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Music : Music 2.0
Music 2.0Although they offer many improvements, new digital music formats often face an uphill battle replacing tried and true legacy formats such as MP3.

This month the Motion Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) will meet in Germany to deliberate whether to make MT9, a new digital audio format commercially known as Music 2.0, an international standard.

MT9 was developed by South Korea-based Audizen, and works by splitting an audio file into six separate channels, such as vocals, bass, guitar and others. Music players can then raise or lower the volume on specific channels similar to the way a producer uses a mixing board. MT9s inventors say the new format will replace MP3 as the standard for all digital music, according to reports in the Korea Times.

But implementing a new digital music format would require an unprecedented level of cooperation among the music labels, digital retailers and audio device manufacturers, a reality that could stand in the way of a quick switch to MT9.

From a technical perspective, replacing MP3 with a new digital music standard would be rather straightforward. Within months digital retailers could refresh their entire database with music containing the new format, just as Wal-Mart and Napster rapidly moved from digital rights management to non-DRM formats.

But before they can make the switch, the retailers label partners must provide music encoded in the new format

. This means that all the major labels, along with a host of independents, must achieve consensus to begin using a new technology to sell their music. Then the audio manufacturers, especially Apple, would need to begin making devices that support the new format. Considering the average life of today's MP3 player is about eight to 12 months, it would take some time to re-seed the market with new devices.

A phased rollout, where only a computer could access the full features of the new format while portable devices slowly caught up, might be possible, although it would far less interesting to music fans.

"The value proposition to the consumer is linked to the functionality," Napster COO Christopher Allen told Reuters. Allen led the company's format change to MP3.

"So if I can do something on my PC with a client player but I can't do it on the Web or my device, the value to the consumer of that format is not as exciting as if there were a whole ecosystem that could take advantage of the new format's capabilities."

In the past these issues have worked together to prevent implementation of new music formats.

Coding Technologies created the mp3PRO format in 2001, and licensed it through Thompson, who administered the original MP3 technology. The mp3PRO format featured an advanced compression system that meant encoded files required only half the storage space of a traditional MP3. It also offered superior sound quality.

But only Thompson-owned RCA made devices that used the new format, which failed to achieve widespread customer traction as a result. Eventually, even Thompson discontinued support.

The company made another attempt in 2005 with MP3 Surround, which added a surround-sound element to playback on compatible devices. The format was much less restrictive, and worked with any surround-sound device that supported the original MP3 format. Additionally, it was available at no charge to any company already licensing the original MP3. But the format remains largely marginalized.

Despite the difficulties, a new digital music format is precisely what the music industry needs to reinvigorate declining sales. The existing MP3 format doesn't allow retailers enough of a differentiated product when compared to what fans can get simply creating their own CDs. The only benefit to buying an online MP3 is a marginally higher-quality digital file. But even that has not been adequate to attract customers away from the CD.
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