Posts filed under “Music”

Music: Rent versus Own


The WSJ “Real Time” column raises an interesting question this morning — the query they raise is at the heart of what some in the Music industry believe will solve all of their problems: Will renting songs ever win over digital-music fans?

I suspect the issue is a non-starter — not due to consumer demand, but rather, because artists have learned the harsh lesson that the labels cannot be trusted — period. Given the industry’s historic loathing of actually compensating their artists fairly, I cannot imagine that any musician would ever in a million years agree to the sort of compensation arrangement that a renting/all you can listen to/flat fee subscription plan would entail.

That’s what happens after many decades of accounting malfeasance (see “RIAA accounting practices a leading cause of declining music sales), and even outright theft (See: “Spitzer tells Music Biz: Stop Robbing Artists) by the labels against their artists; The books “Stiffed” and Hit Men outline many of the sordid details.

It turns out that generally loathsome behavior on the part of the industry for decades does have consequences. I hope that whatever replaces the big labels is less abhorrent . . .

An excerpt from the Journal piece follows:

“Will digital-music fans ever warm to the idea of renting their favorites?

That’s a key question in the industry, with Microsoft Corp. about to release a new version of its “Janus” software for preventing music piracy that will let subscribers to services such as RealNetworks Inc.’ Rhapsody transfer songs to their portable audio players.

Allowing transfers could address one of the biggest limitations of the subscription model, if enough of the record labels sign on to give the concept a chance. But would it be enough to make the subscription model better-known and more widely adopted?

First things first: The fundamental difference between a subscription service such as Rhapsody and “a la carte” services like Apple Computer Inc.’s iTunes Music Store, the reborn Napster and MusicMatch Downloads is that subscription services let you browse and listen to hundreds of thousands of albums for a monthly fee, but the songs are “streamed” to your PC instead of being downloaded permanently to your hard drive or burned to a CD — stop subscribing and they vanish. With iTunes and its ilk, you can only preview snippets of tracks, but there’s no subscription fee and if you pay your dollar, your download is yours for keeps.

The subscriber model lacks both respect and exposure. Come-ons for song downloads are such TV staples these days that it seems like you’d have trouble buying a beer, soda or burger without getting a digital song, and Apple reaped a PR bonanza with the countdown to its 100 millionth downloaded song.

Meanwhile, subscription services are widely seen as also-rans. Part of this, one suspects, is that “streaming” is still a dirty word to a lot of Internet users, who associate it with stuttering or stalled audio. Subscription services also should engage in some remedial PR — the business model is sometimes referred to as “music rental,” which at best seems slightly pejorative to music fans used to extracting physical CDs from shrink-wrap and at worst smacks of paying through the nose to have a couch to sit on.

Still, the subscription model does have undeniable drawbacks. One of the biggest is that transferring songs to a portable player forces users to either go through a considerable amount of legal hassle (pay an additional fee and baby-sit burning songs to a CD, “rip” the CD back into permanent digital files, then transfer the songs) or engage in illegal activity to capture streamed songs. The new version of Janus could largely eliminate such annoyances. But would the payoff be a new lease on life for the subscription model?”

Will Music Fans Ever Warm To ‘Renting’ Their Favorites?
Tim Hanrahan and Jason Fry
WSJ, July

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Music Industry Spinning DRM Tales

Brace yourself for a DRM lie of biblical proportions:

Velvet Revolver, a supergroup formed from members of the bands Stone Temple Pilots and Guns N’ Roses, released Contraband, their first CD. It shot straight to no. 1 on the charts, selling 256,000 copies in the U.S.,  according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Expect the Music Industry/RIAA flacks to start spinning dross into gold, claiming the reason for the CD’s success was the DRM from Suncomm Technologies (remember them?). This is the company’s 12th copyprotected CD, and Bertelsmann Music Group’s fourteenth CD to feature the customer-unfriendly measure.

Not surprisingly, none of the prior CDs were breakout smash hits, or even decent big sellers; Certainly, none opened at no. 1 with a bullet.

In fact, there have not many CDs of recent years reaching anywhere near the success of Velvet Revolver (I guess Norah Jones or Eminem were the most similar in initial disc sales).

That’s not at all surprising:  Contraband has been one of the most awaitied and heavily promoted albums of the year. Take the alumni of Stone Temple Pilots and Guns N’ Roses — two monster bands in and of themselves, neither of which have released a CD of new material in a long time — and you have a pre-made audience, loaded with pent up demand for any new product from the group. 

Of course, the CD’s success had nothing whatsoever to do with the copy protection. It was the music and the band’s built in fan base which should get the credit.

You may recall Suncomm Technologies as a DRM laughingstock: In 2003, a Princeton University graduate student revealed that the company’s vaunted digital rights management system could be defeated by simply holding down the shift key when loading a music CD (see "Revolutionary copy protection technology features no copy protection whatsoever").

Indeed, many Amazon reviewers (see a round up of Amazon comments here) have noted that the DRM can be easily defeated.

It took me all of 5 minutes to track down this info on Amazon. Is it lazy reporting, or simply effective spin? The entertainment media’s coverage of the ironically named disc overemphasizes the import of DRM to Contraband’s success. Consider C/Net ("Copy-blocked CD tops U.S. charts") the Register ("Lock-down CD scores No.1 hit"), and even the usually snarky and skeptical Good Morning Silicon Valley implied the CD scored big in part due to the DRM (Suits at Suncomm are a bit redeemed today . . .").

The Contraband CD comes with MediaMax copy protection (ala SunComm). It prevents Windows PCs owners from exercising their coyright fair usage of their purchase, converting their CDs to MP3s foir use with poperable palyers. The dics does include DRM-enabled Windows Media Player versions of the files. This will not allow Macintosh users to use their CD with their iTunes or iPod. Andrew Orlowski notes "we’re yet to find a copy protected CD that the Mac can’t unbork." Indeed, one commentator on Amazon stated: "iTunes on a G5 running mac OS 10.3.4 ripped the MP3s no problem."

For now, most iPod-owning Velvet Revolver fans can use their CDs only if they violate DMCA and hack open their legal CDs. That’s right — if a consumer wants to use their legally purchased CDs on their legal MP3 player, they must become felons. Something is very wrong with this picture.

This raises yet another issue: Shouldn’t a copy protected CD be released with MP3 versions that will work with the most popular MP3 player? Nothing for Apple’s iPod or AAC format, yet it comes with Windows media versions of the songs on the CD? That’s something which should make Steve Jobs furious. This raises the question: Is there an antitrust issue here?

Beyond the Amazon reviewers, Some musicians and fans have been unhappy with the DRM system. "A vocal segment of the online population has been intensely critical of the copy protection plans, leading record label executives to worry about potential consumer reaction. Some artists, such as Virgin Records singer Ben Harper, have been bitterly angry at their labels’ decision to include the technology without their approval" noted C/Net’s John Borland.

Despite this, watch for future industry press releases claiming credit for Contraband’s sales.

The reality is the success of the disc has nothing whatsoever to do with copy protection. It’s as if the manufacturers of tube sox took credit for the U.S. military’s defeating Saddam Hussein’s army. The world’s most powerful armed forces — the most technologically advanced, best trained and equipped military defeats an unmotivated, undermanned, decaying regional force . . . Why? Because they had sweat sox which wicked sweat away from the infantryman’s feet.

UPDATE June 22, 2004  11.34pm

Macfixit notes that Velvet Revolver songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store will play on an iPod — its only the CD owners who cannot transfer songs to their pods.

My apologies for passing along bad information  . . .

UPDATE December 18, 2004  7.14am

Another way to avoid non-permissioned vendors from adding softare or altering your PC is to turn off the CD-ROM auto run — that defeats nearly all of these silly systems which do not allow you the fair use of a CD you legitimately purchased to be played on your PC or iPod.

See this link:   Turn Off the CD-ROM Autorun


Lock-down CD scores No.1 hit
By Andrew Orlowski in San Francisco
The Register, 18th June 2004 08:56 GMT

Copy-blocked CD tops U.S. charts
By John Borland
CNET, June 17, 2004, 3:48 PM PT

Velvet Revolver Shoots Straight To No. 1
Margo Whitmire, L.A. (Edited By Jonathan Cohen)
Billboard, June 16, 2004, 10:30 AM ET

Turn Off the CD-ROM Autorun, Friday, December 14, 2001


For a round up of all of the Amazon DRM discussions, click "Continue reading" below.

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