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Now, That’s Entertainment Technology

When media and tech collide, the consumer wins. Prepare for a media world of unimaginable freedom and endless choices.

With the proliferation of Web-based sharing of music, movies and TV shows, entertainment media are spiraling out of corporate control. Flustered by lackluster CD sales and fleeing artists, the Recording Industry Association of America was the first to signal its panic, suing a lone Kazaa user for almost a quarter of a million dollars. The trend the RIAA was reacting against: the proliferation of media created by, and popularized by, the users themselves. As Richard Watson, author of Future Files: A History of the Next 50 years, puts it, “If digital content costs almost zero to create and distribute then anyone can, and will, create and distribute it. In a sense, everyone in the future will be a media owner.” If everyone’s an owner, doesn’t that mean we’re all competitors (or even enemies) of the media companies? How will the showdown end?

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A look into our own crystal ball reveals some interesting truths: Indeed, entertainment media are becoming democratized – but in most cases, everybody wins. Consumers get cheaper, more portable media, and the corporations producing it will see lower overhead, bigger runaway successes, and less risk. Here’s a look at the technologies that are changing entertainment and where they are likely to (peacefully) take us.

Music

There’s been plenty of buzz about Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, but let’s get it out in the open: DRM is an anachronism, and its demise is inevitable. The software, which prevents consumers from moving purchased music from computer to computer, has been the main locus of frustration among iPod and iTunes users. But with Steve Jobs’ public letter decrying rights protection and now Amazon’s DRM-free online music store , the heavyweights have made their positions on DRM known – and outed the record companies as the software’s “bad guy” advocates. Since more teenagers are purchasing digital music every year, it’s only a matter of time before companies like Apple and Amazon leverage their influence to make rights management a thing of the past.

While DRM is dying, the record labels’ headaches have only just begun. Artists like Prince, Radiohead, and Nine Inch Nails have already broken ties with their labels and are now offering their own music directly to consumers, and in many cases they are distributing their product at no cost to consumers (or asking them to name their own price.) By raising capital with private companies and distributing music digitally, they circumvent the autocratic and profit-hogging record companies they once needed to produce and distribute tangible records.

So where are artists getting the capital? One high-profile source is Starbucks, which is touting a new label and a new flagship artist, Paul McCartney, who also recently left his label. The coffee giant has partnered with Apple to offer the Wi-Fi iTunes music store in all of its shops, along with free Internet service to boost the label’s exposure. Now there’s news that Madonna, Oasis and Jamiroquai are also breaking with their labels, turning to concert promotion companies and other corporate entities for funding. It seems that a growing number of musicians are leveraging their brands to establish “movie star” independence, with which they can avoid production contracts, share in profits, and maintain more creative control.

Producing music without a label is one endeavor, but selling it independently is riskier. More bands may try Radiohead’s direct-to-consumer approach, selling downloadable music directly from their Websites, but that will quickly become the province of truly newsworthy artists with a cult following. However the trend develops, it’s becoming clear that as physical CDs become an optional medium for buying music, where you buy them (if at all) is equally optional.

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Buying music will always exist in some incarnation – Radiohead made $10 million in week of donation-based downloads – but trying music is becoming an increasingly popular way to find new sounds. Take Imeem.com, for example; the site allows users to stream audio of their favorite bands, and share it with friends. Notably, Imeem has recently reached agreements with both Sony/BMG and Warner Music to offer streams of new music from big-name artists on its site. While Imeem doesn’t permit downloads, it allows users to figure out if they actually like a song before going somewhere else to buy it. The participation of Sony/BMG and Warner Music also suggests that the media tech boom doesn’t have to leave the big companies behind; if they’re prescient and flexible enough, they can get in on the action, too.

Trying instead of buying has already proliferated on MySpace, where users embed music widgets of their favorite songs on their profiles, allowing others to listen. Not to be outdone, Facebook is preparing its own “music platform” with similar functionality, adding the ability for users to buy songs they like through iTunes. Both sites allow (or will soon allow) artists to create official pages to promote their music, and with tens of millions of users using iTunes, it won’t be long before social networks become huge outlets for music sales. If the record labels can keep civil relationships with Apple, platform-based buying might be another way the boardroom crowd can keep profiting from the dorm room crowd.

Music fans who introduce new bands to their friends may also stand to make a dollar off their efforts. Producer will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas has monetized the small world of music widgets by volunteering to share revenue with users who embed his widget-based music store in their blogs or sites. His program, called Musicane, was released to coincide with his newest album release in late August. The widget also allows users to upload and sell their own music, which can also be embedded for sale on others’ sites.

Radio

What is the future of radio? Frankly, it’s bleak.

While traditional radio has tried to revamp itself by adding “HD” channels, the music that arrives over the airwaves is still sub-CD quality and is littered with commercials. That satellite radio hasn’t delivered old-time radio its death knell is the fault of no one but the satellite companies. Eventually, XM and Sirius subscription prices will drop with costs, and FM radio will lose the advantage of being free. As built-in MP3 and satellite support grace more cars as stock equipment, car buyers will finally breathe a sigh of relief at never again having to hear local commercials exhorting them to buy cars.

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While FM may die, listeners will still benefit from the concept of radio – that is, someone else making a playlist, exposing them to new music, and doing it 24/7. Any radio outside a car will likely be heard through fast, high-quality broadband. Enter CBS’s Last.fm, which communalizes the process of playlist creation and allows users to embed playlists on their personal sites. You can also “tag” songs you hear that you like, saving them for later purchasing, which can also be done through the site.

A similar concept will gain popularity with other streaming widgets like iLike for Facebook. The iLike application streams songs you like and also displays what your friends are listening to, localizing the notion of radio to expose listeners to new music from your group of friends.

The most obvious successors to radio are services like Pandora, which provides an intelligent, personalized radio experience that can measure a song’s attributes (like tonality and syncopation) to suggest other songs a listener might like. Once combined with more intuitive purchasing options, personalized Internet radio will provide a service plain old radio never dreamed of. It’s likely that one of these services will expand to ubiquity, gaining support in Wi-Fi-enabled MP3 devices that will let listeners roam their cities or campuses with uninterrupted Internet radio. Of course, for that to happen, municipalities will have to make good on promises of free Wi-Fi, and in many cities that remains a cost-prohibitive and obstacle-ridden process.

Film

As with CDs, the notion of a tangible disc is quickly losing its utility, and digital, downloadable replacements for the DVD are an eventuality. Granted, movies are massive data files, and downloading a movie still isn’t as quick or painless as it will be in a broader-band future. But already, companies like NetFlix are offering PC-based Internet movie rentals, and iTunes allows you to buy movies from its store and save them on your Apple TV or iPod. That’s great, but until the Web is better at tossing around 8 or 12GB files, there will still be a need for discs. Which disc that will be is debatable; until HD-DVD and Blu-Ray duke it out for the title of DVD successor, viewers can occupy themselves figuring out which movies to buy or rent in the first place. And they can use new services like B-Side to do it.

B-Side’s ostensible purpose is to offer exposure for indie films that don’t get the PR blitz that comes with a major studio release. The site calculates each of its movies’ popularity by both user ratings and real-life festival viewers’ reactions, assuring that movies are ranked by both common plebes and movie buffs alike. The best part: since most of these films aren’t big studio productions, you can buy downloadable copies for only $3. The site has interactive feedback that takes suggestions from and makes suggestions to its users, and the interface is clean and wonderfully usable. The customers aren’t the only beneficiaries; B-Side shares half its profits with the film companies that produce the independent films it carries.

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While music production is an increasingly low-overhead enterprise, movie production isn’t getting any cheaper, so it’s likely that the film industry won’t see quite the surge of unsponsored talent that the music world will. That said, movie-making is a very accessible enterprise – using a camera is easier than playing a guitar – and it’s likely that the popularity of ultra low-budget short films or series like Lonelygirl15 will continue to crop up on video-sharing sites Web-wide. How these can be reliably monetized is anyone’s guess, but suffice to say: their continued popularity suggests they will be.

Gaming

The ubiquity of network gaming is finally bringing back the old spirit of games – real human competition – to the formerly isolated world of console-based entertainment. But less isolation also means a less needy audience. With the ability to challenge an infinite number of competitors, Xbox and PS3 users no longer run out and purchase a new game once they’ve beaten an older one. The Ninendo Wii will suffer from the same problem (or boon, depending on your perspective) as its action-based multiplayer games are practically social events, and are almost endlessly playable.

For gaming companies, less frequent game-buying means earning revenue from somewhere else, and since there’s a limit to what customers will pay for a game, advertising might be the solution. Video game makers have been subtly (or not so subtly) working in the occasional brand presence to their games (witness any game by EA Sports). But look no further than Red Bull’s recent ground-breaking deal with Freestyle games for evidence of advertising’s importance in the modern gaming market. Following in the footsteps of Burger King, which last year released three mini-games for Xbox to surprising success, Freestyle is planning on making what Chris Lee of Freestyle calls three “innovative, original, next-gen games” with Red Bull branding. Unlike the Burger King mini-games, Freestyle’s efforts will be full-scale, full-price titles.

As with some Internet applications (like anything Google), nuanced advertising might provide a way to slash retail costs for consumers, while driving up brand exposure for the sponsoring company.

Television

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TV executives have joined their record-label counterparts in soiling their collective britches over online piracy – hence Viacom’s billion-dollar lawsuit against Google for its thousands of pirated YouTube videos. However, the dinosaurs of TV land aren’t just knee-jerking their way through the 21st century; many television companies have actually taken a pro-active role in controlling how their media can be freely, but profitably, distributed.

Take programs like Joost, for example, which has partnered with titans like Viacom and Warner Bros. to bring full-screen, high quality streaming television to computers. That kind of free Web-based TV might someday be enough to crush the myriad of mirror sites like TVlinks.co.uk and Alluc.org that serve as link libraries for pirated shows – but for now, the program hardly offers any new or popular shows. Joost faces stiff competition from the likes of Hulu.com, a joint project between NBC and Fox that is rumored to present shows simultaneous to their live airing – and do it free, through huge portals like Yahoo, MSN, and AOL.

Microsoft may have an even more significant idea for TV-over-Web. According to the tech blog Gadgetell, Windows Vista may soon incorporate the ability to watch TV over the Internet innately within the operating system. Details are still hazy, but a beta is apparently in the works that would allow near-DVD quality, ad-supported shows. That kind of integration would likely mean DVR-like functionality that Websites can’t provide.

If all these services sound like they’re offering the same thing, it’s because they are: the ability to watch shows on your own schedule, commercial-free. At present, Apple’s iTunes has been successful selling television shows that are normally gratis on network TV, just because they allow viewers to watch anywhere, anytime, without advertising. To that end, television will follow its entertainment peers in becoming free, Web-accessible, and flexible.

But that’s assuming that we’re watching the same shows we’ve always watched: professionally acted, big-time productions by the national networks. Amateur television is gaining popularity on sites like blip.tv, where the conventional TV-series format is being done by small-time crews of actors and producers – and even being distributed on Apple TV. Also offering homemade TV channels is Next New Media, which recently acquired the satirical site BarelyPolitical.com, made famous by its “Obama Girl” music video. If amateur TV mavericks can manage to pull off big-network drama and comedy on a free, accessible platform, viewers might be wooed away from their TVs and towards their PCs.

What It Means

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If all this change seems daunting, don’t despair. Some things, like the way we see new movies nowadays – in the theater, with popcorn and a sweetheart – will be with us long after we’ve colonized the moon and Iraq becomes a democracy. But as B-Side founder Chris Hyams predicts, audience preference will come to dictate even that experience behind-the-scenes: “In the next few years we will see [audience] power extend beyond the web… [O]nline audience opinion will dictate what shows air on TV, what DVDs are stocked at the local video store, and what films play at the movie theater around the corner.”

In short, the future looks like a happy place for entertainment consumers: cheaper, easier, more profitable and more portable. But does all that convenience come at the cost of quality? “[The future will be] almost like the Warhol quote, but instead of 15 minutes of fame, it will be 15 megabytes,” suggests Watson. If everyone’s making entertainment, will our favorite things be drowned out by the masses? If we discover a good band or actor, will we be less likely to check out their whole body of work if we’ve parsed our media into individual songs or episodes?

When iTunes first began selling single songs, a curious thing happened: naysayers claimed Apple opened the door for the “death of the album,” and by extension, the death of music as real art. Without having to buy the whole disc, a cohesive piece of work, fear grew that songs would become simple blips of auditory candy. Without the record companies separating the wheat from the chaff, that fear is somewhat founded; we are indeed faced with an unending variety of candy. As Watson puts it: “The end result is too much information. The big issue is quality.[But] the counter argument is that search and filtering will sort this out.” This, perhaps, will be the role delegated to future media companies: aggregating suggestions that we might like, instead of bombarding us with the whole spectrum of choice that actually exists.

What we, the consumers, will get isn’t any better or worse – just different. Though we can now easily buy single songs, there will always be bands like Radiohead whose albums are meant as cohesive works, and their fans will continue to buy them as such. And viewers will still watch some shows chronologically, enjoying the depth that comes with cohesion. Media technologies won’t kill anything; instead, they will allow artists, and consumers to create and enjoy only what they want, only when they want it. No more scheduling your life around Wednesday night TV or listening to some bland corporate playlist on FM. What the future holds is at once a simpler, yet more vast, media landscape. Enjoy exploring.