Wednesday, August 30, 2006

what we gotta say / power to the people / no delay

My friend Rowan (who used to be in The Dabs..their website is here, and their Love The Army EP is one of those gems that the history of New Zealand music is littered with….have I ever mentioned Peter Solomon’s single on Pagan or the self titled Obscure Desire single on the same label?) sent me, this morning, this very interesting story in an online geek magazine.

Without asking you to read through the whole thing, the essence of it is that Universal Music are planning to put their catalogue online later this year, and here is the clincher, free, supported by advertising at a site, to be launched, called oddly, SpiralFrog.

Apart from the fact that this concept, with one swoop, blasts iTunes, and, despite what the story says, hopefully, DRM, out of the water (and a whole bunch of other sites too of course), it indicates that, perhaps, just perhaps, the penny has finally dropped.

Of course it remains to be seen if the business plan that has clearly attracted both investors and UMG, has legs…..and the fact that it has attracted both is no indication it has…and there are royalty issues that will have to be worked through, not the least of which are some of the punitive clauses in contacts relating to miscellaneous income and digital returns. However, regardless of the model, those issues will have to be worked out at some stage too. I suspect the increasing move away from major labels is doing that in a de-facto way already. But I guess the idea is that free music will automatically gain a massively larger audience than the pay for stuff and that there will be simply more to go around if the increase is reflected in advertising revenues. And some income is vastly better than the potential for a nil return.

It’s a reasonably obvious model and makes so much more sense than the relentless threats to the end user that the likes of RIAA and NZ’s own RIANZ have tried and so obviously failed with. There is increasing (anecdotal and real) evidence that the lawsuits and threats of such have, rather than solve a problem, aggravated it. The music industry must be the only one in history that thinks that by treating it’s customers as potential felons, it is making a sensible step forward. You can mutter about the law and artist rights as much as you like, but when you generate that much negative energy it must come back at you eventually.

It just took someone major to make the leap away from that, and Universal seem to be the one who’ve jumped. I have to wonder too, if the timing of this has anything to do with the word Zune

The irony for Universal though, is that, although this is a clear, and some would say, brave, attempt to preserve their future, it doesn’t make major record companies like them any more viable or necessary in the future. It does, in the way that it will greatly accelerate the digital rush and the demise of the record shop, make them less relevant than ever. Unless of course you are the likes of Mariah Carey or Bob Dylan, who couldn’t and wouldn’t want to, exist outside the systems the majors offer.

And talking of Bob Dylan, I can’t believe the garbage being spouted by critics in the rush to praise his latest.

I don’t know if it’s a good or a great record, but to listen to the critics out there, it’s the second coming….hasn’t Bob already been there for that?

All I know is that regardless of how good it is, it ain’t no Blonde on Blonde….get over it please…

the next day:

I did a search on Spiralfrog before I wrote the above and there was little else out there. In the 24 hours since, the information about it has appeared everywhere and more is known about exactly how they are going to "give" these tracks away. The concept of having to watch an ad before you get a track (WMA too) for a limited time is absolutely flawed. But, that said, what is on offer is still substantially more attractive to a kid wanting a song they've just heard on the radio than tu-tuing around on Limewire or paying on iTunes. People forget the 45 (or ringtone in 2006 terms) factor...that a massive amount of pop music is ultimately disposable and has no requirement beyond a week or two. I can't help but feeling that many of the critcisms of this concept ignore this timeless driving factor, and are written from the perpective of an older customer. The post David Geffen (it was all his fault...that and Sgt Pepper) consumer who still sees the "album" or the "cd" as the core delivery unit of the industry.

But to me the real signifigance of this is the slight change in the mindset of the record company. There is and has to be a better way forward. And suing the end user is not it and won't make the this genie jump back into the bottle.

As I've said elsewhere, what we are faced with now is the biggest revolution in how we listen to music since the shellac disc, 100 years ago, demolished the traditional domain of the music publisher. And record companies are notoriously conservative, they don't like change unless they instigate it. But the nature of music and the people creating it reapeatedly throws wild cards into the mix. This is the biggest wild card of my lifetime. The future is there, and its obvious, but its about the way we get there.

But however its done, the majors will have to be forced to change, and my feeling is that the p2p sites (who are massively more relevant to this than iTunes, which is more or less an aside to this argument) and the 40 to 1 ratio of illegal to legal downloads, ie, the consumng public, are the ones driving it.

And the record companies are the followers, but follow they must...