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This is not your usual music review. This is not a review of an album that has come out on CD, or on DVD, or even on the Internet. Knesiat Hasechel (Church of the Mind) is putting out its album, Live, on a format that is turning out to be the next wave of music distribution - the cellular phone.
The album, with tracks from the band's super-sized performances on its Autobiography tour, includes some of the best-known songs from its 15 years of music-making. Knesiat Hasechel took those hits, familiar from the Galgalatz playlist, and added to them the oomph of a 44-piece orchestra.
The arrangements of the songs are also much more alive, with long percussion interludes which give an emphasis to the Sderot band's Mizrahi roots. The energy of the ecstatic crowd singing along also gives Live a different flavor from the sometimes soapy feel of the band's well-known hits.
Particularly enjoyable is Knesiat Hasechel's most recognizable song, "Hayinu Osim Ahava," where frontman Yoram Hazan's singing of a "drugged, kicking, unrestrained" lover is backed up by an intense bit of Oriental-inspired string instrumentation.
There's no point rushing to the local music store to look for the disc. Live is only being released as a bonus with the purchase of the Sony-Ericsson W-910i cellular phone, due to be introduced shortly.
Beyond being a catchy gimmick for Sony-Ericsson, the joint effort is indicative of a trend in the music economy where cellular downloads are fast becoming a main source of income for many artists. Ever since the advent of downloadable ring-tones, the content market for cellular phones has been growing ferociously, powered especially by teenagers, who download favorite songs to be played whenever their phone rings.
The latest evolution is the "true tone" which is a ring-tone that plays higher-fidelity music than traditional ring-tones, using standard MP3 or other formats to play music that is increasingly reminiscent of original-quality digital recordings.
This technology is also impacting on the economics of ring-tones. Since the true-tone is essentially playing standard-format music, it cuts out the need for a third party to reformat existing music. As it becomes widespread, the doors of this billion-dollar industry are being flung open to record labels interested in marketing their product directly to customers.
The irony of all this is that the music industry is otherwise in a funk, both worldwide and in Israel. The availability of music on the Internet means that fewer people are walking into their neighborhood record store to buy the latest album. Whether music-lovers are downloading illegal versions of their favorite music, or even buying legal copies of singles that they enjoy, they are far less likely to purchase an entire album.
While that's great news for music customers who all-to-often get stuck with 10 mediocre tracks on an album bought for the one or two good singles, the trend is instilling fear in the hearts of music execs and even performers. In a small market like Israel, where a sale of 30,000 copies - as Knesiat Hasechel managed for its recent Autobiography - is considered a success, any pinch on those numbers hurt. And for the past few years, the Internet has been pinching a lot.
So it's no wonder that almost every band and performer is jumping on the ring-tone bandwagon for a source of income that is - for now - relatively secure from piracy, and fast becoming a major cash crop. Young people are spending billions worldwide for their favorite songs to personalize their phones, and the market may yet grow as it becomes easier to dedicate certain songs to specific contacts (from saccharine love songs for your boyfriend to golden oldies for your parents). That means that cellular phone users are going to be downloading even more songs to their ring-tone playlist.
Of course, the main winners in this scenario, at least in Israel's current set-up, are the cellular providers, which rake in the majority of profits from services, which can cost up to NIS 5 per song. But that still leaves plenty over for the music label, while avoiding a record store cut or other middle men.
What some critics are concerned about, however, is that the focus on cellular phone music will lead to the commercialization of all music. Will bands like Knesiat Hasechel lose their distinctive voice as they begin to target their music to the cellular market? Certainly, their Sony-Ericsson deal smells like an endorsement.
The likely outcome of this trend? The market will continue to reward musical ingenuity and creativity. After all, the cellular music phenomenon is about personalization - of finding the ring-tone that best reflects your personal image. So even if the music is turned into a 30-second outtake that usually serves as the soundtrack for the desperate rummage through your bag to get to the phone in time, most users will still want it to be a song that they associate with something unique.
Perhaps Israel is the best example of that sort of personalization. On one bus you might be exposed to haredi, Arab, Mizrahi and Russian ring-tones. Clearly, mobile phones are pushing the trend towards more fragmentation and more personalization, uprooting radio's position of deafening dominance.
The march of technology cannot be stalled. The Sony-Ericsson W-910i that Knesiat Hasechel is promoting has all the capabilities of MP3 players (plus neat - if pointless - features like Shake-Control, where a shake of the wrist turns to the next song). When that kind of capability is available on every cellular phone, allowing for hundreds of songs to be stored, users will be downloading entire songs rather than just ring-tones and the cellular phone business will be the main marketplace for purchasing new music.
Love it or hate it, this is where phone manufacturers, service providers and even record labels are mining for money.
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