Thursday, September 28, 2006

9.28.06 Actually, There Might Be Free

[This article originally ran in the 9.28.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]

A bunch of stuff has been announced over the past month which might, just might, change forever the messy dynamics of music and video on the net. Sometimes these things are announced and never happen; all of these things, however, have at least the smell of really happening, and happening before the end of the year:

1. Musical artists selling music directly on MySpace: This one is happening now. Wildly popular MySpace, partnering up with SnoCap, the latest venture from Napster inventor Shawn Fanning, is allowing bands to sell straight MP3s, unencumbered by any restrictions, off of their MySpace sites. MySpace will take a set fee per download and the band can set the price anywhere above that. Previously, bands could post recordings only for free download or for streaming. So, what does this mean? This means that the estimated three million bands on Myspace now have distribution, easy distribution, from the one place most of their fans go to visit them. Because the music is available as straight MP3’s, the tracks for sale have much more versatility and value than those for sale on mainstream sites like ITunes, where files come all gooed up with copy and format restrictions. Major labels, for now, won’t let their artists sell on MySpace, because of the lack of restrictions on the downloads. The competition from indy bands will force them to rethink this.

The importance of this development cannot be overstated. ITunes finally has a real competitor, and bands without a label finally have a real horse to ride. And MySpace has given bands yet another reason to turn their backs on major labels and go it alone.

2. Major labels giving away music! Trying to compete with free by suing customers and packing CDs with computer viruses doesn’t seem to be working out so well, so the major labels, years too late, are going to start “giving away” their music, too. So far, EMI, Universal, and indy giant Koch have agreed to allow a company called SpiralFrog to offer free downloads of their music catalogs. Of course there’s a hitch. SpiralFrog will attach advertising to the music files. While I haven’t seen official details, what I’ve read indicates that listeners will have to sit through a 90 second commercial before listening to a song, and that downloaded songfiles will self destruct after you’ve had them for six months. And you can bet that these files won’t be playable on IPods. SpiralFrog is going to launch this in beta version in December, but I think it’s already DOA. Interesting in concept, but ultimately self-defeating. It’s gonna be free, but it’s not gonna feel like free, not while you suffer through the advertisements, not when you can’t load the song into your IPod, and especially not when your catalog disappears.

3. Fully licensed P2P free site! QTrax has announced agreements with several major labels for an advertising-supported free P2P site. The site will apparently run just like the old Napster, or Limewire, or Morpheus, except you don’t risk getting your ass sued for using it, because the site will be littered with advertisements, and the labels will get a piece of that revenue. This is the business model, in fact, that the original Napster proposed to the labels seven years ago, and the labels rejected it and instead sued Napster out of existence. What a difference seven years and declining market share makes! QTrax’s website only says that the service is “Coming Soon.” Again, expect tons of restrictions on the files, and compatibility problems with IPods.

4. A few days after industry dinosaur and Universal president Doug Morris made snarling comments about suing YouTube because it’s an evil pirates’ cove of infringement, Warners announced a deal with YouTube whereby Warners would supply all of its music videos to YouTube and, most significantly, will grant a blanket license for individuals to post their own videos using Warners music on the site. Like the QTrax deal, money would come from advertising on YouTube pages where Warner content is posted. This is the first large-scale embrace that I know of by a Big Media company of amateur creators tinkering with its stuff. Of course, Warners will, at least hypothetically, make some money off of these amateur creations, but what else did you expect? “Remix culture”, at long last, has been legitimized, if only a little bit, by Big Media. Amazing.

If you’re feeling a little dazed by all this, join the club. And it’s going to get weirder, I’m sure, before it settles down to some sort of universally embraced stasis. Then again, it may never settle down. The world of internet music and video may just continue to get more diverse and entropic, and it will be up to you to figure out what paradigm suits you best. Which is far from the worst result I can think of.


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