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11/96 Analysis: Dialog Box

Prepare for the Next Revolution In Music Delivery -- The electronic age is poised to turn the music industry on its ear.

By Todd Rundgren

THOSE LITTLE SILVER discs called CDs are about to spin into oblivion. Before long, music will be distributed electronically right into your PC.

Direct delivery of music via PCs is where the music industry is headed. It's immediate-you don't have to wait a year for an artist to complete a project; you get what that artist is doing today. It's convenient-you don't have to go the store to buy a CD; you get the music right through your PC. And it's economical-you're not stuck paying for a CD you discover you don't like; you can pay for it as you listen.

Moving PC users in this direction won't be as difficult as convincing music lovers to replace their trusty turntables with CD players, because they already have the equipment they need-a multimedia PC and a modem. Sound quality shouldn't be an issue. Advanced data compression techniques can improve the quality of music broadcast over the Net with nothing more than a 28.8Kbps modem and a regular phone line. Substitute ISDN or a cable modem, and the quality approaches that of a CD.

I can send a high-quality version of whatever album you want to hear right to your e-mail inbox. You could even connect your computer output to your stereo, so you can take advantage of your high-powered stereo speakers. Place a button on your desktop that represents just new hit songs; click on it every day and get a different song. It wouldn't be difficult to adapt a search engine to select music. Or you could just choose the album you want to hear from your favorite artist's Web site.

There are lots of applications for this type of music delivery. You could use it to enhance presentations-just connect to the Net, describe the kind of music you want, and it will be embedded into your presentation. Anybody who wants to provide the content can set up a storefront-the battle is to create a policy to make the artistic content available online. Other potential applications are dentists' offices, skating rinks or any place you hear background music. The Internet becomes a Muzak source for services that offer music for different settings.

CDs will be history

I predict sales of disc-based media will level off five years from now, then start to drop. There's still a limit to the amount of stuff they can cram onto that little silver platter. There are no limits with electronic distribution.

CDs lock you into the old-fashioned transactional method of getting into your car, going to the store, plucking the thing off the shelf and pulling out your credit card.

With the new model, you'll subscribe to an artist or a record company and become a patron of that artist or label, which will deliver your selections electronically. Music is perfect for this type of delivery system because it's not a physical product; it's data. Your credit card number is on file, so you're charged immediately. You get the music, it's paid for and everybody's happy.

People are going to feel better about getting music this way once they get over that trip about owning a piece of plastic. This economic model cuts out a lot of middlemen who have nothing to do with the creative process or the listening experience. And it reduces production and end-delivery costs, to the benefit of both the musician and the listener.

You'll see the light

This is especially great for garage bands and for people like me who don't have a gigantic fan base. I'd say to my fans, "For 20 bucks, I'll give you everything I do for the next year." And they don't have to wait until the end of the year to get it. As I do it, I'll deliver it instantaneously. They'll know this is where my musical head is at right now. You don't even have to store the data. I can stream it to you with a third-party plug-in, so it never gets saved to the disk. There may be a temporary buffer file to keep just enough of it to play it through the sound hardware.

All of this expands PC users' music choices. If I write a song today, I can deliver it fresh tonight. If I decide to change some part of it tomorrow, I can rev a new version and offer it to you like software. The only improvement on this model that I can envision is installing chips in people's heads.

Todd Rundgren is a singer, songwriter, musician and software developer. Contact Todd in the "Dialog Box" topic of the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe.Click Here to find the e-mail IDs for our editors, who can put you in touch with this author.

Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those held by WINDOWS Magazine.

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