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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 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 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 hope not.)

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 way.

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.

Addendum, 2001:

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 sites)
  • 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 want)

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 lines.


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 below.)

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 applaud CDnow!

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 Xing Technology, the makers of Streamworks, one of the first audio/video streaming protocols on the Web.

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 programming formats.

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 to compete with CDnow's deal with Imagine Radio. This will be interesting to watch.

Firefly (formerly HOMR, formerly RINGO)

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. An article 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 Artists

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.

Compact Disc Connection

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.

Mass Music

Another massive discount store with over 215,000 titles including 30,000 imports. Over 200,000 music samples.


And one more big store, very frames/JavaScript-heavy, optimized for Explorer or Navigator 3.0+ only, so watch out. They advertise: 155,000 CDs/cassettes; 165,000 music clips; 15,000 reviews. 20% discounts.

Tunes Network

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 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 sites.

Music Boulevard

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 here.

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, guys.

July '97 update: MB made a big splash at the recent 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 the boat.

CDnow Disclaimer:

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.