Best Of '99: Father Of MP3 Wants To Marry Music To Technology

Italian-born Leonardo Chiariglione heads effort to develop standard for selling tracks online.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Monday, May 17.]

Leonardo Chiariglione is the music industry's own Roberto Benigni.

Like the Academy Award-winning actor/director/writer, the Italian-born telecommunications pioneer seems at home in the spotlight — he's affable and engaging and something of an enigma. But he is also intensely serious about his work and driven to do great things.

As head of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, he's the industry's Superman of the moment. His mission: Help the music and technology industries develop a copyright-protection standard for selling music online so the Big Five record companies can stop worrying about piracy and begin making big money on the Net.

It is a major task, but then again, Chiariglione is not unfamiliar with making history.

"I would like to tell you that 11 years ago I had foreseen what is happening today [with MP3s]," said Chiariglione, an executive for Italy's premiere telecom company, Telecom Italia. "Unfortunately, the lie would be too big for you to believe."

As Chiariglione talked on the phone recently in a London hotel, 200 people under his guidance were working several rooms away, trying to figure out how the music world can securely ply its wares on the Internet.

Chiariglione, for his part, was charming a reporter an ocean away who wanted to know when John Q. Public would be able to buy any song in the world by download.

"Because I am in London and not at home," said Chiariglione, who speaks with a heavy Italian accent, "I have not brought my crystal ball with me. So I can't tell you exactly what will be the size of [the online music industry]."

Other executives might have ducked the question with a dry, "Well, I'm not going to speculate about ..." But Chiariglione is not like other executives.

Before accepting the SDMI position, he was best known for founding the international Moving Pictures Experts Group in 1988. Among other things, MPEG created the MP3 audio format, which transformed the Net into a digital jukebox with its near-CD-quality sound and lack of copyright protection.

And while Chiariglione basically introduced the world to high-fidelity downloadable music, he is now being asked by the industry to police what has become a wild frontier.

Those who know him say he's passionate about keeping order by creating unity in the telecom industry.

"He is almost like a preacher," said Gianpaolo Balboni, head of communication for Centro Studi e Laboratori Telecomunicazioni — the research arm of Telecom Italia. Chiariglione has worked there since 1971 and now runs its Television Technologies Division.

In the often cold world of telecommunications, Chiariglione is a Renaissance man. He's mastered seven languages and dabbles in others. He earned a doctorate in electronics from the University of Tokyo in 1973. He does not readily reveal his age, but lives his days with the youthful energy of a junior executive driven to succeed.

When he's not jetting to this country or that, he hops back to Italy for a respite with his wife on a vineyard he inherited from his grandfather.

To lead SDMI, the music industry sought someone outside its own ranks to put technology partners at ease, said Hilary Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the Recording Industry Association of America, which started SDMI. The job also demanded someone driven by results, but who was not so ambitious as to set the project on course for failure.

"His name came up several times: 'You need to find somebody like Leonardo,' " Rosen said. "And eventually we said, why do we need to find somebody like Leonardo? Let's just ask Leonardo."

Though many consider him the father of MP3s, Chiariglione is not a natural enemy of the entertainment industry. He founded the Emmy-winning MPEG coalition to devise audio and video compression standards for CD-ROMs, which in the early '90s could not be easily duplicated, so no copy protection was built in.

But by 1997, two circumstances conspired to launch a revolution. First, everyday computers became fast enough to decode the MPEG compression originally intended for speedy CD-ROMs. And second, the Internet exploded into the mass consciousness. In short order, unauthorized songs in MP3 format proliferated online, and the music industry panicked that profits were evaporating into cyberspace.

To make technologies interact, one must encourage people to interact. For SDMI that means Chiariglione has to keep representatives of 200 companies — ranging from such giants as Microsoft and Universal Music to near startups such as AudioSoft and GoodNoise — on the same page and working together.

"He's able to shut down those people who go to the microphone because they like to hear themselves talk for far too long," said Peter Harter, GoodNoise's vice president of global public policy and standards.

But even some of those who value Chiariglione's reputation as a taskmaster wonder whether he can adhere to the formidable goals he's set for SDMI. The group aims to devise standards for portable digital-music players by June 30.

"Some experts reacted to Leonardo's fast timetable for a standard by saying it was over-ambitious," said one SDMI participant who asked not to be named. "And they thought that the process of consensus building would suffer as a result."

In fact, Universal and Sony — two of the Big Five — have announced plans to sell secure digital music by this fall, about six months before the general SDMI standard is targeted for completion. (A third company, BMG, also intends to have music online for promotion and purchase by year's end, Billboard has reported.)

But Chiariglione said no companies have broken ranks from SDMI's united front.

"The fact that a particular record company decides to trial digital, secure music — it is not in contradiction to SDMI," he said. "If the Universal protection system is robust and can be played on a portable device, that's great — we don't need anything else."

If the 200 companies in SDMI maintain 200 agendas, they also cling to the singular goal of making the digital delivery of music a reality. Chiariglione may be the one figure who can corral them all into making it happen.

He has a unique role as both a technology expert and the handpicked savior of the music industry. He is of both worlds, and sometimes tries to play as if he's of neither. "The alliance is not here to be a nuisance to the record industry," he said, only to assert firmly a few minutes later that "SDMI is not an initiative that is controlled by the record companies."

Although he refuses to gaze into the crystal ball for the long term, his vision is apparently clear enough to see far beyond the horizon.

SDMI will meet its June goal, he said — which could mean numerous portable players in stores this holiday season and music on the Net to feed them with songs.

And if there is a substantial amount of music online by Christmas 1999, what will it look like a year later?

"We will have a massive presence," he said.

(Contributing Editor Gianni Sibilla contributed to this report.)