RIAA Adopts New Digital Strategy

When going up against the consumer electronics industry, the Recording Industry Association of America has no problem keeping the upstarts in their place. In fact, with recent battles over DAT and CD-R, they appear able to kill or mortally wound entire formats at will. But fighting within the computer universe is a whole new story, as recently proved by the RIAA's stumble with Diamond Multimedia and their portable MP3 device (see related stories).

With their rump still stinging from the Rio/MP3 setback, the RIAA is ready to fight fire with fire. Adopting the stance of aggressive tech companies like Microsoft, the RIAA is gearing up to "embrace and extend" in an effort to get control of what they perceive to be rampant digital music piracy. According to a report in Variety, on December 15 the RIAA is planning to announce the formation of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), an organization comprising music- and computer-industry suits who will attempt to create an open and universal standard for downloading music from the Internet. Several technologies already exist for downloading music, from companies such as Liquid Audio and RealNetworks, as well as the notorious MP3. But the group hopes to settle on a widespread standard that is acceptable to record labels and the Internet industry alike.

First on the agenda will be to find a method of controlling copyright violations to get a handle on the rampant piracy that the RIAA fears is unstoppable with the MP3 format. Some record labels have reportedly prevented their artists from releasing MP3 tracks on a band's own website, which is seen as a way of getting around the large music companies. Next, a new format will have to provide a revenue mechanism to give labels the incentive to release new material as a stream of digits. Finally, the SDMI will likely try to develop a standard that provides the minimum level of quality necessary to garner a mass market, yet require modest amounts of bandwidth.

In an excerpt from the draft press release obtained by Variety, RIAA executive Hilary Rosen states, "in the past year, a number of companies have come to us with creative ideas involving digital music, inquiring about how those ideas can become reality. By creating an open standard that will ensure compatibility and interoperability among products and services, the SDMI provides the vehicle for these companies to pursue specific business models so that a legitimate digital marketplace can emerge." Variety also reported that, along with representatives from the major record labels, computer-industry firms America Online, AT&T, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, Sony, and Toshiba have also been asked to join the group.

Of concern to audiophiles, of course, is what will be considered "good enough" for a new format. In a world where highly compressed methods such as MP3 are considered "CD quality," one would hope that the labels and computer mavens recognize the need for more than one universal standard, with the market for premium audio not relegated only to the physical world of CD and DVD.