The Editor's Spin: Slow Train Coming
Posted Mar 1, 2002

March 2002 | Mention "the Judas guy" to any lifelong Bob Dylan fan, and the reference will register immediately. It was summer 1966, and Bob Dylan and the Hawks (who would later become The Band) were touring the UK. Inspired by folk purists who had booed Dylan off the stage several months earlier for brandishing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, British fans were turning out in droves to harangue and heckle him all across England. And on one magical night (now known as "The Royal Albert Hall Concert") , when Bob and the boys decided to tape the show to see if they were really that bad, the zeitgeist moment happened, and became the coup de grace of the most famously bootlegged performance in rock history. Toward the end of the set, as the group catches their breath between songs, a single voice of choirboy purity rises above the din, crying out, "Judas!" As the crowd applauds, Bob replies, "I don't believe you. You're a liar!"

The taunt seems so precisely timed, so perfectly pitched, it's easy to imagine the lad as some precious, overweening art student, rehearsing his words before a mirror, and praying his moment will come. Even to this day, people still try desperately to debunk the Dylan of that time, and if only for the way they do it, there doesn't seem to be much conviction there. You don't believe them. They're liars.

But the beat goes on. Just check out Positively 4th Street (2001), David Hajdu's gossipy book about the early-60s Greenwich Village folk scene from which Dylan emerged. You see, Bob exploited his peers and robbed them of the fame they deserved because of the cutthroat marketing machine that propelled his own career. How's this for evidence: the very contemporaries that Bob left toiling in obscurity while he rose to pop stardom, let him sleep on their floors while he was on his way up.

Accusations like this don't survive so long without some basis in deeply felt human concerns—foremost here seems some vague idea that commerce corrupts art, or at best disqualifies it, which makes at least a little more sense than "might makes wrong." And the fact is, most of the resentful ones did deserve a wider hearing of their art than they got, but that's certainly no reason to fault Dylan for his talent or for reading the business better than they did.

Over here in the world of business magazines, for the most part, we don't have to sort out questions like "Is commerce anathema to art?" At least in the CD recording software market that issue is more or less off the table. But there's still a certain "might makes wrong" cloud that has been hung over CD-R software juggernaught Roxio (only once—when they were bullying Prassi—have they really deserved this). But if we're debating creativity versus commerce, one could effectively argue that Roxio never created much CD-R software, even as they rose to dominate the field with their flagship acquisitions, Toast and Easy CD Creator (actually the combination of two acquisitions). But Roxio has also, arguably, read the software market better than anyone else, and are still doing it.

When Roxio (then Adaptec) acquired Easy CD Pro, CD Creator, and Toast, CD recording software (like CD-R in general) was emerging from being a high-end professional application, a vertical market product with its horizontal future still just over the horizon. CD-R software, appropriately enough, was until then most successful on an API level, integrated into professional archiving solutions and the like, typified by successful APIs from Incat and Elektroson (aka Gear).

At this point, CD-R was the last purchase in a sequence that started with a particular business pursuit and the customized software solution that integrated the recording engine. When the broader small office/home office caught onto CD-R (and its attractive lowered pricing) for a range of routine duties, Adaptec made its move. This was the moment to create an off-the-shelf identity emphatically linked with CD-R, and Adaptec did so by assembling the most visible tools and claiming the lion's share of the bundling market. Except for CeQuadrat, which kept its European cachet intact (until Adaptec bought it), most competitors were left angling for Adaptec's crumbs.

But somehow, the competition hung on, and today's drive bundles ship with a range of products like ahead's Nero, NTI's CD Maker, Stomp's RecordNow, Veritas' MyCD, Iomega's HotBurn, and Sony's B's Gold in addition to ECD and Toast, which is great, especially as drives do less and less to differentiate themselves. But I'm finding it harder and harder to see meaningful differences in the software. The last product I tested, Oak's SimpliCD (now bundled with Plextor recorders) definitely has simplicity nailed, with its drag-and-drop data recording and inviting, skin-like audio recording tool. But everybody's got a wizard these days, and I don't see things getting—or needing to get—much simpler. As in the catch-on days for CD-R audio, you see other software providers emphasizing abilities that have been there all along, like VideoCD. And all signs indicate the long-awaited integration of CD recording into the OS (X, XP, and NT) is drawing nigh.

All of which would seem to leave a company like Roxio, marginally topping the heap of a rapidly leveling playing field, with nowhere to go. But once again, Roxio seems to be seeing that field better than its competitors, if a recent deal with Web-music subscription service pressplay and its acquisition of MGI and its popular VideoWave DV editing software are any indication of a pattern a-forming. Who knows whether they're finding inspiration looking backward—to CD-R software's API age—or forward, to the corporate-to-home DVD recording market, where recording is almost invariably an embedded function of a video authoring tool. But if I'm reading them right, they're reading recording software's future right, and positioning themselves to lead the pack again. Don't believe anyone who tells you different—they probably don't believe it either.