Digital Downloads from EMI

This spring, downloadable digital music from EMI may begin popping up everywhere, if a new arrangement with Supertracks goes as planned. The two companies have created what they believe is a secure system for downloading music to computers, portable players, and to CD burners at kiosks in shopping malls. The news follows by only a couple of weeks an announcement that Warner Music and EMI will merge their operations under the larger umbrella of AOL Time Warner.

Digital singles will be offered first, to be followed by full-length albums. Prior to the Supertracks deal, EMI had already encoded its catalog with both and Liquid Audio. Supertracks' system is compliant with the Secure Digital Music Initiative's copyright-protection standards, which developed from the music industry's reaction to the MP3 free-music phenomenon. EMI's vice president for new media, Jeremy Silver, hopes the move will normalize commerce between music fans and record labels. "This is the beginning of making digital distribution a normal part of the business," he said. "There will be a way for honest people to take part in this without turning themselves into pirates."

The industry was blindsided by MP3, which began as a grass-roots movement among Internet-connected students eager to share their favorite tunes with their friends. Hundreds of MP3 websites sprang up seemingly overnight, with tens of thousands of songs archived on server computers. The music industry is fighting an ongoing legal battle against what it sees as blatant theft of intellectual property, while preparing for the dawning age of high-resolution music-on-demand. The EMI/Supertracks arrangement is a step in both directions.

"EMI is very serious about digital music being its third distribution arm, along with cassettes and CDs," said Supertracks CEO Charles Jennings. (Cassette tapes still account for a substantial, if dwindling, portion of the retail music business.) EMI's labels—Virgin, Blue Note, Capitol, and Angel—encompass more than 1500 recording artists. Works by artists signed to Warner Music will be rolled in later as the system gains marketplace momentum.

Similar deals are in development with other members of the so-called Big Five, the conglomerates who control the majority of the world's recorded music. Universal Music is working with to put its catalog online in a secure format. Music via vending machine is also on its way from Sony Music, which has a deal with Digital On-Demand to deliver musical content to retailers through the high-speed "Red Dot Network." Music fans insert cash or credit cards at kiosks in retail stores, and take away playable code in exchange: no shipping costs, no defective returns, and complete portability make downloadable music attractive to retailers as well as customers. The system may ultimately make the delivery of music as fleeting and impermanent as the music itself.