By: Lisa M. Moore
The Bowie Webcast is just the latest in a series of online musical events to capitalize on the growing lure of the World Wide Web as an entertainment medium. Once a rarity, generating more attention offline than they did online, these multimedia "broadcasts" -- live audio and video streams delivered on the Internet from a club or concert hall to a user's computer -- have taken the Web by virtual storm.
There are now Webcasts every day of the week, from major acts like Bowie, U2, the Cure, and the Rolling Stones, to smaller acts like Chavez, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Afghan Whigs. And, although everything from poetry readings to the Hong Kong handover is being "Netcast" or "cybercast," as Webcasting is also known, popular music events are garnering the lion's share of attention.
So why have Webcasts suddenly become the latest 'Net craze? One reason, according to Patrick Keane, an analyst with Jupiter Communications in New York, is the accessibility these online events offer. "With a cybercast, anyone can have access to an event, anywhere in the world," he says. "Even if you can't go to a show because of geographical limitations -- or maybe it's a marquee event and it's sold out -- cybercasts still allow you to be a part of the event as it happens."
Then there's the "coolness" factor, obviously an appealing commodity to 15-year-old music fans and early adopters alike. "I think cybercasting is one of the most compelling and engaging experiences a user can have online," SonicNet president and creative director Nicholas Butterworth maintains.
SonicNet launched on the Web in late 1995, and it was one of the first sites to present live music events on a regular basis. The site's consistent use of the latest technology to showcase non-mainstream acts, combined with solid content in the form of news, reviews and online chat sessions, has established SonicNet as a premier destination for music fans on the Web. The company's recent acquisition by cable giant subsidiary, TCI Music, underscores its success.
"I think there's something very magical about being able to log on to your computer and tap in to a live event that's happening thousands of miles away and have it come to you right there in your living room," Butterworth says. "However, I don't believe -- and I don't think anybody doing these cybercasts -- believes that someone who likes a band would choose to watch them on the 'Net instead of going out and seeing them in a club.
"But I still think that what we're offering is a lot more compelling than a concert broadcast on the radio," Butterworth contends. "In some ways, I think it's even more compelling than a concert broadcast on TV because of the possibility for interactivity and the sense that there are all these other people online with you."
It is exactly this sense of community that has given Webcasts a viable way of supporting themselves. Since the type of band participating in a Webcast ensures a specific audience demographic, advertisers and corporate sponsors are eager to jump on the bandwagon (no pun intended). And, although they are still being fairly selective about the events they sponsor, corporate giants like Levi's and Pepsi are putting their money where the music is.
There has been some speculation that events like Webcasts will eventually subscribe to cable TV's 'pay-per-view' model. However, this is unlikely in the near future, according to Tim Nilson, director of technology for business development at N2K Entertainment. N2K is home to several music sites, including Rocktropolis, "allstar" music magazine, www.DavidBowie.com, and www.theRollingStones.com, all interconnected by Music Blvd., an online music store.
"Let's say we only charge a dollar," he says. "Well, there might be problems at some point on the Net that we can't control, like slow connections or data packets getting dropped. But as soon as you charge for something, no matter how low the price is, people want a guarantee that it's going to work flawlessly, and right now, given the nature of the Net, we can't give them that guarantee."
N2K and other Webcasters are up against a formidable opponent: lack of bandwidth. Despite advances in hardware and technologies like caching and compression, the Internet is ill-equipped to handle the increased traffic it is being asked to carry. At 28.8Kbps, streaming audio and video feeds can contain a lot of static, and the video image appears in a window only slightly larger than a postage stamp. As for sound quality, SonicNet's Butterworth used to liken early audio Webcasts to "an AM radio in a '72 Chevy Nova." These days, he's a bit more charitable, equating current sound quality to "an AM radio in an '86 Toyota Corolla."
However, significant improvements in streaming media compression technologies have helped ease the pain of bandwidth limitations. RealNetworks raised the bar recently with its release of RealPlayer 5.0, which offers noticeably richer sound and video. In terms of market share, Microsoft's streaming media server product, NetShow 2.0, registers a distant second, but it's a safe bet the software giant won't assume that role for long.
Butterworth believes that the outcome of the battle between the two companies will ultimately benefit cybercasters and their audiences: "I think it's pressure from us and other broadcasters who are saying 'Build a better mousetrap and we'll come.' I think streaming media is just going to get better quicker if there's more competition."
Copyright 1998, Lisa M. Moore