RealTime IT News

How Will Plug.In Play Out?

If you were to peruse the menu for the sixth annual Jupiter Media Metrix-hosted digital music festival slated for next Monday and Tuesday at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in New York City, you would find a lot to get excited about.

It seems all the necessary major players are represented at Plug.In. Napster skipper Hank Barry will serve as afternoon keynote on Tuesday; AOL Music's top-guy Kevin Conroy will tune in as Monday's morning keynote (yes, he was moved up from the afternoon slot); RealNetworks Inc.'s chief Rob Glaser, if you look at Jupiter's latest note, is due to speak both days. For the love of digital music, Tuesday also has Edgar Bronfman, Jr., executive vice chairman of Vivendi Universal as a keynote and Andreas Schmidt, president and CEO of Bertelsmann's eCommerce Group serving in the same capacity.

Those are absolutes. What's less known is what they're going to announce, which JMM associate analyst Dannielle Romano said Friday is anyone's guess. But pressplay, the child of Vivendi Universal and Sony Music Entertainment, and MusicNet, spawn of AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann AG and EMI Group plc, will garner much attention because their ballyhooed services will launch in August if all goes according to their plans.

"It's fair to say that almost every big name will have something really dramatic to talk about," Romano told InternetNews.com. "You can expect that MusicNet and pressplay will receive attention because everybody is in the dark about how they are going to present their platforms. This is an opportunity for them to position themselves before the industry."

But keynotes aside, Romano said three key gigs shouldn't be missed. Seattle's Loudeye Technologies Inc. will be sponsoring mid-morning refreshment sessions where they will demonstrate how their end-to-end digital audio infrastructure has evolved -- something not revealed in the JMM show blueprint. Loudeye made waves a couple of weeks ago when it acquired assets of theDial, the creator and syndicator of original, online radio programming. Loudeye has also showed its interest in monetizing content as it picked up Addition Systems, a developer of streaming ad and content insertion software.

Second, Romano said Alanis Morisette, a multi-platinum selling pop star, should pack some punch with an artist's perspective of the whole online music industry. Morisette, along with performers such as Don Henley, Dr. Dre and Metallica, has been outspoken about artists rights as they apply in the digital music realm.

"As an artist it behooves her to take the stand and talk about the impact online music has made on her," Romano said.

While there are broad-sweeping panels on the evolution of online music scheduled, as well as differing record label and file sharing firm angles on the subject, these issues are nothing that haven't been discussed ad nauseum for the last two years. There is a panel slated for noon on Monday dubbed "Artists, Labels, and Management Collide: Who's in Control?" Who indeed? That, too, is a question scads of people have been posing, all the while stirring much debate. Probably no surprises there.

But the third key panel Romano said to catch is run by teens. That's right -- teenagers.

One way to look at "who's in charge" is to ask yourself the question: what is the dominant demographic of music listeners? Teens. No matter how you slice it, teens drive the music market, whether it's their almost spiritual love of Britney Spears or the Dave Matthews Band. And so it goes with online music. Created by a college student, Napster become a smash hit on college campuses nearly two years ago, which is of course filled with teens, in between-teens and young twenty-somethings. (To be sure, that was then; this is now. We won't talk about the fact that Napster's global use plummeted 65 percent among home users in 14 leading wired countries, from 6.3 billion minutes in February 2001, to 2.2 billion minutes in June 2001, according to the latest JMM figures.

Romano said "Special Focus: Teenage Music Consumption," will feature a variety of teens "to provide first-hand insight into the behavior and expectations of this critical demographic." True, this is a 5 p.m. panel (not exactly a time reserved for priority speakers), but this will address the voices of consumers least often heard.

"So many people try to guess what teens want. As hip as an execs thinks they might be, they have yet to come up with anything groundbreaking to hook teens for online music," Romano said. "They need to know what motivates them."

Then there are the sideline players; CenterSpan, the successful heir to the Scour.com throne, is sponsoring Monday's 1 p.m. luncheon. That firm has billed itself as the alternative to Napster with its C2 peer-to-peer platform. CenterSpan has prided itself on its ability to "mediate" or "gate" the dispensation of music files using P2P technology and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows DRM technology. Indeed, CenterSpan launched a music subscription service beta in March and has not looked back.

CenterSpan Vice President of Marketing Andy Mallinger told InternetNews this week that it is CenterSpan's first time as a sponsor of the show. His excitement in a phone interview, though noticeable, was offset by his reluctance to discuss the major announcement his firm will be making next week. But we do know this: it has something to do with MusicNet or pressplay. This would make sense as neither newborn has download technology in place.

"I can't talk about deals specifically, but we will be announcing a major deal for us at Plug.In," Mallinger said.

Digital music won't be the only technological phenomenon discussed at Plug.In. Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment will demonstrate Screenblaster, a broadband service in which Web users would pay for software that can be used to create their own songs and video; think of it as a do-it-yourself tool for independent artists.

Screenblast makes it possible for aspiring artists to store digital versions of performances and mix the tracks into songs. On the video side, users will be able to manipulate footage to insert things into the action or rearrange scenes. Novice producers and directors can post their art on the site for public viewing.

Others scheduled to show their wares or discuss their technologies include MUSICMATCH, which offers a music subscription service based on ad-free, streaming music; music application service provider RioPort Inc.; DataPlay, the maker of a quarter-sized disk that holds 500 megabits of digital content; and digital rights management provider Reciprocal.

Those who want a peek at what's on Plug.in's menu as of Friday may go here.