Spring 1999: Preparing for
the new Millennium
There is a sea change in the air these days, and because of that,
Music Unbound will
no longer update the individual listings for catalogs as before. The
content below will remain for historical purposes, but is presented now
for context only. Things are getting interesting.
Not long ago, CDnow and N2K/Music Boulevard were competing for online
music store leadership. Combined, they had about half the total market of
CDs and tapes ordered online. Then Amazon.com got interested. With
Amazon's voluminous book market to leverage, this was enough of a threat
to drive CDnow and N2K into a merger to consolidate their markets. It has
been a futile attempt in the short term: Amazon is now the individual
leader in online sales of music CDs and tapes, after only about half a
year. That was quick.
At the same time, an interesting new entry, EveryCD, arrived with a new angle:
guarantee "virtually every CD in the world." Where do they draw the line?
Well, they seem to be attempting to get as many of the indies and
unsigned product as possible. To assist with this, they have enlisted
their customers: if you can find a title they don't carry (and presumably
allow them to make contact for inclusion in their catalog), and you are a
new sign-up for EveryCD, they'll give you two free CDs of your choice
(from the ones they already list, of course). Whether this will allow
them a wider choice in the end is an interesting question, but this new
CD store/site is coming out of the starting blocks with full features and
a bent toward satisfying the needs of their customers. Whether they can
compete for market share with the combination of Amazon and CDnow/N2K is
unclear, though. It's now fairly late in the entry game. (Update, 2000: Apparently
this business didn't work out, because the site no longer exists. Amazon
has a fairly inclusive attutide toward the catalog, and other sites
catering to indies such as CDbaby seem to bepicking up the slack.)
Then, there was the April annoucement that Seagram's (who now owns three
of what used to be the six major music corporations: Universal, Polygram
and EMI) and BMG (one of the other three that includes Sony and
Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) are going to collaborate on launching a new CD
superstore of their own to compete with Amazon and the rest. Time is
running out, and it finally has become time to act for the majors. If one
had any doubt that they would respond, that doubt should now be erased.
It's a new game.
Finally, the emergent popularity of MP3 formatted music, and sites like
MP3.com to distribute them, is a driving force. Copyright protection is
an issue that is still not resolved (though many Barlow fans might like
to think so). The fact is that MP3 can be encrypted the same as any other
digital music format, and can be embedded in a protected download system
such as Liquid Audio, taking advantage of the compression-to-fidelity
ratio. Nevertheless, MP3 is probably not the last improvement in audio
compression. Microsoft annoyed the industry recently by claiming they had
a new format that was twice as compressed and higher fidelity than MP3 --
but whether the industry will accept yet another proprietary format from
the owner of the Windows OS is unclear. (We here at Music Unbound
The industry's SDMI (Secure Digital/Downloaded Music Initiative),
being coordinated with RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America)
is aiming to create an open standard for digital/downloaded music.
At the same time, Seagram's and Time Warner (owner of W/E/A) have sued a
Norwegian company, Fast Search and Transfer, for providing Lycos's search
engine with a directory of unencrypted MP3 files made available on the
Web. SDMI is scheduled for completion in six months to a year, and at that point
Seagram's/BMG intends to begin providing their music in encrypted
download form. N2K started this with their e_mod system, using Liquid
Audio, in 1997, so the technology is not in question. The industry
standard is the issue here, and no one in the business wants anyone to
own the standard. There are enough middlemen in the music business
already, and there is no need for an extra toll to be collected along the
As Gwyneth Paltrow's character proclaims in "Shakespeare in Love" after
the first tryst with Joseph Fiennes' Will: "It's a new world."
What follows below is where this all came from. But on the Internet, a
few years become an eternity, and this is all passing into a previous
era. Y2K in the music business will be the beginning of large-scale
direct downloading of music to consumers. CDnow and its progeny have
changed a lot already, but this will change everything yet again. MP3
proved that it could and would get big, fast, and that has put the industry on notice
to respond or fall by the wayside. Here it comes.
It's becoming clear that digital rights management, especially including
encryption schemes, is not entirely effective, and is more of a danger to
fair use than it is useful for creating a business model. Once decrypted
for playback, and especially once converted to an analog signal, the music will
be able to be recaptured/re-recorded, and re-digitized for unencrypted transmission.
A better model, now that personalization is developing, is a service where the
value is in the agregation and personalized service, rather than trying to lock up
something that is inherently ephemeral. The carrot, not the stick, is ultimately
more effective, and providing an overall experience of music that cannot be extracted
from the system, the way the raw content can be, will ultimately be better solution.
The recorded-music-as-product model is on its last legs, but the
recorded-music-as-service model still seems hopeful at this point. We'd be in bad
shape if recorded music could not generate revenue on its own merits.
The selection of online music catalogs and resources here is extremely
selective. If you want a more comprehensive list, go to the Yahoo CDs,
Records and Tapes page.
The criteria for inclusion here are:
- Not limited to a single label or set of labels (i.e., no majors' web
- Not limited to a single genre or set of genres (i.e., no boutiques)
- A robust method for browsing for titles (you don't have to know what you
That is, the following sites will include material from any labels, and any
kinds of music. It's not that narrower sites are not useful, but that they do
not address the particular issue of this site: to develop a
place where any music, from any source, can be found and compared with each
other. That comparison is still unwieldy and crude, given today's technology,
but it is an important pre-requisite to collect it all together in one place
first, so that the potential to compare anything with anything
else is there. Music Unbound applauds any serious efforts along these
This store is huge, one of the first and most aggresively expansionist
music stores online. Their size and lack of stylistic or genre criteria for
inclusion is why they are listed here. (Note: see disclaimer
Their "All-Music Guide" is a first step toward a music search engine
that will empower users, however it still has some drawbacks, relying
heavily on style definitions for searching. On one hand, artists may enter information
about themselves, and determine their own stylistic keywords, which empowers
the individual artists to at least control their own definitions.
On the other hand, those definitions have very little to do with each other --
everyone uses these words in their own personal way, and a single stylistic term
may yield widely varying results. There is, thus, a proliferation of stylistic
terms that become so personal and idiosyncratic that the usefulness of
stylistic definitions diminishes (you just have to hear
the music...). For demonstrating this, however unintentionally, we
They supplement the style lists with some articles designed to elucidate what
these terms mean, written by professional reviewers in the fields, however,
this just gets us back to the dominance of reviewers over the interpretation of
genres, etc., so this is also an imperfect solution, prone to individual
skewing by the reviewers themselves.
However, since the real solution doesn't yet exist, one must congratulate them
for taking a first step in the right direction, and encourage them to
continue working toward the right thing.
Summer '98 update: CDnow has announced two important partnerships that
move it substantially forward in the direction of consumer empowerment.
First, CDnow is now the exclusive retailer for the
MusicMatch site, which includes a tool
called MusicMatch Jukebox that provides similar functionality to Music Boulevard's
"e_mod" music downloading system, as well as integrated music databasing functions
on a PC's hard disk. Rather than downloading to writeable CDs, the paradigm here
is to create a music library in digital form on the PC (including capturing of
audio CDs onto the PC disk), which then hooks up to a standard
stereo system for auxiliary playback. Individual songs are available from some
sources, similar to e_mod. The MPEG3-based technology is from
the makers of Streamworks, one of the first audio/video streaming protocols on
Second, CDnow has an exclusive partnership with
Imagine Radio, who launched the first
partially-customizable audio programming platform in March 1998. The combination of
download technology with this initial step toward custom audio programming
integrated with on-the-spot/on-demand sales and artist reference/touring information
is exciting to see, as it begins a convergence of functions that ultimately
will empower music listeners/buyers, and indirectly empowers the artists to whom
they are drawn, bypassing the artificial mass-averaging of commercial radio
Bravo, CDnow! And Godspeed.
Fall '98 update: Amazingly enough CDnow and N2K (Music Boulevard, see below)
have entered into merger talks, and apparently finalized plans to form a single CD
retail company online. Most likely this is to consolidate close to 50% of the online
CD market, in order to prepare for an onslaught by the big online book retailers,
especially Amazon, Barnes&Noble and Borders. In particular, Amazon poses a threat
since they have a huge brand name and market share in the book market, and they
signed a truly forward-thinking deal with Spinner.com to compete with CDnow's
deal with Imagine Radio. This will be interesting to watch.
Firefly (formerly HOMR,
This is a user-registered site where users enter a list of what music they
like, and those responses are used in aggregate with other users' choices to
predict music that an individual user may like, but has not yet heard.
This is one step better than CDnow's All-Music Guide, in that it eliminates the
unwieldy use of increasingly arbitrary style/genre labels. However, it still
relies on user subjectivity and participation to operate. An improvement would
be to automate the databasing process entirely, so that comparisons and
searches can be made without relying on (1) enough users to include a piece or
artist for it to show up in a search, and (2) the subjective judgments of
individual listeners. An ideal system will categorize music with an entirely
automatic process, and will allow individual users to calibrate those results
to their own particular judgments of similarity or dissimilarity.
Still, a useful next step in the right direction, and plaudits. This system
originated at MIT Media Lab, and subsequently moved to a commercial site,
which portends stability and some hope of lasting.
Spring '97 update: These folks have made some excellent business
partnerships, including the incorporation of The Similarities Engine
mentioned below, plus licensing the technology to a variety of other
catalog sites. "Collaborative Filtering" is here to stay, or at least
until some direct-comparison methods appear.
Note: The following was folded into Firefly in 1997, prior to Firefly's
purchase by Microsoft. However, it was an independent startup.
A similar setup has been created on the web called
The Similarities Engine. Some of the
results can be peculiar, as with Firefly,
and the survey underlying it is not scientifically
controlled, but again, these are the first attempts at creating the real thing,
and they are to be congratulated for starting the ball rolling.
on this site appeared in The New York Times, January 18, 1996.
Global Electronic Music Marketplace is a nexus-point for retailers, sellers,
artists, publications, and anyone interested in the process of buying and selling
recorded music. They list retailers and will soon provide an order-forwarding
service of their own, but their primary purpose is to collect all of the music
resources on the net together in one place, for the power of proximity. They allow
any music-related enterprise to be listed co-equally with any other, and have the
clear intent to be as comprehensive as humanly possible. They also are taking a
strong business approach, and look to be agressive in building new features and
adding more powerful functions. Stay tuned.
Kaleidospace Independent Internet
A special stop for independent, unsigned artists only. Artists are listed by genre
names chosen by themselves, and the site can be searched "by concept" -- still a far
cry from an immediately effective selection process, but on the plus side it allows
the acts freedom to define themselves (much like CDnow), and gives unsigned artists
prominence separate from the big commercial acts. Also, chats and transcripts are
available, plus secured-connection purchases of indie CDs listed here. Looking for
something different from the same old commercial fare? Check this out -- about 200
lesser-knowns are hanging out here with the goods.
Another huge CD store, like CDnow, with a less-extensive style-based search
engine than CDnow's All-Music Guide, but a well-designed interface
nevertheless, and automatic "shopping basket" tracking. There are competitive
prices here (they call themselves a discount store), so check this place out
when you do your comparison shopping.
Another large discount store, with a fast, well-designed interface, user-contributed
reviews and a variety of "cross-sections" of the database. No auto-suggestion
features. Again, when you find something you want, check the price here.
For a monster list of CDs, this is another recommended stop on your travels.
Search by title, author, label, or catalog number and by "beginning with..." or
"containing" your search string. User-contributed ratings (the "Golden Ears
Society") and comments, and reviews culled from another angle on the All Music
Guide provide some kind of evaluation of particular recordings, mainly useful to
listeners already familiar with an artist who can judge for themselves based on
others' comments. Although they buy into the Billboard charts for
genre-searching, and have no auto-suggestion feature, this is a large and
painless place to check for your desired disks.
Another massive discount store with over 215,000 titles including 30,000 imports.
Over 200,000 music samples.
Navigator 3.0+ only, so watch out. They advertise: 155,000 CDs/cassettes;
165,000 music clips; 15,000 reviews. 20% discounts.
New, July '97:
This entry into the online music arena has quickly become one of the leaders
in sales volume. They demonstrated an impressive new design at the Plug.in
convention, for launch later in the summer. With a cutting-edge approach
to content selection that includes a combination of the All Music Guide,
collaborative filtering (similar to Firefly) and other sources of recommendations,
this site is leading the way towards greater user empowerment among online music
From Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin, formerly of GRP Records, this is a very slick,
professional and standardly-designed retail site with additional resources and
thorough instructions for users. It has a similar drawback to the former
MUSIC NOW (created by MCI, and discontinued at the end of 1996): a heavy
emphasis on standard formats as currently instantiated in the business, complete
with Billboard charts and only four genres (Pop/Rock, Jazz, Classical, Country)
plus the "none of the above" category of "Eclectic." You can be pretty sure only
fairly successful artists or formats will be prominently presented, at least for a
while. One can only hope that the "Eclectic" category starts getting better
response over time; you can bet your top dollar that they will follow the money
Spring '97 update: Well, their interface has gone through several modifications
over the last year. They finally figured out that their graphics were too
time-consuming for typical modem users, and even provided an additional
text-only mode. That's a good sign; at least they're capable of learning
new tricks. The organizational structure is still somewhat unwieldy, but
they've added more subcategories to address the crudeness of the four
main groups, plus "other" of course. The scary thing is, they've created
two special areas just for MTV and VH-1, not to mention being totally in
cahoots with the Billboard charts. They've announced lots of cool
technological partnerships, but have yet to implement the one that will
improve the catalog the most: adding Firefly's "collaborative filtering"
technology (see above) in context of the catalog. The sooner the better,
July '97 update: MB made a big splash at the recent Plug.in convention
in NYC, by launching a new online distribution system called "e_mod" (encoded
music online delivery). Using technology developed by Liquid Audio and initially
tied to recordable CD-ROMs ("CD-R" format) such as Philips' CDD-2600, this may be
the first commercially available service to use the combination of sophisticated
encryption and watermarking with online downloading and a tangible, enduring
final-storage medium. Whatever might be said of Music Boulevard's approach to
content selection, their approach to technology is consistently cutting-edge.
Not a surprise, since these were some of the first guys to seriously push the
CD format itself, back in the 80s.
If they can also capture the paradigm change that
online technology imposes on marketing, as well as the delivery medium itself,
they manifest a potential for something great. The company is called "N2K Inc."
based on the phrase "need to know" -- whether they interpret this as serving
their customers' "need to know" about the music they love, or as consumers
operating on a "need to know" basis (i.e., kept in the dark about most things)
will determine whether they contribute to the coming paradigm change or miss
As of February 25, 1997, our link to CDnow enters into that site with a special
session-tracking mechanism that totals all purchases made from sessions coming
from this site. For each purchase you might decide to make within such a session,
this site will be awarded a 5% credit toward the purchase of CDs from CDnow, in
return for new-customer lead-generation.
Music Unbound has listed CDnow for editorial reasons since our launch,
March 1996, and should CDnow ever evolve to violate those criteria, the link will
be removed. We also suggest that you comparison-shop among the several other sites
listed here, or other sites that you may frequent for other reasons, to get the best
price. CDnow's prices have been consistently competitive during the first year of
Music Unbound's existence, however you should make purchase decisions on your
own judgment. The reasons for CDnow's inclusion here are conceptual, not "best-buy"
oriented in particular.