Music in a High Bandwidth Era

In many ways, a visit to a college dorm is not appreciably different from a visit would have been twenty years ago. Sure the clothes, haircuts, and music have changed. Computers have replaced stereos as the appliance of choice. Yet, a modern dorm is still filled with post-adolescent boys a little t0o big for their rooms and pretty coeds who have discovered to their chagrin that there is not enough closet space in the rooms. After only a week, the dorms acquire the pungent aroma of a gym as dirty laundry accumulates. Ears are assaulted with music set at volumes deliberately loud enough to keep pests, like adults, away.However, in one radically important way dorms are very different from their counterparts of only a half-a-dozen years ago. College dorms are now drenched in a shower of ubiquitous bandwidth, from cable television hookups to broadband Internet connections. It is not surprising, therefore, that dorms represent laboratories where we might anticipate the consequences of such bandwidth before it is universally deployed in society at large.

Perhaps one of the first noticed consequences is the sharing of copyrighted digital versions of music across the Internet. When limited to the maximum transmission rate of 56K bits per second over dialup connections, it might take over 20 minutes to download a typical song, even with compression. This inconvenience was a significant barrier to Internet exchanges of copyrighted materials. At universities, bandwidths many times greater than a dialup connection decimated such inconveniences. Transmissions times were reduced to seconds and students began to accumulate entire libraries of music on their hard disks.

This free exchange of music radically reduces the incentive of people to purchase music. In the long run, if the creators of music are not compensated for their efforts they will be disinclined to create. Fearful of a potential drainage of revenue, the music industry sent forth a phalanx of lawyers to do battle with Napster, the clearinghouse for much of this music exchange. The lawyers succeeded in subduing Napster. One can no longer share copyrighted material via Napster.

Nonetheless, such exchanges continue unabated. Schemes for exchange have sprouted faster than any litigation could suppress. These alternate schemes involve peer-to-peer exchanges rather than easily isolated servers or the servers reside offshore, outside the easy reach of attorneys. It is clear the music industry will not be able to sustain its economic model solely through litigation. Rather than standing in the road while the truck of technology rushes forward, the music industry should hitch a ride and embrace the new technology.

Perhaps the experience with video recorded movies can serve as an example. At first, the movie industry fretted that the ease of copying of video tapes would depress movie attendance and movie video sales. Ultimately, the rise of inexpensive video tape rentals made movie copying more of a chore than simply borrowing a video from a store. Moreover, such stores offered the latest releases and the tapes were of uniformly higher quality than bootleg copies. Video duplication technology did not destroy the music industry. Rather it now provides an important source of revenue. Movies that died after only short runs in theaters had new lives as video rentals. Niche movies could be marketed to narrower audiences.

The ubiquitous high bandwidth that now enables unauthorized music duplication and transmission may render such replication unnecessary. Imagine if the music industry established its own network of high-speed music servers. For a modest subscription free, any computer on the network could have instant access to virtually any song that was ever recorded. With nearly instant, uniformly high-quality access, there would be little need to spend the time to download, organize, and maintain music libraries. New recordings would be available earlier and targeted to niche audiences. Sure duplication would continue at some rate, but if subscription rates were reasonable, there would be less incentive to bother with duplication.

As high bandwidth enters wireless networks, such a system would be even more valuable. Rather than downloading songs to a MP3 player, a single device, via a wireless connection, would have access anywhere to a music library far more extensive than could ever fit into a single portable device.

There are still technical barriers to such a future. However, the sooner the music industry and the entertainment industry in general embrace such a vision, the sooner they will realize the potential profits. Hire a few more engineers and a few less lawyers.

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