TECHNOLOGY AT WORK Don't just sit there and listen, get in on the act

Interactive multimedia - it could transform the life of the music fan, says George Cole
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Would you like to interview David Bowie? Take a guided tour around Prince's mansion, or even remix tracks by your favourite artist? All this is possible thanks to a technology that some say will turn the music industry upside down: interactive mu ltimedia, which brings the worlds of music and computers together, and could transform music as we know it.

No longer will we simply listen to CDs or watch music videos, we will also control a mix of sound, pictures, text, graphics and video on our television or computer screens. We will be able to create graphics that move in time with the music, interview the record producer, or simply watch concert footage. It may only be rock'n'roll, but will we like it?

Today's youth, brought up on computer games and interactivity, want more than just a passive experience, says Graham Brown-Martin, senior vice-president of the interactive record label ESP. Many interactive multimedia titles use CD-roms, which store sound, pictures, text and video. The software giant Microsoft expects British consumers to buy more than 1 million computers this year - many of which will have CD-rom drives. Philips, Castle, CD Vision and other companies have launched dozens of music titles on Video CD, an alternative standard.

Interactive multimedia is a great opportunity for owners of music rights to create new markets for their assets, says Steve Lewis, managing director of the Echo label, of which ESP is a part. Echo's CD-Plus title, Sea of Tranquillity, contains music fromvarious artists and a demonstration version of the computer game Creature Shock.

But despite its streetwise image, the music business shies away from technology. This is the industry that threw up its hands at the CD and compact cassette. It delayed the launch of Digital Audio Tape (Dat) and effectively killed it as a consumer format. It has also shown lukewarm enthusiasm for the new digital audio formats, Digital Compact Cassette and MiniDisc.

According to the trade paper Music Week, UK music sales are expected to grow from £1.46bn this year, to more than £2bn by the end of the decade, a rise of more than 17 per cent: "With figures like these, who needs gimmicks like multimedia?" asks one record executive. Another problem is that multimedia is not cheap. "It costs around £20,000 to make a simple interactive title, but some can cost more than £300,000," says Graham Brown-Martin.

Another hurdle concerns the thorny issue of rights. "Record companies are jealously guarding their material. They know that if multimedia works, they will make big bucks," says Jim Crowfoot, CD Vision's sales manager. Over the past two years, the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, which represents musical copyright owners, and the British Interactive Multimedia Association (Bima), representing multimedia publishers and developers, have tried - and failed - to resolve the issue.

"The problem with the music industry is that it's run by ageing men who don't know how to programme a VCR. They are the people making the decisions on whether music should be used in games and multimedia," says Lawrence Kaye, a Bima negotiator. The MCPS says it sees no reason why its members should give their rights away.

Lst November the MCPS struck a royalty agreement with Cerberus Sound and Vision, which plans to launch a digital jukebox service on the Internet. Subscribers to Cerberus's service will be able to download music to their hard disk.

Some in the music industry see electronic systems such as the Internet as a threat to regulating sales and collecting royalties. Others treat it as a golden opportunity to reach new music buyers.

"Many Internet users are males aged 18 to 25 and fit the demographic profile of music fans," says Richard Davies, managing director of Good Technology, producers of Internet pages for British record companies.

But even if the industry embraces multimedia, it will not fundamentally alter the nature of the business, says Steve Lewis: "If radio didn't stop people going to live concerts, multimedia won't kill recorded music."

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