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Liquid Audio Out in the Cold?

NMC/Radio and Records eChart main column as published in the 1/25/02 issue of R&R A couple of years ago, it seemed that Gerry Kearby and Liquid Audio had the technology and positioning that everybody envied: a secure file format that included an amazing array of digital rights management settings, a nicely designed system of servers and players, and a business model that only needed the cooperation of the labels to make work.

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In the time that has passed since then, Liquid Audio has been largely made irrelevant. It's unfortunate that the labels chose to reinvent the wheel with their own roll-your-own solutions, ignoring the base of users that have become fans of Liquid Audio and have their players installed on their machines.

Undaunted, Liquid Audio is still plugging away, recently announcing version 6.1 of their player. In the process, they have thrown in the towel, and accepted the fact that at this point in time, MP3 and Windows Media Audio are the formats of choice.

The new version of the player allows ripping of CDs to MP3 files (assuming the CD in questions is not cloaked), burning MP3s back onto audio CDs and CDR/CDRW discs, and opens the door to sliding your audio files onto portable devices. They leave behind Macintosh users for some of these functions, but what is amazing to me is that they are still revving their player, and are still in business. The announcement was barely covered by the audio press, and no users have been e-mailing me looking for advice on upgrading.

pressplay, Musicnet, Rhapsody and all the others owe a great deal to the groundbreaking efforts of Kearby and his crew. Long before the labels got past the whole SDMI thing and on to the business of their own services, Liquid Audio was paving the way for the protection of artists' rights and copyright management in general. Unlike the pirate society that grew up around Napster and Scour and Gnutella, Liquid Audio espoused legal protection of the music.

What's really sad is that no one really followed through with them, despite deals early on with some of the labels. At one point, Liquid Audio was to embark on a library wide encoding project for each and every file in one of the labels' catalogs. That project fell by the wayside, and other business development people at other companies got the ears of the majors and distracted them with their johnny-come-lately solutions.

Liquid Audio has always stood for the artist, and is made up not of suits, but of musicians and poets and technologists. Here's hoping that they are not relegated to the dot-com dustbin after all of the groundbreaking work they have done.

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