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The now sound

Digital music has been a groovy scene in the last couple years, and this year should be no exception. Here’s a look at some of the more intriguing trends that could be ahead.

Since the theme of this month’s ComputerUser is one of looking ahead, I thought we’d examine what could be some of the more intriguing and newsworthy trends that might be on the horizon in digital music in 2004.

I’d call that a bargain

Record companies have very, very tentatively flirted with lowering the prices of their outrageously marked-up CDs. Universal Music Group (home of U2, Eminem, 50 Cent, Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige, and Mariah Carey, among others), cut many of its CD list prices from $18.98 to $12.98. Will other companies follow suit? Or will they await another double-digit drop in sales before getting the message?

What’s happened in recent years with file sharing, CD burners, and the attendant decline in sales amounts to nothing less than a consumer revolt. Even if price-slashing is done in desperation, it’s a welcome trend, and one that should continue in 2004.

Let’s hear that again

Another example of, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. ClearChannel, Disc Live, and other concert presenters are taking advantage of right-here-right-now mass production technology to offer concertgoers a live recording of the concert they’ve just witnessed.

This is something that music fans have probably wished for after memorable concerts since the beginning of time, and it seems to be working; ClearChannel reports that usually, about 30 percent of fans at its concerts are happy to take home one of these official bootlegs.

It makes nothing but sense; if you don’t mind spending $30 on a crappy t-shirt at a show, why would you mind spending that on something that truly does capture at least the audio portion of the experience? Look for these CDs to be a staple of concerts everywhere from stadiums to the club down the street, and look for instant DVDs of concerts to follow in a year or two.

A dollar a dance

In digital music, this was the year of iTunes. Even if the bloom fell somewhat off the rose (from 200,000 songs sold per day when the service was introduced to Mac users in April to the mid-five figures in August), the iTunes music store regained momentum in the fall when a Windows-compatible version was released as freeware.

The fanfare surrounding the introduction of Napster as a pay service lent further credence to the idea that people will pay for downloads if the price is right and the selection is reasonable. The good news for consumers in 2004 might be the downward economic pressure that’s often exerted by competing, successful products: The greater the demand, the more likely someone will step in with 79-cent downloads. And then 59-cent downloads. OK, maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but cheap downloadable music is an idea whose success should benefit everyone.

Integration, now!

As James Brown once advised, “Get it together, right on, right on.” Music lovers are finally starting to do just that. One company after another in 2003 came out with integrated, wireless audio receivers that could play MP3s, streaming audio, WAV files, CDs…virtually everything but Grandma’s Bing Crosby 78s.

These products are especially nice because they’re at home either with your stereo or your PC, or as part of one giant entertainment system. Look for these digital music hubs to become even more versatile (as in, an all-in-one audio-video unit), and much cheaper, in the coming year.

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