The Playlist: Legal Digital Tunes Go P2P

Thanks for all of your great submissions in response to last month's column, "How to Find New Music." I'll get to the best of your suggestions in a bit.

As usual, there's a lot going on in the world of digital music. Here's an update on the first peer-to-peer service to win support of a major record label, and a look at an open-source app that can create standard, unrestricted AAC files from tracks you buy at Apple's ITunes Music Store.

Wippit (No, Not the Devo Song)

I've been playing around with a new file-sharing service for the past month or so. It's called Wippit, and it's a nice proof-of-concept piece that shows the way legal file sharing may work in the future.

Wippit is a peer-to-peer network like the ones Bearshare and Morpheus connect you to, but with one important difference. The software client for Wippit uses a system called Cantametrix MusicDNA to look at each song in your collection, create a unique "fingerprint" from each track, and check that fingerprint against a database of tracks that are allowed to be shared on the service. If the song's allowed, other users can download it from your machine. For $90 per year (or $9 per month after an initial $23 setup charge), you get unlimited access to this network to download as much music as you like.

If you've been following digital music for a while, this should sound familiar--it's the same type of technology that record labels wanted on the original Napster to keep copyrighted music off the service. Napster said at the time that its whole service would need to be rearchitected to get any meaningful fingerprinting technology working. But new services such as Wippit can be built from the ground up to work this way.

Record labels and digital music sellers love audio fingerprinting because it lets them take advantage of cheap, peer-to-peer distribution. By all accounts, outlets like ITunes Music Store, Musicmatch Downloads, and Napster 2, which shoulder heavy server and bandwidth costs, are either losing money or operating on negligibly small profit margins. Many of those costs disappear in a peer-to-peer service, where data moves through the customers' PCs and Internet connections--which is why I think we'll see more offerings like Wippit in the future. Companies like Audible Magic, Gracenote, MusicKube, and Snocap (a new venture by Napster's Shawn Fanning) have developed similar music fingerprinting technologies, although they have yet to go live.

But is this a good thing? Record company EMI has committed to making its entire catalog available to Wippit, which sounds promising. I've been disappointed with the service so far. Wippit is based in the UK, so it's possible that the California-based PCs I'm using can't find reliable connections to most of the service's subscribers. Wippit and others like it have a lot of potential; but for now, I can't find enough on the service to want to subscribe.

Come on ITunes, Playfair

Tired of burning ITunes Music Store Tracks to CD, then re-ripping them so you can put them on your non-IPod portable player? I know I am. So, apparently, were a group of programmers who developed an open-source application called Playfair.

The app takes its name from FairPlay, the digital rights management scheme Apple uses to protect AAC files purchased from the ITunes Music Store. Playfair is basically a front-end for code from another open-source project called VideoLAN. Playfair uses the VideoLAN code to unwrap a protected AAC file and create a copy on your hard drive that's a standard AAC file with no digital-rights management restrictions. Playfair can even copy the track data that describes the song, right down to any album artwork that's included with the file.

This workaround can't strictly be termed a crack, because it uses a key from your Windows machine or IPod to authorize the track before creating a DRM-free copy. You'd have to legally acquire a copy of each song before you could run Playfair on it. You'd also have to download and compile the Playfair source code to run the program in the first place, which should limit its impact. Still, it's an interesting idea.

Quick Hits

Reader Suggestions for New Music: Either Paste Magazine is really great, or the magazine managed to pull off a pretty impressive e-mail campaign. I received enthusiastic recommendations from a couple of its editors and a few readers last month. I don't know how I missed this bi-monthly music magazine, but I'll be keeping an eye out for it in the future. Paste has a great Web site that mirrors most of its print content, and its writers seem to genuinely enjoy the music they cover--a welcome change in an era when too many critics trade in been-there, done-that negativity.

More Suggestions: PureVolume.com and Epitonic aren't bad either. They're a little like the old MP3.com in that they let an eclectic collection of artists sign up and post music that's free to stream or download. Finding the good stuff isn't always easy, but when you do it's worth the effort.

Check Amazon.com, Too: I don't know how I overlooked Amazon.com's "So You'd Like To..." and "ListMania" features, which let fellow music buyers post lists of related artists. You can find some gems by just picking out a favorite album, scrolling down to the bottom of the page and bouncing through other people's lists.

In Heavy Rotation

New From Sarah Harmer: The second disc from Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer, All of Our Names, came out a few weeks ago, and it's been in my CD changer ever since. Harmer's previous effort, You Were Here, was one of those albums where every song has a moment that makes it worth hearing. This latest disc isn't quite that good, but it's worth a listen.

Pop From The New Pornographers: I'm late to the party on this, but Electric Version by The New Pornographers is clearly one of the better albums of the past year. It's an amazing electric pop record from a band featuring Neko Case. Plus, Web searches for the band name can be amusingly unpredictable.

Eric Dahl doesn't own nearly enough blues records. To comment or ask a question, send him an e-mail.

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