There is a reason people still buy CDs more than they do digital albums. Actually there are several, but viruses that come along with music via peer-to-peer sites (P2P) and a concern over digital rights management (DRM) aren't the only culprits.
Digital music files just don't provide the same amount of content that a CD package does. That includes liner notes, extended album art and lyrics. Buy a digital album today and all you get are a list of tracks and (maybe) a thumbnail image of the album cover that you can't even read.
It's one of the reasons music fans still turn to P2P networks for their music. In addition to providing music free of charge and free of DRM, P2P sites in many cases also include digital copies of such extras typically found in the CD. According to label sources and pirate network tracking firms, fans downloading full albums from BitTorrent sites almost universally choose files that include scans of the CD booklet over those that don't.
Of course, there is little that can be done with those scans other than view them on a computer. Imagine if the music industry and the digital music services got together and offered an official way to access the same content, but make it available on portable devices as well as make it interactive.
There are two ways to accomplish this. One is working directly with a digital music service and hardware developer to ensure all this new content has an outlet. The other is to go it alone.
For the former, iTunes is the most likely candidate.
Although hardly life-threatening, iTunes is facing new competition from Amazon and a variety of social networking sites. While it has made great advancements with the iPod, iTunes' innovation has been slow. The service looks and operates much like it always has. The only new features are in video.
In 2008, look for Apple to make nice with its label partners by offering a bit more with each download, such as lyrics and more interactive album art.
iTunes is the only music service that has a built-in video download feature. The others offer only streaming video. It's also one of the few services that feature a tightly integrated device — the iPod. Apple is in a great position to roll out new features across its online store and its devices at the same time.
Microsoft's Zune is another place to watch for this, for the same reasons. It also has the integrated service and device, as well as ownership of the technical building blocks needed (such as Windows Media Player). And since it's still lagging far behind Apple in the digital music game, Microsoft could easily tap digital extras as a battleground for new market share.
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The problem is that the four major music companies rarely work together on anything. So another angle would be for each to go it alone. If digital music services can't or won't incorporate better metadata into their downloaded files, look for third-party applications to emerge that will do so after the fact.
Early examples of this are two games developed for the iPod — "Musicka," created by the developers of the original music rhythm game "PaRappa the Rapper," and "Phase," created by "Rock Band" and original "Guitar Hero" developer Harmonix. Both are rhythm-based games that let users "play" along to the songs on their device by pressing buttons at the right time.
The point is that if these game companies can do it, there is no reason why labels can't offer (or commission) their own iPod plug-in that will import better album art, liner notes and lyrics directly from the label or artist and ported into iTunes and the iPod.
In the year ahead, look for several efforts from both camps as digital music distribution becomes more important to the music industry as well as a point of increasing competition among service providers.
Here are a few areas to watch:
As music formats have changed through the years, album artwork has suffered. It has gone from sprawling center spreads adorning vinyl LPs to stamp-sized thumbnails accompanying MP3 files. But as digital becomes the predominant format, look for album art to evolve.
The early groundwork for this already has been laid. Last spring, Warner Music Group (WMG) added interactive booklets based on Apple's Quicktime software to about 75 albums sold on iTunes, providing photos and links to more multimedia content. The problem was it was also based on Flash technology, which the latest version of Quicktime disabled due to a security flaw.
There is additional activity on the mobile front. All labels are working with phone manufacturers on the "mobile album" concept — a bundled digital package that includes the full song, ringtone, wallpaper image and other assets for one price.
While a lyrics page is quite commonplace in the pages of a CD booklet, they are nonexistent with digital music files. In fact, most digital music services only let users search for songs by artist, track or album name. None have an integrated lyrics search tool, and you certainly can't download lyrics to your iPod or other device.
Slowly, things are changing. Yahoo Music last year launched the first publisher-authorized online lyrics search page thanks to Gracenote, which has taken on the task of untangling the Gordian knot of music lyrics publishing rights for service providers.
That search page isn't integrated with the Yahoo Music Unlimited service, though. What's lacking is an affordable way to attach those lyrics to the digital file of the song they belong to. Digital music services would have to pay an extra fee per download to offer that capability, and devices would have to add a new "lyrics" tab or some other functionality for users to subsequently access the words while the song plays.
Look for Gracenote and its service provider partners to develop exactly that in the year ahead.
Perhaps the most fundamental changes coming to album extras are in the liner notes. In a CD booklet, it's all well and good to list a bunch of people to thank and leave it at that. In the digital age, liner notes become far more interesting.
Rather than thanking so-and-so producer for doing such a great mixing job or their family for support, digital albums can provide behind-the-scenes footage of the producer and band at work, or perhaps a "making of" featurette, interview Q&A, family photos/video, etc.
One area to look for such innovation is with the CDVU+ and MVI formats created by Walt Disney and WMG, respectively. Technically these are multimedia CD formats, not digital music formats. But both represent a step toward expanding the way all involved view a music product.
Both add what can best be called "digital magazines" to a CD that, when inserted into a computer, allow fans to access videos, link to online features, lyrics and more. These physical products represent the bridge between old-school CDs and the digital future. As labels focus on selling more digital albums instead of individual tracks in the new year, expect them to learn from these experiments and begin creating similar all-digital packages as well.