Rhodri Marsden: Is MusicDNA the new MP3 – and can it save the record industry?

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The Independent Tech

This week sees the annual music industry fair, Midem, wearily set up shop in Cannes, with ashen-faced delegates trudging from stall to stall, exchanging worried glances and mouthing the words "What are we going to do?" I'm exaggerating, of course, but only a bit. It's impossible to write anything about the music business without using the word "crisis" (there, got it out of the way nice and early) and the search continues for a lightning bolt of inspiration that will bring back the glory days, you know, before we worked out how to enjoy music on the cheap. Ideas do occasionally bubble to the surface, but they're either knocked back by the industry as preposterous or met with hoots of derision from music fans – like suggesting to India and Pakistan that the answer to the Kashmir question lies in the provision of free swimming lessons.

Nevertheless, a successor to the MP3 has just been suggested at Midem by Bach Technology, one of the file format's developers, as a possible revenue grabber. It goes by the name of MusicDNA, and the idea is that lyrics, tour dates, videos, status updates and blogs will be stored along with the song data, and will update regularly via the internet so you're always up to speed on that artist's activities. Pirated copies of the file won't update, the reasoning being that we'll want to fork out for our own slice of rich, ever-changing content.

A nice idea in theory, but we've shown ourselves to be stubbornly unwilling to move on from the MP3, which does its job very nicely. Audiophiles bang on about the Flac format and its superior quality, but distinguishing between Flac and a 320kbps mp3 file is virtually impossible. Apple's stab at a media-laden music format, the iTunes LP, was launched in November, but only 17 titles are currently available – although that's more impressive than CMX, the competing format from the four major labels, whose current catalogue is closer to zero. MusicDNA, to be launched this Easter, introduces "customisability" – apparently we're desperate to play around with the files – but the ultimate in customisable music formats, MXP4 and MT9, which actually allow us to remix the music, seem pretty frivolous and are shunned by musicians for obvious reasons.

Perhaps all we want to do is listen – something a service like Spotify lets us do with a minimum of messing about, no downloading, and (crucially) for free. I'd love Midem delegates – and indeed anyone in creative industries – to find a solution to their intractable problems, but right now the most obvious one involves retraining.

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