You can't turn on the radio or TV without hearing about the recording industry and its legal battles with Internet providers or facilitators who are providing free access to music over the Internet. Technology is driving this music revolution, and the common denominator is an audio file called MP3.

As a planner, you may feel that MP3 has nothing to do with you, but if you incorporate music into your organization's events, you may be in for a pleasant surprise.

What is MP3? The term is shorthand for a computer-file format for audio called Motion Picture Coding Experts Group-1, audio layer-3. As with any digitally encoded file, it can be downloaded from the Internet, posted on a Web site, sent as an e-mail attachment, or stored on your hard drive. Although it's not quite CD quality, it makes up for this slight lack of fidelity with simplicity and speed. A song that once needed 40MB to download now takes less than one-tenth the space using MP3. It's become the de facto standard for digital music — sometimes called the VHS of music file formats.

MP3 was developed in 1991 by an engineer from Germany. Its 12-to-1 compression ratio made it ideal for saving computer hard-drive space and download time. In the years since, the use of MP3 has grown exponentially. By some estimates, almost 20 million MP3 players (the program that allows a listener to hear an MP3 file) have been downloaded onto computers around the world.

The problem? Web surfers have traditionally regarded information in cyberspace as a commodity that should be free. The music industry, on the other hand, has zealously claimed its right to collect for any use of recorded music — including songs played at events and conventions.

Web surfers contend that using a site that offers free downloads, linking music files on your computer with song libraries of other music lovers on thousands of PCs around the globe, is like trading CDs or playing a friend's tape. Since no money changes hands, they believe the content can be shared. They also argue that they often already own the music they are downloading — this just saves the hassle of converting it to the MP3 format.

The Next New Thing

What happens next? Besides continuing to locate and close Web sites that are downloading music for free, major record companies are addressing several issues.

First, they are probably wise enough to know that file sharing will be almost impossible to stop. Sony is already offering 50 songs for online purchase at $3.49 per song. These songs are encoded with security measures to guard against unauthorized duplication and distribution. Most consumers appear to be willing to pay for their music, but would prefer the cost to be between $1 and $2 per song.

Web sites are positioning themselves as feeder systems into the big leagues of inspirational music, getting musical groups to sign up and watch their popularity unfold. The groups upload their songs, and then visitors to the sites sample the music for free, and can purchase the complete CDs. Meanwhile, technologies are being developed to embed downloadable music with code that would limit the number of times users can play songs and prevent them from making digital copies or trading online.

There is now a growing selection of portable MP3 players. These pager-size devices weigh less than 3 ounces and work off rechargeable or disposable batteries for hours at a stretch. They range from $170 to $270, and typically come with 32MB or 64MB of memory. The rule of thumb for MP3 music files is “one minute of play per MB.” So a 64MB device will play about an hour of music.

MP3 technology will make providing music for your next youth group or inspirational meeting easy. Very likely all you will need to bring is a laptop and speakers. On your own Web site, where your promotional items for the program are located, you can post MP3 files that potential attendees can download and play at home. It's always exciting to catch musicians on their way up instead of on their way down.

As in the past, consumer electronics continues to lead the way to new technology for meetings.

Ken Pickle, CPCU, CMP, is manager, incentives and conferences, for Safeco Insurance Cos., Seattle.