March 05, 2002

Time to bring back vinyl?
Looks like the music companies and the new CD copy-protection measures they're testing have little regard for usability of the end product and also don't comply with existing standards.

"BMG, part of Bertelsmann, was forced to drop copy protection on two CD's it released in Europe when consumers complained that the music would not play on their CD players."

"the advent of silvery discs that do not quite act like CD's have angered Sony Electronics and Philips Electronics (part of Royal Philips Electronics), which co-developed the compact disc format, first introduced in 1983. "We do not approve the use of the CD logo on such products," said Rick Clancy, a spokesman for Sony Electronics of America. "It puts us in a position where we can't guarantee the playability or sound quality of discs that may be used with our devices."
-- NY Times

How to copy a copy-protected CD
Of course what the clueless record companies don't get is that pirating will still take place, just as it has for decades with any other type of music format. "Dubs" can easily be created by going from digital to analog to digital. Using good quality analog equipment to make the copy, a listener wouldn't notice much difference on a typical stereo setup when playing back the copy. Sure, audiophiles might notice a difference, but they are unlikely to use pirated copies -- they want the real thing since they also tend to be collectors.

Digital isn't all it's cracked up to be
Further evidence that analog copies will happen is the tradition of bootlegs in the music culture. Hard-core fans create their own live recordings ("bootlegs") -- sometimes even with the band's blessing. Bootlegs are then traded or given to other fans -- a simple web search turns up many examples of available "boots" online. What's important to note about bootlegs is they are often very poor quality recordings, yet they are collected by rabid fans. If people want the music bad enough, they'll settle for lower quality recordings. From what I can tell, piraters could use a simple two-dollar low-tech analog patch cable between a CD player and a CD-R to defeat multi-million dollar hi-tech digital copy-protection measures -- and people would be satisfied with the results. As the old saying goes, "where there's a will, there's a way," and piraters will find a way. Ultimately, the music industry isn't going to prevent illegal copying of CDs.

Caveat listener
Even so, music companies are designing new "CD" products that only work with certain types of CD players without telling consumers what the new equipment requirements are. Another issue is that most music retailers don't allow consumers to return CDs -- a "defective" product can only be exchanged for a replacement of the same title. An exchange won't help an end user if the product design is flawed; an exact replacement fixes nothing. The unsuspecting person who usually listens to CDs on headphones with their CD-ROM drive, but who suddenly can't get a new CD to play correctly, will have no recourse. Oh, and there'll be no error message to tell them that their problem is an intended one.

The root of the problem: lack of user-centered-design
The core of the problem the music industry is creating is that they've forgotten their target user -- the music lover who buy CDs. They obviously haven't profiled and segmented their users. I would guess that many younger music lovers -- teenagers to thirty-somethings who follow current music trends and have more expendable income for entertainment -- are much more likely to use MP3 players and CD-ROM or DVD drives in computers to listen to and, yes, copy music from CD to hard drive or a mix CD-R. My assumption is that this is a very profitable market segment for the industry -- but more importantly, it's the new generation of music buyers. It's also the generation that is more technology savvy, more likely to use the web and e-commerce, and more open to change in music buying habits than the others. Why would the industry want to risk pushing these buyers away? My only answer to that question is it must be because they haven't spent enough time researching their users and designing innovative products that meet BOTH their users' needs and the needs of the industry. They've simply over-reacted with a crude application of available technology with little fore-thought on the implications.

My predictions:
The good thing to keep in mind is that markets work. Music companies and bands that sell copy-protected CDs will get bad press and will risk alienating their target market. Consumers who, for years, have been able to enjoy a music CD on their computer at work will suddenly find that the industry has "fixed" something that wasn't broke...and they will complain to retail outlets, which will flood distributors with exchanged or returned CDs. Warning labels will appear, and like the american NC-17 movie rating, in time they will be avoided at all costs. Only the biggest artists who already command a large market share will be able to withstand a copy-protection warning label. And eventually, the industry will find that CDs with copy-protection will sell fewer units than those without it, and they will drop copy-protection altogether. If not, they will create a huge market opportunity for un-signed artists and independent labels to sell their works online sans copy-protection.

Usability and products that meet the standards consumers demand will win out. The question is, what side will the existing music industry be on?