A Messy Age for Music
Confusion Reigns In the Expanding Digital World

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ah, progress. It used to be that you just went out and bought a compact disc and you didn't have to worry about whether it would work on your player.

These days, in the age of digital distribution, we don't need to buy CDs anymore. What we have, instead, are a bunch of online music services, offering songs for sale or rent via quick download to a bunch of digital music players that might or might not actually play them.

Take music fan Chauncey Canfield: He has a whopping 180-gigabyte music collection, an iPod and a smartphone he can fill with songs from his subscription Yahoo Music account. But he can't put Yahoo Music songs on his iPod, and he can't put songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store on his phone.

Canfield knows that iTunes is the most popular online music store, but he avoids it because of the playback restrictions. Instead, he prefers to shop at eMusic, which sells its tracks in the MP3 format, an open technology that works on every music player on the market. Even the iPod.

"The fact that they don't have [anti-piracy controls] on them is absolutely a major plus," he said. "I don't have to segregate my music into various ghettos."

Thanks to competing file formats and business models, the digital music world can be a little confusing -- and it's about to get more so.

This holiday season, Microsoft and RealNetworks are bringing new offerings to the market in an attempt to unseat Apple Computer, the king of the digital music world. The two companies are, separately, offering a new pair of devices and services that are tethered to each other in the same way Apple's iPod is tethered to the company's iTunes service.

Microsoft's $249 Zune will play songs sold from the company's coming Zune Marketplace store. RealNetworks has teamed with retailer Best Buy and memory-card maker SanDisk to offer a device that will work with subscription programs such as RealNetworks' Rhapsody service. The device, called a Sansa player, ranges from $139.99 to $249.99; subscriptions to the service cost $15 per month. Both will also play MP3 files, as does Apple's iPod and most other digital players.

It is too early to say whether these devices will affect sales of the world's most successful player -- the iPod, which celebrates its fifth birthday tomorrow. But the new would-be rivals will be following the same strategy Apple has used with the iPod: The software, programs and services that will supply music to the Zune and Sansa players are incompatible with one another.

And neither player will work with the iTunes Music Store, the service that holds the biggest chunk of the legal music-download market.

Other gadget-makers would love to sell devices that play iTunes tracks, but Apple has declined to open the system to them. Other music services would love to offer iPod-compatible tracks, but they can't, for the same reason. The iPod and the iTunes store are connected to each other in what is called a "closed" or "end-to-end" system.

At other online music stores, with major-league brand names such as Napster, Yahoo Music and Rhapsody, it's possible to subscribe to music collections or to buy hit songs for less than Apple's 99-cents-per-song download price. But because none of those offers tracks that are playable on the iPod, none of them is nearly as popular as iTunes.

Some countries have started to take the stance that iTunes has an unfair advantage on the market. French lawmakers tried to get Apple to open up its device to competitors earlier this year. Regulators in Norway, Sweden and Denmark have also complained that Apple's practices are unfair and have threatened legal action.

The U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust division has sided with Apple so far. In September, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Barnett asked the regulators in those countries to back down, taking the approach that legal action in this area could slow innovation.

Even after scores of lawsuits from the recording industry against users of file-sharing programs, nothing is quite as popular as downloading for free. Some measurements show that the vast majority of music downloads are still from underground file-trading programs such as eDonkey and LimeWire. Research firm BigChampagne puts that figure at 90 percent.

The eMusic subscription service has plans ranging from $10 to $20 a month, allowing music fans to download 40 to 90 songs a month in the open MP3 song format, a file type that pretty much every computer and digital music player can read. Songs downloaded from eMusic can be played on an iPod.

If there's a catch, it's this: eMusic's catalogue is limited to the independent labels. There are plenty of famous artists, such as Miles Davis and Creedence Clearwater Revival, but you probably won't be able to get the latest hit song there.

"We're like the old indie record store on the corner," says eMusic chief executive David Pakman. The service is second only to iTunes in popularity. [See chart.]

It's possible that the major publishing labels could eventually warm up to the MP3, some think -- even though the unprotected format has long been blamed for the industry's woes. Yahoo has been loudly urging the big four major music labels to allow their music to be sold without the anti-piracy restrictions that keep a song file from playing on some devices. This summer, Jessica Simpson's label, Epic Records, let Yahoo sell one of her songs in the unprotected MP3 format as an experiment.

RealNetworks chief executive Rob Glaser has often blasted Apple for not opening its closed service to competitors. Two years ago, his company offered a software program that made Real's service compatible with iPods. But the service was not authorized by Apple, which accused Real of behaving like a hacker. Apple released updates to the iTunes software that later made the Real program, called Harmony, inoperable.

In an interview last week, Glaser didn't say whether he thinks the world will eventually turn toward an open, interoperable system. But, he said, it's an issue that is becoming more important to consumers as more digital music players -- such as Sansa -- hit the market.

"It's hard to have a crystal ball on this one because the industry has gone through so many twists and turns," he said.

Advocates of restriction-free music argue that the major labels may eventually embrace the MP3 file format, or another such restriction-free format, even though the file type has oft been cited as a major cause of the industry's problem.

Here's the thinking. Complex new consumer technologies often start on closed systems but then become more open as the market evolves. In the early days of the computer, for example, some printers would only work easily with certain types of computers, but today, that sort of clunkiness is a distant memory. It isn't a perfect analogy, but those who advocate open systems say, or at least hope, that the digital music market will eventually go the same way.

Yahoo Music's director of product management, Ian Rogers, said he would rather focus on building cool features to expose consumers to new music. Instead, he said, his company is stuck enforcing digital copyrights for tracks that are already being swapped for free on file-sharing services anyway.

He said he hopes today's protected file formats will eventually go the way of the Betamax videotape or other, now-obsolete music formats.

"I feel for anybody spending $10,000 to fill up an iPod today," he said. "It's like spending $10,000 on eight-track tapes in 1978: You're going to be super-bummed come 1990."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company