Up with downloads?

Digital divides biz at Midem music mart

CANNES — The two sides of the music industry have an upstairs-downstairs relationship at the Midem show in the Palais: nearly one-third the attending companies promote the distribution of music via computers, telephones and the Internet as the other two-thirds looks to crack niche markets with their CDs.

Midem, the international music conference, opened Sunday as song peddlers, musicians and just about anybody with hopes of making a buck from a song kept the ground level of the Palais bustling with conversations and the sounds of electronic dance music, jazz and orchestral music filled many of the booths. Deals, however, were rare on the first day.

The early buzz concerned the mobile phone market and its success in Asia. At one panel, a subsection of the Korean ringtone market known as quarter tones was singled out as selling more downloads in 2003 than the entire U.S. ringtone market, where many phone service providers are balking at license fees asked by the labels.

“The U.S. market has been slow to emerge and getting full songs (on phones) will be slow, too,” said Carolynne Schloeder, president of Faith West, the U.S. arm of the global telephone company Faith. “Right now the quality is poor and the price is high, but there are people buying them.”

Most execs on panels stressed the emergence of the cell phone as a vehicle for the delivery of music for what many call “the mobile society” that bonds over content on cell phones. Demonstrations included a cell phone playing a full song accompanied by a slideshow of an artist in the phone’s video window.

Yet even where there is acceptance of the concept, there are roadblocks. Eddy Cue, Apple’s VP of applications and Internet service, told Midem attendees that the Euro downloading movement is being delayed by retail and copyright practices and law. “The same songs have different prices (and release dates) depending on whether you are in France or Germany. On the Internet, that is hard (to grasp) from the customer’s point of view.”

In the States, though, where the intersection of online services, music labels and digital devices grows more crowded every day, companies are working to distinguish themselves from one another.

“We view the PC as an organizational tool,” Napster chairman and CEO Chris Gorog told Daily Variety. “It’s the output to a CD-R or a digital audio device that brings the music to the living room. We’re looking for the Holy Grail that gets (listeners) to hook their computers to the home stereo.”

Gorog said that grail may be around the corner in August when Microsoft introduces its music service that allows consumers to pay for a subscription and then can download individual tracks at no additional charge, unlike the pay-per-song setup at Napster and Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

Tommy Couch Jr. of Malaco Records, the Jackson, Miss.-based soul label founded by his father 3 1/2 decades ago was among those listening to offers of download services and ringtones, but sticking to business the old-fashioned way: licensing master recordings and songs in their publishing company to foreign concerns and the film and TV business.

“The small guys who are in this business for the love of the music are able (at Midem) to explore the avenues we need to survive,” he said. Malaco’s Web site does not yet offer downloads for sale.

Malaco, with a catalog that includes works by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Milton and Z.Z. Hill, is among the many labels on the Midem floor proffering wares to crack a host of niche markets, from historic opera recordings to Russian symphony orchestras to Dutch pop and jazz and electronic music from seemingly every corner of the Earth.

Smaller booths, some of which are no bigger than a walk-in closet, found companies such as French classical imprint Transart seeking international distribution for its four dozen titles of live, state of the art recordings. ECM Records, the august jazz and contempo classical label distributed in the U.S. by Universal, was taking meetings with their distribs from territories U Music doesn’t cover, rather than hustling new business.

Occupying one of the largest booths was the country of Denmark, which threw an opening night party Sunday in three different rooms at the Martinez, featuring bands and DJs. Earlier in the day, the country presented the Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen and on Tuesday it will host a showcase for 50 Danish jazz musicians.

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