Future Meets Present at MB-5 Conference

It's five years from now. Wide bandwidth has made audio-on-demand as commonplace as ATM machines and cellular phones were in 1999. Music lovers can plug into the Internet from almost anywhere and download any tunes they wish to hear anytime they wish to hear them for only pennies per song. Portable devices the size of wristwatches contain entire libraries of music. Picture frames, computer screens, and ceiling tiles all double as loudspeakers. Intuitive programs suggest personal playlists based on databases of prior requests. People are awash in a sea of music.

And yet, vinyl records, cassette tapes, and compact discs are still produced and sold in retail outlets—in addition to ultra-high-resolution stereo and multichannel DVD recordings. The proliferation of digital formats is no problem for anyone because universal players automatically recognize and adapt to whatever they're asked to play: a small "header" tells the player the format, the number of channels, and the appropriate sampling rate. For the music lover of the near future, it's all good and all easy.

These and many other scenarios were the subjects of discussion at the recent Music Business 2005 conference, held the weekend of October 14-16 at the Ex'Pression Center for New Media in Emeryville, California, near the eastern foot of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The conference swarmed with music-business executives, recording engineers, musicians, hardware and software entrepreneurs, and the digital faithful—all gathered in the hope of shaping the future or leveraging a place in it.

Jointly sponsored by the Ex'Pression Center (a digital technology/media school), Mix and Electronic Musician magazines, Tascam, Studer, Meyer Sound, Musicmaker.com, Liquid Audio, Audiocafe.com, Emusic, NXT, Beatnik Inc., SonicNet, Sonic Solutions, and several other companies, the event featured numerous panel discussions, recording and production workshops, and new-technology demonstrations. Among the highlights of interest to cutting-edge audiophiles were MusicMaker's workshop in custom disc compilations and Sonic Solutions' clinic on creating surround-sound DVDs on its newest workstation. British high-technology company NXT demonstrated its new SoundVu visual display panels, which allow sound to radiate from a picture source such as a video monitor or projector screen.

Speakers included former Grateful Dead lyricist and Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow, who kicked off the event Friday evening. Now a fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Barlow is a renowned futurist who is credited with coining the term "cyberspace." Jay Samit, EMI's senior VP for business development, and Thomas Dolby Robertson, founder of Beatnik, Inc., and rap artist Chuck D. addressed the masses on Saturday. Jim Griffin, former head of technology at Geffen Records and most recently the founder of Cherry Lane Digital, delivered a forceful sermon on Sunday morning. Griffin is one of the industry's most powerful and charismatic speakers, a man the Los Angeles Times describes as "an entertainment technology visionary." For the past few years, Griffin has made promoting the gospel of new technology his mission in life.

Panel discussions covered changes in the business picture for music companies, new recording and playback formats, intellectual property and copyright protection, the implications of converging technology, the difficulties encountered by minorities and women in the industry, and the future of broadband websites. Engineers and musicians went home with new skills gained in master classes covering topics as varied as "Home and Commercial Studio Design in 2005" to "Serving High-Bandwidth Content from Your Web Site." Attendees enjoyed musical performances by Soul Rebel, Bobby Sirkin, and the Shan Kenner Trio. Conference producer David Schwarz, co-producer Kelli Richards, and their team are to be commended for a tremendously entertaining and enlightening event.