Digital music encoding technology has swept the Internet. Thanks mostly to the encoding format MP3 -- officially called MPEG 1, Layer 3 -- music files that two years ago would have consumed 30MB to 50MB can be compressed to a fraction of their original size while maintaining good audio fidelity. What used to sound like a clock radio playing underwater has metamorphosed into audio that approaches CD quality. That's enough to make people stand up and take notice.
This boom in consumer interest has won the attention of consumer electronics companies, content-oriented Web sites and large record companies, all eager to ride the crest of the newest Internet phenomenon. As a result, listeners today can choose from a wide array of portable devices that play compressed music (see "Mobile MP3"), whereas last year their only option was Diamond Multimedia's Rio. A huge number of Web sites now offer downloadable audio players and music. And record companies, which have fought MP3 tooth and nail, are embracing compressed music formats other than MP3 that incorporate digital rights management and preserve their profits.
Many people forget that a lot of Web music in MP3 format is illegal. It gets uploaded to sites for unlimited downloading by users who have no intention of paying content owners for the privilege of doing so. Incorporating rights management into audio content will enable record labels to release single songs or complete albums from major stars online, so fans can find and download music legally. Of course, under this model you'll have to pay for the recordings -- either with your credit card or by providing demographic information to the record labels.