industry abandoned analog (vinyl and cassettes) in favor of digital (compact discs) they were no longer just selling music; they were, in essence, selling software. Digital codes read by music CD players are essentially the same digital codes computers read. Compression technologies have dramatically increased the amount of information that can be sent across the Internet, making it possible to send digitally encoded music quickly and cheaply.
The record industry is in the process of figuring out how to work this to its advantage. The Internet's future is in cable modems which 1) allow users to send and receive information at up to 512,000 bits per second, nearly 18 times faster than a 28,800-bits-per-second phone modem and 2) allow for streaming media on demand, in a "pay-per-view" fashion, though exactly how this will make money remains to be seen.
Streaming media is the computer world equivalent to television and radio. Video clips or sound is housed on the content provider's server (or, in some instances, is broadcast live) and can be delivered more or less instantaneously to the user. Rather than downloading a song, for example, the computer plays information as it receives it. Depending on the provider's preference, the media can be saved by the user or simply viewed or listened to as long as the connection is maintained. Users need a player compatible with the streaming media, but the advantage over television or radio is that it is available on demand by computer users rather than scheduled by someone else. Currently, streaming media quality is hampered by slow Internet connections, which cause pictures or sounds to break up or be covered with static.
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On December 15 the Recording Industry Association of America and all five of the major music labels (Sony, BMG Entertainment, Universal, EMI and Warner Bros.) announced they were working together on a project called the Secure Digital Music Initiative to devise a universal and secure standard for transferring music on the Internet(www.riaa.com/sdmi). Technology giants AOL, AT&T, IBM, Lucent, Matsushita, Microsoft RealNetworks and Toshiba are also involved, to different degrees.
A forum will be set up in January, open to all the companies who wish to participate. The goal is to create a means that will assure multiple copies of works cannot be made digitally and to have the system in place for products to be certified compliant by the 1999 holiday season. For the first time, major labels will have a major presence on the Web; independent labels have already taken giant steps in on-line distribu-tion and so have been approached to contribute to the forum.
From providing samples of music via streaming media to direct downloading using MP3, digital distribution is still in its infancy, mutating frequently, but as Strauss Zelnick, president and CEO of BMG Entertainment stated at the RIAA press conference, "Electronic distribution is right around the corner."
For a progress report on how individual companies are handling this development, go to our web site at www.houstonpress.com.