Vehicles will drive a viable revenue stream for record labels in the coming years, panelists said at the "Auto Mobile Music: The Dashboard Jukebox" session today, on day one of Popkomm, the international music and entertainment conference being held in Berlin. The event runs September 19 - 21.

"Cars have been an offline silo for a long time. Now they are starting to come online," noted moderator Ty Roberts, co-founder of chief technical officer of Gracenote.

While in-car music interfaces are currently limited by technology and safety issues, the participants noted, new voice-activated devices are poised to enter the market, breaking-open the possibilities for tuning in at the wheel.

"We will connect our cars with the Internet in the next three to four years. It's small steps we are taking," explained Wilbert Hirsch, principal of acg audio consulting group in Germany. "The iCar is not far away."

Stephen White, Gracenote's senior director product and content management, urged music companies to align with car manufacturers. "The big opportunity is to work with the automobile industry now. It is a new frontier for digital music," he explained. "We have to see what the reaction is to the user community. You need to think of automotive as a distribution channel."

The sophisticated devices of the future, built into existing satellite-navigation systems, will enable drivers to customize their playlists on the go.

"Personalized downloads to the car will become a viable business model," Hirsch added.

And music videos will inevitably come into the mix. "Music videos in the car are not good for the driver," quipped Chrisa Haussler, senior VP, Sony BMG Music Entertainment Germany. "But how do you entertain the kids in the back. It's a good option."

Other speakers -- including George White, SVP of strategy and product development with Warner Music Group -- suggested downloads could be bundled into the price of car repayments, and delivered when the vehicle is being serviced.

"When we talk about filling the car up, we could be talking about filling it up with music," noted Roberts.

Later in the Popkomm program, the complex system of rights collecting in Europe and the slowing market for ringtones came under the microscope.

Philippe Kern, CEO of KEA European Affairs, and founder of European independent music companies trade body Impala, took moderation duties for the afternoon panel, "Collecting societies joining together: entent cordiale or David vs. Goliath."

The session pitted executives from European collecting societies Buma/Stemra, SACEM, GEMA and labels body IFPI. And although it never quite descended into the battle it promised, attendees were treated to an insight into the competitive nature of European rights organizations.

"Harmonia is ready to cooperate with everyone. We need cooperation from all the societies," commented Thierry Desurmont, deputy chief executive of France's SACEM. Along with Italy's SIAE and Spain's SGAE, SACEM is a crucial cog in the Harmonia one-stop licensing alliance. "But it means the small collecting society will also need to improve their measures of administration to achieve better efficiency."

Speaking from the audience, Joe Mohen, founder and CEO of ad-supported digital music firm Spiralfrog chipped in, "I've come into the industry from a computer programming background. Music is the most complicated intellectual property ever. It makes software seem like a vacation."

Later in the day, executives admitted on the "Stepping into the Popkomm ring" panel that the market for ringtones - until recently a revenue power-player for the industry - has seen its heyday. "It's not a growing business. I hope that it will stay stable, but that is optimistic," said Gudrun Schweppe, VP of music licensing at German ringtone and download firm Jamba. "Handsets are improving and the typical ringtone buyer can edit his music on his computer and turn into a ringtone. We're looking at new business models, such as selling full-track to mobiles. We need to find new ways of having people pay for music. But it's still very difficult to operate on an EU-wide basis."