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Jewish World Review March 9, 2001 / 14 Adar, 5761

Christopher Borrelli

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Consumer Reports

Will digital delivery of online music conquer the world? -- AGAINST his better judgment, Peter Howard still believes in the compact disc. Fifteen years ago, correctly figuring the future of recorded music was the CD, he launched a monthly publication dedicated to the format, ICE Magazine. It has since gone from a thin newsletter to a glossy record store staple, and despite rapid changes in technology, Howard hasn't changed his opinion much. CDs are his life.

"You can't beat them," he says. And that's what people said about the 8-track.

Spin this: Howard's future looks muddy and sounds great.

"It's interesting," he said. "As a founder, publisher, and owner of a compact disc magazine, I am just now almost willing to admit almost that CDs have peaked and the long, slow descent has begun into the digital distribution of all music."

Could this be the end of the assembly line for CDs? And if so, could this also mark the end of - GASP! - album covers? Liner notes? Lazy Saturday afternoons spent flipping through racks of used CDs?

Talk about incredible shrinking media: You replaced your Neil Young LPs with 8-tracks, those 8-tracks with cassette tapes, those tapes with compact discs. Now what?

"Now nothing," said Andrea Fleming, a vice president at Liquid Audio, an online music distribution company. "That's it. A 100 percent digital future, with no discs at all, is probably 10 years out - but the future is digital."

In the meantime, songs will be downloaded and burned onto blank CDs, she says. But eventually, technology aspires to cut out the middle man, and when that happens, no tapes, no discs, and no recorded music you can hold in your hand. Only a jukebox in the ether. Every song, every album, old and new, available anywhere for downloading, 24 hours a day, much like the beleaguered Napster.

"All the music industry has to do is solve the (digital distribution) business model," Howard said. "And it is solvable. Napster is just how digital distribution emerged. It's not the end-all."

If there is a tangible step beyond the CD, media analysts say it's probably going to be DVD-Audio or Sony and Philips Electronics' Super Audio CD. Both look like traditional CDs. Both use multichannel, high-resolution digital encoding for more natural sound.

The International Recording Media Association, the leading industry advocate group, is betting on DVD-Audio. With DVD-A titles just now trickling into neighborhood record stores, the switch-over should take a couple of years, according to IRMA president Charles Van Horn. And the association is assuming record buyers don't feel duped about replacing their entire music collection yet again - this time with more CDs.

"There's a lot to be said for tangibility," Howard said.

People like having their music collection on a shelf. Online music sites know this and are working hard to "recreate the feeling of having physical album art and liner notes in your hand," said Liquid Audio's Fleming.

But the idea is cold, said Seth Anderson, a Bowling Green (Ky.) State University sophomore and operations manager for the school's radio station, WBGU. "I'm one of those people who enjoys to look at artwork on an album, or even a CD," he said. "I enjoy having it there - really there. You should be able to touch it."

Christopher Borrelli writes for the Toledo Blade. Comment by clicking here.


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