Jack Me, HD Me, Make Me Write the Check
On this date in 1994, Aerosmith made a full track available for download on the Internet, the first time such a thing was ever done. (Shorter samples of tracks had been available for a while, but not whole songs.) Subscribers to CompuServe could download a broadcast-quality version of "Head First." CompuServe waived the usual connection charges to do it, and for good reason: With a 9600-baud modem--still in common use at a time when 28,800 was considered smokin' fast--it would take up to 90 minutes to get it.
(June 27, 1994, coincidentally, was also the day Anna Nicole Smith married octogenarian oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall. It may also have taken him up to 90 minutes to get it, but I digress.)
Not only did 1994 represent the primordial ooze as far as downloading is concerned, it was still the dark ages of the web, which didn't really blast into general public consciousness until perhaps 1995 or 1996. We've been in hyperdrive ever since, though. In the first half of 2005 alone, there were 180 million legal music downloads, tripling the rate for 2004, and an unknown number of technically illegal downloads--like the ones on the MP3 blogs you read about here.
Not only has downloaded music has captured a significant share of music sales, it actually represents a threat to the radio industry. When almost anything you could want to hear can be brought into your house on the laptop, you need a compelling reason to turn on the radio and listen to what Steely Dan called "somebody else's favorite songs." So enter the "jack" format, where anything goes, just like an MP3 player on shuffle--and next, make way for HD radio. HD radio offers stations the opportunity to put multiple program streams on a single existing FM frequency, provided listeners have the receiver to decode them. The technology is just starting to go mainstream--oddly enough, Indianapolis seems to be leading the way--as receivers are already turning up at specialty audio retailers, and will be in Radio Shack and the like within a year.
Terrestrial radio operators are looking to HD as a way of competing with satellite radio, by offering satellite radio's variety at a fraction of its cost. However, a problem already looms: further fragmentation of the terrestrial radio audience. The expansion of HD in Indianapolis has the potential to add 20 or 30 signals to an already-crowded marketplace, and in larger cities, the proliferation will be exponentially greater. Advertisers already struggle to cut through the clutter, and stations already struggle over ever-shrinking slices of the demographic pie. Also, while some HD stations will likely be commercial-free, many more probably will not be. Thus it seems likely that station owners will face the same problem they do now--how to make programming attractive enough to convince listeners to sit through the commercials--only multiplied.
I've been an occasional Internet radio listener for a couple of years now, and I will probably have satellite radio in my next car--although the vast majority of the music I listen to is on MP3s and CDs. Thus, I'm not sure I'd go for HD radio. Like most consumers, I'll need to be convinced.