Industry Roundup

Price fixing rumors squashed: On Tuesday, December 23, the US Department of Justice officially ended a two-year investigation of price fixing by major record labels, with a report that it had found no evidence to support any of the allegations. The investigation began in summer 2001 and concentrated primarily on online music service MusicNet, a joint venture by Warner Music Group, EMI Group, BMG Entertainment, and RealNetworks; and Pressplay, a joint venture by Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group. The majors had been accused of conspiring to keep startups out of the online music distribution business.

R. Hewitt Pate, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's antitrust division, told reporters that the investigation found no evidence that would-be competitors or consumers were harmed by any music industry policies or activities. "Consumers can now download individual songs from a growing number of competing digital suppliers, each of which offers songs from the music catalogs of all of the major record labels," according to the official Justice Department statement. Antitrust concerns have therefore "diminished or disappeared."

RIAA vs pirates: A recent federal appeals court ruling against the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) (RIAA vs Verizon) may hamper its pursuit of online file swappers, but the trade group is pursuing hard-goods pirates with a vengeance. On December 23, prosecutors in California's San Bernardino County filed a civil lawsuit against the owners and operators of a swap meet that allegedly permitted sales of pirated music. Should they be found guilty, swap meet owners Ho Suh Jin and Gustavo Zarate face up to $100,000 in damages.

The RIAA lauded county officials for taking the action against the Waterman Discount Mall and Indoor Swap, site of the alleged infringements. Two vendors have been charged with failure to disclose the origin of recordings, a copyright misdemeanor. "We are grateful to the efforts of District Attorney Michael A. Ramos and his team," said RIAA president Cary Sherman. "This action represents an important milestone: For swap meet owners who think they can profit from piracy, civil charges are a reality." Similar cases are pending in Houston, Sacramento, and Columbus, NJ.

ATF to RIAA: In a move indicative of its serious intent against pirates, the RIAA announced December 9 that Bradley Buckles, retiring director of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), will head its antipiracy division beginning early in 2004. Buckles departs ATF on January 3, after 30 years of service.

New high-end cans: In late December, Sennheiser announced new flagship model headphones, the HD 650. Based on the overall design of the award-winning HD 600 (a favorite with Stereophile reviewers), the open-air HD 650 is said to combine "an extremely flat frequency response (10Hz–39.5kHz ±10dB) with natural dynamics, superior resolution, and a smooth, uncolored sound." Major improvements are claimed in the 650's enhanced bass response and reduced high-frequency distortion. The HD 650 features "an upgraded cable, hand-selected, matched transducers with tight tolerances (±1dB), computer-optimized magnet systems for minimizing harmonic and intermodulation distortion, and extremely lightweight aluminum voice-coils for accuracy, fast transient response and low distortion . . .", according to a press release. Sennheiser claims the 650 delivers an "extremely natural, spatial sound image." Suggested retail is $499.95.

PBN expands: San Diego–based PBN Audio is embarking on a major expansion, according to company president and chief engineer Peter Noerbaek. In January, the company will move into a new 4000 sq. ft. plant in El Cajon. The new facility will combine PBN's sales and manufacturing operations on one site for the first time. Refinements will include automated cabinet production. The site will feature a full 7.1-channel demo room managed by Eric Engerbritson of Home Theater Experience, with hours by appointment. PBN has enjoyed sustained growth over the past two years, fueled by aggressive pursuit of the custom market and overseas business, according to Noerbaek. The company will make an official announcement at CES.

Tom Dowd on DVD: On December 22, New York–based Palm Pictures announced the upcoming release of a DVD version of Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, a documentary on the legendary recording engineer by Mark Moorman. An official selection at the 2003 Sundance, Toronto, and SXSW film festivals, the DVD is slated for an April 6, 2004 release, following a limited theatrical release of the film beginning January 16. Dowd spent most of his career at Atlantic Records, helping to launch innumerable musical greats. He passed away this past October 27, in Aventura, FL.

Production guide to SACD: Also on December 22, Boulder, CO–based Airshow Mastering announced an updated version of its Artist's and Producer's Guide to Super Audio CD. "This version of the Guide addresses two areas of growing interest: surround production, and using SACD's extended capacity to reissue multiple releases on a single disc," stated editor Ann Blonston. The Guide covers SACD technical, strategic, and creative issues, and is available electronically from Airshow's website. The company has been mastering for SACD since 1998.

What recession? Highest-rolling music act in 2003 was Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band, which pulled in almost $115.9 million in concert revenue, according to a December 24 report by the Associated Press. Springsteen's total is the second-highest ever reached in a single year by any concert act. The all-time record is the $121.2 million earned by the Rolling Stones during their 1994 tour. (The numbers are for North American performances only.) Despite bad press over their criticism of President Bush, the Dixie Chicks "enjoyed [the] most lucrative country tour of all time," the report stated. The concert business grossed approximately $2.4 billion in 2003, the fourth record-setting year in a row.