The Future of Music May Be Slipping Away

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For some time now, I have been locked in a spiraling love-hate relationship with Real Networks. Specifically with Real Jukebox, the company's oh-so-promising yet oh-so-frustrating MP3 management software. Nine months have passed since I declared that henceforth all my music would be in digital form, would reside on my PC, and that it was therefore worth coughing up $29.95 for the paid version, Real Jukebox Plus. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for.

Like any passionate marriage, the decision led to moments of ecstatic pleasure and migraine-like pain. At its brilliant best, RJP sounds like the radio station you always wished you owned. At the click of the play button your entire library continuously and melodiously blends into itself with nary a second of dead air, songs cohabiting completely at random yet sparkling with synchronicity. I've tried Music Match and all those other jukeboxes; nobody does it better than Real.

Which is why it's such a shame that RJP is also the most bloated, buggy, memory-leaking, crash-causing chunk of code ever to cast a shadow over my hard drive. When it goes down — which, if it's feeling merciful, is roughly once a week — the program instantly pretends to forget every song I ever fed it. Like a grandparent feigning deafness, it has to go off and "listen" to every single track for a couple of seconds before it'll function again. Since my combined CD and download collection is now pushing 10,000 tunes, the water-torture reload process takes at least a couple of hours, during which I make up for the sudden silence by keeping time with my head against the screen.

So when I showed up at Real Networks HQ in downtown Seattle Tuesday, it was more for the sake of my mental health than anything else. I figured the cure for my fiendish malaise would be easy to find at a company still worth billions in the wake of the tech crash, a company that recently spawned its own U.S. Senator (Maria Cantwell, the famous 50th Democrat and a former Real Jukebox product manager). All I'd have to do was look hard enough among the foosball tables and Odwalla juice fridges of this former cannery building. The place looked like someone had taken a dotcom start-up and stretched the ceiling five times.

What I was surprised to discover is that according to Real, I have an unreasonably large amount of music. RJP boasts about being scalable, meaning it should handle a million songs as easily as a hundred. But when I mentioned the figure 10,000 to the company's RJP expert, it met with raised eyebrows. "We've actually never tested at that limit," he said. "You're pushing it."

Am I? Granted, the average PC owner probably has significantly less music on his hard drive, for now. But it has become axiomatic that MP3s are the future of music. It's been drilled into us that we're all going to dump our CDs given time, and that constant digital downloads, paid for on a song by song basis, will eventually take the place of trips to Tower Records. Given an easy-to-use system of micropayments, will it really take that long for Joe Consumer to pack his hard drive with the musical equivalent of a small European country?

Real should know this better than anyone. The company owns 40% of MusicNet, the brand-new AOL-Time Warner/Bertelsmann/EMI collaboration that will supposedly open the floodgates to mass-market, legal music downloads. With that service set to launch this summer, it's high time RJP set itself up for the deluge. No one else is in such a good position, with millions of users and with MusicNet working just down the corridor. Yet the only update planned to the service is to allow users to burn special MP3 CDs as well as the regular CD-Rs.

Rather than set itself up as a shining beacon for as many MP3s as possible — bring me your huddled tunes, yearning to be archived and played — RJP appears to be going in the direction of getting them off the hard drive and onto removable storage as soon as possible.

It wouldn't matter so much if the whole existence of digital music in the MP3 format weren't at stake. A few months ago MP3 reigned supreme with dozens of MP3 players crowding the market and at least 60 million users downloading from Napster to their heart's content. Now the player market has imploded, Napster is near death's door and (not coincidentally) the music industry is subtly beginning to push a new standard, DVD audio.

Since we're all getting DVD players with tremendous surround sound capability known as Dolby Digital 5.1, the labels think it's about time they started selling us an entirely new format maximized for this new medium. To paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black: yes, this means you're going to have to buy the White Album again. "The MP3 revolution diverted us for a while," one record producer told me recently. "But things are back on track now. DVD audio is the future, and you won't find it on Napster."

MP3 can and should be saved; it is, after all, a tremendously versatile format that puts users in control of exactly how, where, when and in what order they listen to their music. But it requires someone like Real stepping up to the plate and producing a lean, mean piece of software that really can archive millions of tunes without striking out.

To be fair, the company has promised to keep plugging away at my bugs and loopholes — but not, I fear, before a few more head-screen rhythm sessions.