The Future of Online Music

To get an idea of ​​where online music is headed it is important to understand the history. Let's think back to the time when music downloads first became popular. For me it was spurred in the early Napster days. Everyone was out there going crazy grabbing any and all music they could find without consequence. Then the RIAA came along and said "wait guys that's our copyrighted content you're downloading." Since that time the RIAA has been fighting an uphill battle to end copyright infringement.

After the early days of Napster and peer to peer file sharing a new crop of sites popped up offering legal music downloads. Even Napster went legit signing deals with major labels to offer unlimited access to their offerings. In order to make this a reality the record industry had to come up with a way to protect their investment.

Along came digital rights management (DRM). New DRM technologies have been used to limit access to media. In essence as long as you are subscribed to Rhapsody for example you can download and listen to as many songs as you like. You can even play them on your mp3 player (excluding iPod and Zune). The DRM kicks in by restricting the number of devices you have access from and cutting access completely when you end the subscription.

In addition, companies chose to run their own brand of DRM. This means that if you own an iPod or Zune player your options are very restricted. Apple and Microsoft do their best to force you into using iTunes and Zune Marketplace.

Over the last couple years things have changed quite a bit. Online retailers including Amazon and Wal-Mart signed deals with the major labels to sell DRM free song downloads. They key here is that you are paying a fee for each MP3 song you download but get the music without DRM restrictions. Even iTunes has started offering DRM free downloads.

Another challenge that faces online media companies is the ISP's battle to reduce network traffic and thus reduce congestion during peak times. The lack of network infrastructure, particularly in the US, is a big concern. Throttling traffic or charging customers for metered access as Comcast and Time Warner are currently testing could drive away customers. We no longer live in a world of text email and static web pages. Sites now offer rich content including streaming audio and video, social integration and an interactive setting for people to gather just as you would at your local watering hole. Hopefully customers will voice their concerns and ISP's will in turn expand their network infrastructures to allow for our ever growing bandwidth needs.

So where does this leave us? I recall mentioning excitement about the future of online downloads prior to my rants. Online music sites are looking ahead to the future. With the ability to download songs to PC, mobile phone or other web-enabled devices you will have access to the latest songs from anywhere at anytime. Sites like eMusic, Amazon MP3 and Wal-Mart Music have shown that the DRM free music is the way of the future. The next step will be to figure a way for sites like Rhapsody and Napster to offer unlimited access to DRM free music for a monthly subscription fee. I'll be the first to admit that this is no easy task but one that could prove very profitable to the music industry in this ever growing digital age.

The excitement extends beyond music as companies like Netflix offer a large selection of movie downloads free to subscribers. We're not talking about just watching on your PC either. With a set top box you can download films to watch directly on your TV. Industry experts predict that within a few years you won't run to your local video store to rent the latest DVD movies. Instead you'll simply watch them anytime on demand via download. Alright so I can hear some of you saying yeah but how long do the movies take to download? I can tell you that with Netflix I can start watching about 30 seconds after the download begins. The rest of the movie downloads while I'm enjoying the film.

In conclusion the future of online media is shining bright. Customer's spending habits can help record labels and ISP's accept that the future of music and movies is online rather than in record and video stores. The instant gratification of having access to millions of songs or thinking of a movie and watching it a minute later is enough to make me want to quit typing. So sit back, relax and enjoy what the future has in store.

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