Tech News March 2011

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1. When Napster changed the music industry

Ten years ago, in February 2001, Napster, the groundbreaking peer-to-peer file sharing music service, had the highest number of users it was ever going to get -- 26.4 million unique users spending a collective 6.3 billion minutes on the service that month.  Later that year, Napster shut down its entire network to comply with the injunction served by the courts, paid $26 million to several artists and went bankrupt.

What is left of Napster today? Well, it still exists, though you have to pay for it, so what's the point? Its legacy is what's important: Shawn Fanning's name may not be memorable, but funny enough, Sean Parker's is, thanks to his recent portrayal by Justin Timberlake in "The Social Network."  Peer-to-peer music sharing is still a thriving business, although sites like Pirate's Bay are constantly in threat of being shut down. And it's actually YouTube that carries the torch of what I consider Napster's original sentiment.  (Source: Salon.com)

2. Investors are drawn anew to digital music

Since it emerged in the 1990s, digital music has been hugely popular with fans, but for online music companies and their investors it has almost never been profitable.  And yet the money has again started pouring in.  Pandora, the popular Internet radio service, filed for an initial public offering in February that would raise $100 million. Spotify, a highly lauded European service, is reportedly raising $100 million from private equity firms to help it come to the United States.   Since the end of last year, at least $57 million in venture capital has gone to other digital music start-ups. 

The heightened interest in a field that has had few winners and a vast graveyard of losers has left some longtime executives and analysts scratching their heads. Faced with thin margins, persistent piracy and expensive licensing deals from record companies, dozens of digital music start-ups have collapsed over the last decade, taking with them hundreds of millions of dollars in investment money.  But more bullish investors point to technological developments and shifts in consumer behavior as signs that the business is about to turn a corner. These changes include the migration of digital media libraries from personal computers to the remote storage of the “cloud,” as well as the explosive success of smartphone applications.   (Source: New York Times)

3. Google announces payment system for digital content

Shortly after Apple stirred up online publishers by announcing a digital subscription plan that some called too restrictive and financially burdensome, Google has announced its own payment service for digital content that aims to be more publisher-friendly. Google’s service, called Google One Pass, is a way for online publishers to sell digital content on the Web and through mobile applications using Google’s existing payment service, Google Checkout. Readers will be able to get access to that content on many devices using their Google e-mail address and password.   Google’s service seems to directly respond to some publishers’ concerns about Apple’s plan. 

Under Apple’s plan, the company will keep 30 percent of any sale of digital content, like books, music and magazines, within its App Store and will own the subscriber information, like names and e-mail addresses. Users can choose to share that information with publishers if they want. When publishers use One Pass, which for now is limited to online newspapers and magazines, Google will keep 10 percent of the sale price and share the customer’s name, ZIP code and e-mail address unless the customer specifically asks Google not to.  (Source: New York Times)

4. Amazon launches Netflix-like streaming service

Amazon.com has launched its long-awaited subscription video-streaming service, setting itself up to be the first serious rival to fast-growing Netflix.  The online retail giant on Tuesday began offering U.S. subscribers to its $79-per-year Amazon Prime shipping service the additional benefit of access to 5,000 movies and television shows that can be streamed at no additional cost on computers and certain other Internet-connected devices.

Amazon has signed up two major studios, Sony Pictures and Warner Bros. -- to provide older movies from their libraries -- along with 13 independent providers including the BBC, PBS, Magnolia Pictures, IFC and National Geographic.  That's only a fraction of the content available to subscribers of Netflix, which has deals with every major film studio and a number of TV producers. Moreover, though most of Amazon Prime's content is more than a decade old, Netflix has much fresher titles, including movies less than a year old, thanks to deals with pay cable networks Starz and Epix.  Amazon, however, is in talks with every Hollywood studio and is said by people familiar with the matter to be seeking to grow its content selection with more and newer content.  (Source: Los Angeles Times)

5. Instant Encore: classical music goes mobile

Margo Drakos, the co-founder and COO of InstantEncore, is profiled in a recent Technology in the Arts Newsletter.  InstantEncore’s mission is to take classical music directly to its audience via a host of online services, including a digital strategy package for powering custom websites for organizations, a website builder for artists and the development of mobile apps.  (Source: TechnologyInTheArts.org)

6. Free trove of music scores on web hits sensitive copyright note


The International Music Score Library Project, a Web site founded five years ago by a then 19 year old conservatory student, has grown to be one of the largest sources of free digitized music scores anywhere. It claims to have 85,000 scores, or parts for nearly 35,000 works, with several thousand being added every month. That is a worrisome pace for traditional music publishers, whose bread and butter comes from renting and selling scores in expensive editions backed by the latest scholarship. While a boon to garret-living, financially struggling young musicians, the library has caught the attention of music publishers, who are concerned that the loss of profits will inhibit their ability to continue to publish new works.

The site (imslp.org) is an open-source repository that uses the Wikipedia template and philosophy, “a visual analogue of a normal library,” in the words of its founder, Edward W. Guo. Volunteers scan in scores or import them from other sources, oversee copyright issues and perform maintenance. Quality control — like catching missed pages — is also left to the public.  The site has recently begun adding recordings. And through a partnership with a freelance musician in Indiana who runs a publishing business, it offers low-cost, on-demand printing of the music, often at a tiny fraction of the cost of standard editions. 

To avoid claims of infringement, Mr. Guo said volunteers checked every score — 15,000 at the time — for copyright violations. In addition, a disclaimer was made to appear before any score opens, saying that the project provides no guarantee that the work is in the public domain and demanding that users obey, and take responsibility for complying with, copyright law.  (Source: New York Times)

7. Might public broadcasting follow BBC model?

As politicians in Washington debate defunding public media outlets like NPR and PBS, out of a mix of concern for the deficit and political animosity for the concept, a Miller-McCune essay suggests there’s one larger piece of context worth considering. America is the only major democracy in the West to rely almost entirely on commercial media to comprehensively inform its citizens.  As a result, public media in the U.S. is currently a small niche market, with only about 8 percent of the population in an average week listening to NPR, and 25 percent watching some PBS.  In most of Europe — and for that matter Canada, Australia and Japan — public media represent the primary electronic source of news and information for most people.
As a result, studies show that the level of knowledge about public affairs in many of these countries is both higher than it is in the U.S. and more equitably spread across education, class, race, ethnicity and gender.  A study showed that public spending per capita on media in 14 Western European countries ranges from $30 to $134 a year. In the U.S., that figure is less than $4. It goes up to about $9 when individual and corporate donations are included. 
The experience of Great Britain and other countries — and related research about the quality of their public programming and the knowledge base of their citizens — suggests the U.S. should ramp up support for public broadcasting at exactly the moment when some propose eliminating it all together.   (Source: Miller-McCune)

8. 3-D comes to Met Opera, but without those undignified glasses

In a rare case (at least in modern times) of technical innovation born on the opera stage, the Metropolitan Opera said it planned to introduce 3-D projections for its production of “Siegfried” next season, the third installment in its new “Ring” cycle, directed by Robert Lepage.  If the technology works as advertised, the singers will appear to move inside a three-dimensional world created by projections. But tuxedo-clad operagoers will not face the indignity of wearing goofy 3-D glasses. The creators say that the complex mathematical formulas used to create the three-dimensional effect will obviate the need for glasses.  (Source: New York Times

9. The REAL death of the Music industry

Reporter Michael DeGusta has analyzed 35 years of data on the recording industry and drawn a number of conclusions and observations, including:

  • The recorded music industry has been on a steep decline for some time:
    - 10 years ago the average American spent almost 3 times as much on recorded music products as they do today.
    - 26 years ago they spent almost twice as much as they do today.
  • The recording industry makes almost all its money from full-length albums, which no one is buying any more
  • Downloaded albums & singles have grown nicely, but not nearly enough to offset the loss of the physical equivalents
  • Surprisingly, two of the big new areas, mobile and subscriptions, appear to both already be in decline 
  • That only leaves internet & satellite radio – Pandora, etc — and others that pay via SoundExchange. It had a good uptick since 2007, but that’s when they negotiated royalty rates for online broadcasters. Even if they maintain some solid growth, it still adds up to a pittance.

His overall conclusion, supported by detailed graphs and charts, is that the smaller and shrinking recorded music industry is likely here to stay.  (Source: Business Insider)

10. Royal Opera House's 3-D version of 'Carmen' is a game-changing stunner

A Royal Opera House production of George Bizet's tragic "Carmen" has arrived in theaters worldwide equipped with RealD technology. Filmed during several live stagings in London, according to critic Andrew Druckenbrod, it is both stunning and in need of some tweaking.

“Standard filming of live opera [has] existed for years on VHS and DVD formats. Recent migration to movie theaters by the Met, La Scala and other companies has been successful at bringing the art form to non-buffs. But even with close-up shots and enhancements such as interviews and backstage access, there's never any doubt you are watching a film.  3-D is a different story. It puts you close to the singers, as well. But now you feel you are on the stage because there is a depth of field behind them. That's something that most directors strive for with sets anyway, manipulating scale and viewpoints. Films, TV shows and video games in 3-D abound with gimmickry -- objects flung at the audience and the like. But this production, filmed by director Julian Napier, refreshingly takes the technology quite seriously.”

The critic also had issues with the film: “One, there are aspects of opera that you don't want to see close-up. I am not talking about the old stereotype of the heavy Valkyrie. But opera is meant to reach the cheap seats: both singing style and in costumes and makeup. This issue is a common complaint with traditional simulcasts and films of opera, but it seemed more obvious in the gorgeous digital 3D of RealD.  The solution is one I expect will happen as this or other companies get experience filming in 3-D -- knowing when to pan back.”   (Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)