Shareware Beach

Friday, 11 February 2005

Music to My Ears

Filed under: Cyberspace — Jan @ 21:19

The future of music distribution has arrived. Finally. I wonder what took them so long. Old habits, I guess. Of those controlling the industry, that is.

Ever since technology made is possible to record and play back music mechanically, music has been sold as if it was a tangible product. Until the MP3 format became popular in the mid-1990s, storing each recording on a dedicated disc or tape was the only way for consumers to exchange music.

But what really matters is not the disc or tape, but the music. The value of the music exceeds that of the medium. With recording devices becoming ever more affordable, and digital formats like MP3 making it possible to exchange music electronically, consumers could finally treat music the way it really exists: as intangible, instantly shareable information. But the music industry insists on maintaining the status quo, forcing consumers to haul or send for physical discs, and brandishing file sharing networks as illegal. Now I’m all in favor of protecting artists IP rights, but forcing people to stick to arcane ways that only exist because of past technological limitations isn’t the way to go.

Enter Napster To Go. Not surprisingly, one of the pioneers of the outlawed file sharing networks is, after a few false starts, the first to come up with a workable model. While it remains to be seen how successful Napter will be at this, the core of their business model is the only model that makes sense. I haven’t used their service yet, since it’s only available in some countries at the moment. What follows is an exact description of how Napster To Go works, but how I would make it work. Obviously, as this service matures, some aspects will need to be adapted, and hopefully we’ll see some competition doing things a bit differently to keep the market healthy.

For a fixed monthly fee ($14.95 in the US) you can keep your MP3 player filled to the brim with your favorite music. You can download as much music as you want. The only restriction is that it has to fit on your MP3 player. When it’s full, you have to delete some songs. That’s not a problem, since you can download them again later, replacing something else. With many player models available that can hold 10,000 songs, this isn’t much of a limitation. It’s actually better than CDs from a long-term storage point of view: if a CD breaks, it’s gone. (Yes, you can make backup copies. But affordable CD writers are as recent a development as MP3.) If your MP3 player breaks, you don’t lose any music. Just some time to download it again into a new player.

But that’s only the beginning of the story. This new business model opens a plethora of new possibilities. I don’t know how much of this Napster To Go already implements, but if they don’t I expect them to do so in the future, or be walked over by a smarter competitor.

Instead of using legal threats and technological impediments to discourage consumers to copy music, sharing music becomes a no-brainer when two people each have their own Napster To Go device. Simply zap the songs over via bluetooth or WiFi. The DRM information for calculating royalties tags along quietly in the background. People socialize, artists get paid. Fans don’t have to hike to the shop to get the latest CD, or wait for the radio to play the tune.

File sharing could be a real boon for artists. When I’m interested in buying a CD, I’ll go to Amazon.com to listen to track samples, and often decide against buying the disc because I don’t like half the tracks. The artist gets nothing. But if I could download the album for free (i.e. included in the fixed monthly fee), I could delete half or even more of the tracks, and play the remaining ones over and over. I don’t feel cheated paying for a whole album with only three great tracks, and the artist still gets royalties each time I play one of the tracks I do like.

Particularly upcoming artists stand to benefit. If a teenager’s monthly allowance is enough to buy one CD, it’s unlikely to be a disc from an obscure artist that nobody wants to trade with her. But if she has an unlimited monthly subscription, she can explore without limits or risk.

Legal music sharing also brings new possibilities. Ever wanted to run your own radio station? It could be just as easy as uploading a playlist on a website. Listeners would download the playlist to their MP3 device, which fetches the actual music from Napster. Podcasters could intersperse their ramblings with music–or the other way around.

Personal radio stations could the killer app for this sort of service. Real radio stations never play my favorite style of music (usually labeled “new age”). Music mavens could set up individual radio stations just for the fun of it, much like bloggers write for the heck of it. :-) Such radio stations wouldn’t care about ratings, though a loyal audience will obviously boost the DJ’s ego.

Traditional radio is geographically bound. It needs sufficient listeners in a particular area. Internet radio can reach listeners all over the world. Artist that get almost no airtime and no royalties from traditional radio stand to benefit greatly. It’s much easier for a specialty Internet radio station to reach critical mass and expand its audience to include listeners who previously listened to Top 40 radio because that’s all they could get in their area.

Yes, Internet radio already exist today. But it doesn’t work, because it costs the radio station money to stream the songs and pay the royalties. With Internet radio based on a system like Napster To Go, the music is served by the company collecting the money. All the radio station does is build the playlist, which takes more passion and good taste than effort. Shareware Beach Radio. I like the sound of that.

Are we going to see some competition in this area? I think so. Notably absent form Napster To Go’s list of supported devices is the Apple iPod. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple countered with iTunes To Go in the near future. I had been thinking about buying an iPod, but now I certainly won’t until it is compatible with a flat fee music service. I’m not going to spend $9,900 to fill up a 60GB iPod with 10,000 songs if I can fill a competing player for $14.95 per month. I do think I’ll listen to more than 10,000 songs over the next 55 years.

Is Napster To Go going to take over the world? I have no idea. Right now, their service seems to be available in only a handful of countries. But I’m sure flat fee music will eliminate per-track music, just like flat fee Internet access has all but eliminated per-minute Internet access. The genie is out of the bottle. You can’t put it back in. If Napster fails, a competitor will succeed.

Certainly, there’s kinks to work out. Most of the detractors point at the disadvantage that with Napster To Go, you don’t own the music. Well, if you buy a CD, you don’t own the music either. You own the disc. The artist or record label own the music. Stop paying Napster, and you can’t play your old songs any more. As far as I’m concerned that’s no worse than to stop paying the CD store, and you can’t play new songs any more. And the music doesn’t just vanish. If you restart your subscription, you can just download the same songs again. I’m sure once Napster starts suffering attrition, they’ll add the ability to instantly “revive” the songs on your player when you return to their service. And I’m equally sure there will eventually be a way to migrate between competing services.

Unlimited high quality highly diverse internet radio for a low monthly fee. That will be the killer app.

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