Music has come a long way in the space of a lifetime. As quickly as the blues have morphed into techno, we have gone from the gramophone to the MP3 player in a period of only 100 years. But now it seems that the ultimate barrier is about to be broken. With new advances in mobile phones, standalone music players are a species now on the verge of becoming extinct.
The Apple iPhone is one of the most talked-about pieces of hardware around right at the moment. It is a mobile phone fitted with an 8GB MP3 player, which can download music directly from the Internet. It is now feasible that music lovers can live a happy life without the need to ever buy a specialized music player.
Samsung Electronics is following suit with the F700 handset, scheduled to be marketed in Europe, also equipped with a powerful MP3 player; and it seems the days of people carrying around a separate music player and phone are almost over.
Figures released by the mobile industry show that 80% of mobile phones sold in Korea now have integrated music players. What is more, though, Korean mobile producers are expecting to sell over 10 million MP3- enabled handsets in 2007, which is five times more than the number of stand-alone MP3 players' sales forecasted. A report from Vectis International, a Korean business development support specialist, says that Korea and Japan are leading the way in terms of mobile music.
The introduction of ringback tones (commonly known here as "coloring"), has been a roaring success in Korea, surpassing even ringtones. SK Telecom believes almost 45% of their subscribers have signed up to their coloring service, which makes SK an annual figure of over 100 billion won. Vectis International's Managing Director, Simon Bureau, believes the amazing coloring sales figures have everything to do with careful research and planning on the part of Korea mobile producers.
He said: "Korean operators have implemented clearly-defined business models for all aspects of the music value chain. That includes the creation of coloring tone content, management and the collection of copyrights, promotion of new soundtracks, the operation of servers and platforms and even the collection and sharing of end-user fees."
SK also estimates wireless Internet and mobile data services make up around 40% of their total revenue. New audio services for mobile users are springing up like mushrooms in Korea. Their number is only surpassed by their variety.
Some of these include SK's Melon and KT's Dosilak, which allow users to subscribe to a service where they pay a flat monthly fee for unlimited MP3 downloads. Nayiomedia offers a service where mobile users who only know a song's melody can call and hum it on the phone, the service will then send the song to the user's phone. And a company called Audien is offering customers downloadable audio books.
Indeed, BusinessWeek, an American magazine, hailed the advent of SK's Melon service as the "death of the iPod", saying that the service would eliminate the need for people to carry around both an MP3 player and a mobile phone.
But an SK spokeswoman admitted that convincing customers they actually need to fork out for music when so many people use Person-to-Person (P2P) programs that let users swap files over the Internet is difficult.
She said: "Right now, because of file-sharing programs, customers feel digital content can be copied without limit and for free. In fact, we are fighting against the commonly-held opinion that only an idiot would actually pay to download music or other media. That is the kind of resistance that we face, and it's no mean feat to persuade customers to think otherwise."
The introduction of flat rate file music downloads is an attractive one for customers, and one which hopes to blow P2P out of the water. For only a relatively small fee, people are able to get as much music on their mobiles as they like. But some companies have felt the pinch financially from introducing services like these.
A spokeswoman for KT said: "The introduction of flat rate services has damaged the price mechanism of the mobile market. This has limited growth in the mobile music market." Some have argued that the MP3 music revolution will eventually kill off new music as illegal file-sharing programs allow PC users to download music for free. But KT says new developments like their Byulgok service allow amateur and independent musicians a new freedom to sell their music. KT said: "We foresee this as a kind of marketplace for up-and-coming musicians. It is like a virtual UCC store where people can still get paid for producing new and original music."
To counteract the threat of music piracy, the world's music industries have joined forces to create Digital Rights Management (DRM). With DRM files, there is a limit to how much they can be copied and what kind of devices they can be played on.
Music producers believe that with DRM protecting digital music files, musicians' copyrights can be protected, ensuring that there will still be professional musicians in the future.
Service providers KT believe that most customers are not opposed to some forms of DRM restriction. A spokeswoman said: "Customers know they shouldn't be using illegal P2P services. We all have to respect each other and pay fairly for what we are listening to so music providers can continue to produce high-quality content for consumers."
But not everyone thinks that the DRM is an end-all for the copyright issue. Kim Jin-ah is a User Interface consultant at U2 Systems. Her company develops interfaces for mobile users. She thinks that DRM is not a perfect answer to the problem. She said: "There are lots of problems with DRM when it comes to MP3. Just as copyright is an important issue for musicians and authors, customers' rights are equally important, and DRM neglects this."
Kim points out that files which are DRM-protected cannot always be interchanged between a customer's devices. She said: "If they are trying to transfer a file from their mobile phone to their computer or MP3 player, it might not be possible. It is urgent that we redress this problem immediately."
Park Joo-hee, part of the Content Sales team at audio book suppliers Audien, believes that Koreans are no longer happy with music downloading services. Now they want more. "Korean tastes are starting to diversify. People here have already downloaded a lot of music; it is no longer novel for them. Their interests are changing, and they want to have new content available to them," she said.
Audien has also spiced up the service by adding background music and sound effects to some of its downloads. Though many will turn their noses up at the idea of book services, Lee is quick to point out that audio book consumption is on the rise. In the USA, 12% of the total book market is now audio, while in Germany, there has been a consecutive 15% annual rise in audio book consumption.
Kim Jin-ah of U2 Systems believes that all the Korean music services might rise or fall depending on the speed of the mobile internet. She said: "If the Internet is not fast enough, customers are going to quickly get tired of these new services. If we can pick up the speed a bit, though, customers might see them as useful, time-saving applications."
There are some who believe that better design is needed before new digital audio services really eclipse more old-fashioned music sources. Some have argued that services have not really been designed with mobile users in mind.
U2's Kim says she thinks that many of the new services need to be taken back to the drawing board. "Personally, I have tried music downloading services, but I don't like them much. They are quite user-unfriendly. Their interfaces are complicated and difficult to use. And it's not easy to find exactly what you need on the tiny screens most mobiles come with."
Many of the new services available to Korean users are little more than gimmicks. It is hard to imagine that we will really still be using some of the more quirky of these services in a decade or so. That said, there can be little doubt that a revolution is sweeping through both music and mobile phones in this country -- the way that we relate to both is about to change Korean mobile users are now overwhelmed with forever.