MP3 Summit Two: 1999
So much has changed and so much is the same since last year’s MP3 Summit. The first and most noticeable difference is the sheer quantity of people attending this year’s MP3 Summit. There were probably something on the order of 500 folks at this year’s versus around 100 last year. A lot of the same folks are around, which is fun; it’s great to see those familiar old faces, the people down in the trenches of digital audio. But there were a number of people who were “conspicuously absent” from this year’s convention. Nullsoft, namely. I suppose America Online wants to get a better grip of where, exactly, they should position themselves in this industry before they start pushing themselves in the space.Liquid Audio representatives were present, but only very quietly: they had no booth. Same for the RIAA: save a few interjected peanut-gallery style comments at certain “anti-RIAA moments” on the panel, they were here to observe and not to speak; somewhat of a first for them. Ever a sign of the times, Microsoft had their little Internet audio booth; I thought it was kind of funny, given that they are essentially anti-MP3 (they are pushing their own audio codec) and more or less in competition with most of the attendees in some form or another. Well, chalk nerve up to Bill and friends if nothing else.
And where was Saehan Information Systems, the makers of the original MP-Man? An Naiam, working on a portable MP3 CDROM player? It did seem strange that some of the most notable hardware pioneers in the space didn’t show up. Mind you, we had our fair share of hardware companies: indeed, the vast majority of the advertising companies were showcasing set-top boxes or portable players. Last year, most the exhibitors were software based: this year, hardware and service companies dominated the space.
Some lesser-recognized heroes of the revolution were also in attendance. Notably, Karlheinz Brandenburg, the principle inventor of the MP3 and AAC formats, was found quietly perusing the various booths with a smile on his face, observing the industry spawned from his 20 years of intensive audio compression research. I bumped into some of the Icecast folks who are now being sponsored by Green Witch. They’re hard at work making some of the world’s best streaming technology available freely as Open Source, and I found them an very likeable crew.
The panels tended to be pretty lively, with some playful (and at times mildly vituperative) commentary on where things were heading. Arguably the most entertaining panel of the conference was the one on “Music as a Virus,” in which rapper Ice-T delivered very witty dialogue interacting with the businessmen to his right and the lawyers to his left, delivering such classic quotes as “If music is a virus, I’m betting on the virus!” Altogether, panelists seemed to have a much more holistic and compromising viewpoint than last year, and I found myself agreeing with commentary from a large number of sources; it seems that people who think reasonably actually agree with each other. Last year’s panelists were a bit more hardheaded about their visions on the future and sparks flew a bit more violently, but the sheer wit and vision of this year’s participants more than made up for the lack of outright confrontation.
Amusingly, ASCAP made a big hubbub about granting a streaming license to MP3.com, despite the fact that ASCAP has been offering companies in the space web licenses for about a year and a half. Why this would be “groundbreaking” astounds me.
The group of the day seemed to be the MP3-2000 crew, who showed up an olio of youths from all around the world. In fact, this was the first time that many of them had ever met. Their president was a quiet 14-year-old Korean, leading the gang (14-24) from all around the world (including a particularly cool highschooler from Australia). Welcome to the new world economy.
Logitech, too, had an invisible presence at the conference, as their cute little PC speakers were powerfully pumping out most of the music played at the conference. Hey, great advertising! Some people just know how to play the market.
A fair number of companies showed up both in booths and in person looking at aggregating content in a style similar to a record label, with varying degrees of service and/or exclusivity provided. Some are looking to do A&R, serving only artists who meet their “quality checks,” and others are looking to pump out any music they can get their hands on. B-Ya-Self Records and Spin Records seemed to be pretty hip to what was going on in the market, signing artists non-exclusively and providing them with a full array of label-type services. This was a great place to be for an artist: I had the particular pleasure of directing the cheerful lead singer of a goth-industrial band to these netlabels. I’d imagine this would be a bit of a candy store for him.
eMusic came with a very interesting hodgepodge of talent, clearly heavily involved on the financial, legal, music, and OpenSource fronts. With a confusing combination of withering sales ($20k last quarter) and exciting acquisitions and upcoming announcements, the future of this eLabel is a tad unclear. They’re one of the few people in the space still pursuing exclusive contractual arrangements, providing a perplexing combination of completely open information, such as with freeamp and other OpenSourced software, open music through their use of free and standardized protocols, and closed intellectual property via their exclusive online arrangements. While an odd bag, the whole bunch were all quite friendly and perkily optomistic about the company’s future. Here’s hoping they make some money and keep all those nice people employed. Their leader, Gene Hoffman, 23, was busy testifying in front of Congress, and couldn’t attend. (A reasonable excuse if I ever heard one!)
In general, one could definitely sense the money moving in. The companies represented included more “big money,” and lawyers and CEOs were there by the dozen, investigating, poking, prodding, wheeling, and dealing. The industry is clearly the future, but, as elucidated in the multiple panels, nobody’s quite sure how to make a buck off the thing. The MP3 community is turning into a business-dominated space, but, as so many other “eBusinesses” in the space, nobody is actually turning much of a profit yet.