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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 09:07 GMT
Music marches to a digital beat
By Alfred Hermida
Technology editor, BBC News website in Las Vegas

Apple iPod in music dock, AP
The iPod has popularised legal music downloads
There was a time when any discussion about music on the net would have been all about file-sharing, piracy and the decline of CD sales.

But in a sign of how things have changed, the talk now is of what kind of legal download services will resonate with music fans.

And the people involved in these new offerings are looking forward to a time when digital music services will be available at any time, on any device.

"The jukebox in the sky is such a

cliché but those kinds of things are coming," said Paul Greenberg, senior vice president of business development for online music supplier MusicNet.

"Getting these services off the PC is an obvious step, whether to the cell phone to a device that is wi-fi enabled, to the set up box to a game console."

"We've got to get to where the consumer is. We're not quite there yet," he told a session on the future of digital music at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Music to go

The annual technology trade show provides clues to where the industry is heading.

This year, the show floor was packed with portable media players of every shape and size seeking to capitalise on the huge interest in music on the go.

Sales of MP3 players in the US rose by 200% last year, according to recent figures, and they are forecast to continue to grow.

MP3 players at CES, BBC
Music players were everywhere at CES
Much of the music on those players has come from the iTunes online store.

Apple's success has shifted the debate in the industry from whether to offer music online, to how to offer music online.

"The underlying tendency is to allow consumer flexibility," explained Christopher Allen, who runs product strategy and marketing at Yahoo's music division.

Currently companies like Yahoo are experimenting with subscription services, which impose a monthly charge for unlimited access to an extensive library of tunes.

The catch is users never own the music and lose it when they stop paying. This has led some to question the viability of such services.

"We like to own things, we hate to rent things," said CEO Srivats Sampath of music streaming service Mercora.

"Downloads are the future. Subscription models are not going to work."

Big time

Others argue that cable TV has proved that subscriptions work and believe the model could be applied to music.

Christina Aguilera on Motorola music phone, AP
Mobile phones are mutating into music players too
Cable has persuaded people to pay on a regular basis for TV, something that they were used to getting for free.

"If you give me quality and choice and a breadth of selection, I will be willing to pay for it," said David Ulmer, senior marketing director for Motorola.

The handset maker is betting on the willingness of fans to pay monthly fees, having launched a music subscription service for mobiles.

What is clear is that the way people can find out about music and listen to it is going through dramatic changes.

At CES, there was feeling in the air that digital is on the cusp of hitting the big time.

"This will be the year the pantheons of the music industry like the Beatles will find digital attractive and move to it," said Mr Ulmer.




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