MidemNet 2004 report

By Paul Hosford, partner, New Media Law

The fifth MidemNet 2004 opened the week long international music industry’s conference in Cannes. In heavily attended sessions this year, it appears, at least on the surface, that the industry is at last grasping on-demand digital distribution of music – the legal variety that is.

MidemNet is the music industry’s international forum that attracts players from every corner of the business to get together and discuss the issues confronting an industry severely impacted by the illegal distribution of millions of copies of its product.

Ted Cohen, EMI Music’ s senior VP of digital development and distribution, opened with the positive pro-industry message – commercial downloads represent the ultimate way forward for music consumers. He feels that it will come of age in 2004, and when legal battles are overcome and the consumer is empowered by commercialised P2P delivery, the industry’s bad reputation will begin to improve.

Keynote interviewee Eddy Cue of Apple’s Internet services announced what everyone suspected, the iTunes Music Store would launch in Europe at some point. iTunes throws into relief these challenges for the music business. Launched in April 2003 as a proprietary platform download service, the Music Store leverages Apple’s existing back-end infrastructure to offer a flat fee of 99 cents per track, and now offering 0.5 million tracks, made available by the Major record labels under recent licensing, but only available to US consumers. The delay in the European launch has been put down to resolving licensing across countries.

Setting out to develop “a better Kazaa” by 5 January 2004, iTunes has sold more than 30 million tracks in all kinds of genres, predominantly to an over-21 demographic. This has moved the Majors on from a proposition that only 2 and a half years ago was not on their list of potential licensing opportunities.

Whilst we all know and covet that beautifully packaged piece of must-have hardware that is the iPod, the reality is that Apples share of the 99 cents may not, in isolation, be sufficient to rev-up their share price. What is clear is that sales of iPod are going through the roof.

There has been a lot of discussion here about iTunes downloads not being platform-independent and that ultimately this may become a sticking point for the device-rich consumer who wants the flexibility to listen to their paid-for music on any device they own. In the meantime, iTunes sales still represent small numbers when compared to the world of illegal P2P sharing.

The European iTunes delay has highlighted a major problem. What will remain firmly as the principal challenge for any pan-European initiative is an industry with differing product release dates, differing licensing and rights collection mechanisms across the European territories – and differing price models. The message is clear – the industry must push through change in these licensing and publishing practices across the major markets.

In the panel sessions representatives of OD2, EMI Music, RealNetworks, French ISP Wanadoo and mmO2, debated the very real technical problems of delivering to consumers a single product where the industry’s marketplace and accounting mechanisms are territorially divergent and a very long way from uniformity. Whilst EMI’s goal is obviously, to sell more music by making it available in multiple formats on any platform, corralling all the various rights holders that share in recorded music remains the Major Labels most immediate challenge.

For the content aggregators, the ISP’s mobile networks and digital music intermediaries, the problems are different, but equally complex. They must deal with multiple payment mechanisms, differing pricing regimes and a complex value chain that makes it very challenging to deliver cost effective alternatives to paying consumers demanding of quality content. What will be critical to delivering a successful consumer experience is cross-platform transferability of the downloaded track that is paid for once.

In the meantime, the disc media formats are very much alive and kicking representing over 90 percent of music bought today. Your correspondent for one is looking forward to experiencing SACD recordings – real surround sound.

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Paul Hosford

Paul Hosford was previously a partner in the city office of a US based international practice. He has spent over 10 years advising clients exclusively in the technology, e-commerce and new media sectors. He was also formerly in-house counsel at GEC-Marconi Limited. Paul's clients include software developers and vendors, IT services and infrastructure companies, electronic publishers, web developers, ISP's and iTV and Internet based businesses, and companies supplied by such businesses.