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MP3 replacement proposed

Bach Technology is designing a new file format, MusicDNA, that will provide a wealth of information--from album cover art to concert dates--alongside a regular audio file. But third-party support will be essential.

A proposed file format called MusicDNA will allow content owners to ship up to 32GB of information, such as album cover art, song lyrics, and even up-to-the minute blog posts and concert listings, alongside a music file. If enough content owners and distributors sign on, it could become an alternative to the MP3, giving users a more album-like digital playback experience, and allowing artists and content owners to charge more money per download.

Bach Technology

The proposed format was announced by Bach Technology on Sunday at MIDEM 2010, a music-industry conference under way in Cannes, France. Unlike current alternatives to the MP3, such as Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), MusicDNA is not a new audio technology, and requires no new audio codecs. Rather, as Bach CEO Stefan Kohlmeyer explains in this video interview with PaidContent, MusicDNA is an add-on to existing audio formats.

MusicDNA analyzes the audio itself for characteristics in 13 categories such as mood and tempo. This information is encoded as XML and ships with the file. Content owners can also provide data, such as album art and lyrics, to be included with the file. This data can even be updated when the user is online--for example, concert listings could be added as they're announced, complete with links to ticket-buying sites. Bach hopes to make money by licensing the technology to software and hardware manufacturers.

Because MusicDNA isn't a new audio technology, MusicDNA files should play on existing hardware and software--they'll play the underlying audio file and ignore all the added data. This is how MusicDNA could escape the fate of marginalized formats like Windows Media Audio or Sony's ATRAC.

It's an ambitious and interesting idea, but the digital music industry right now is dominated by one player: Apple. A lot of what MusicDNA proposes to accomplish could be handled at the application level--if Apple wants to analyze the audio content in files and add more categories to describe them, it could build this technology into iTunes. Moreover, Apple's already got its own format, iTunes LP, for shipping additional information with music files. So I don't see a lot of incentive for Apple to spend money to license and support this new third-party format. And without Apple, I don't see how MusicDNA can survive.