Digital Nation: Custom CDs Put One Foot In Future, Keep One In Past

Tailor-made discs gather steam, offering digital cachet in a familiar package.

You've heard it before: Downloadable music is the future. One day soon, music will be pulled into computers over cable lines or beamed right into our wireless phones.

Well that may be the case, but Larry Lieberman, vice president of downloadable-music and custom-CD site musicmaker.com, has a confession to make.

"Other than things I've had to do for my own company, I've never paid for a download in my life," he said.

Why not? Because, like a lot of us, even the so-called digerati prefer compact discs. They're fast, Lieberman said — no waiting for downloads to arrive on your computer. And they're convenient, too — there are no incompatible formats to fret about.

Despite all the media attention afforded downloads, several big music companies are banking on custom CDs as their immediate ticket to the future. On Tuesday (Feb. 22), Sony Music — home to Rage Against the Machine, Jennifer Lopez and Bruce Springsteen — announced plans to make 10,000 songs available for customized CDs through CustomDisc.com this spring.

The custom disc is an intriguing beast, neither fish nor foul, but something of both.

By allowing music fans to choose their own favorite songs for a compilation, the individualized CD uses digital technology to sell products unheard of in the era of vinyl records. Cherry-picking an album and ordering it on the Internet carries a distinct 21st-century flavor.

But it's still a familiar 20th-century CD that you get.

Musicmaker.com is owned in part by EMI. Last year saw their first collaboration when musicmaker.com sold custom versions of the Beastie Boys collection The Sounds of Science. Fans could choose from 150 songs ranging from radio hits to rarities, such as the Fatboy Slim remix of "Body Movin' " (RealAudio excerpt).

The disc is the company's biggest seller, though Lieberman would not comment on sales figures. Big names on tap for the weeks ahead include the Who and Jimmy Page with the Black Crowes, all of whom are non-EMI artists.

Custom-CD deals allow major labels to move into the online arena without having to release their work in a downloadable format. Despite the piracy protection offered by encrypted formats such as Windows Media and Liquid Audio, labels remain reluctant to sell downloads. Custom CDs offer a bit of cutting-edge cachet without some of the political or technological risk attached to MP3s or other downloads.

In essence, custom CDs have one foot planted in the future and one lodged firmly in the past. But just because they're acting like a bridge today doesn't mean they'll disappear as downloading becomes more common, according to Internet and entertainment analyst Aram Sinnreich of Jupiter Communications.

"The Internet doesn't replace traditional media, it augments them," he said. "What we're moving toward in the music industry isn't a pure downloading model, but a model that will allow consumers to have a lot more flexibility."

That's not how MP3 retailer EMusic.com sees it. EMusic.com is shutting down the custom-disc operations of Cductive.com, the downloadable music and handpicked CD operation it purchased last year.

"The future is downloading," Chief Executive Officer Gene Hoffman said recently. "We're not as interested in trying to teach customers how to make compilations."

But Lieberman prefers to hang on to his cake and eat it, too. The future is downloading, sure — but that's the future. For now, musicmaker.com is banking that free downloads of single tracks from such artists as Page, Ministry and the Troggs will lure customers into buying entire custom CDs from folks such as the Smithereens, the Supersuckers and Johnny Dowd.

"Downloads are wonderful, and they're certainly changing the way we all consume music, but I don't know that they're changing the way we buy music," he said.

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