R.I.P. iPod: Sony unveils cassette tape that can hold 64,750,000 songs

It Ain’t Over ‘Til Its Over, Pt. 1: The Cassette Comeback….

R.I.P. iPod: Sony unveils cassette tape that can hold 64,750,000 songs

Miscellaeneous Musings: the NY Phil, Howard Theatre, WYPR, No Depression, Pete Seeger…

Any resemblance to Mike “I Was Just Thinking….” Barnicle is purely coincidental….

  • Kind of amazing to hear the wall-to-wall media coverage of the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea….startling and gratifying to hear snippets of the New World Symphony in the middle of network newscasts. Worth reading:  Anne Midgette’s column in the WaPo on this not being a case of bringing Great. Western. Art. to poor benighted souls behind the Bamboo Curtain….

But in Vienna, Austria, there is another image of them: as conducting students. The elite conducting class at the University of Music and Performing Arts there has trained no fewer than 17 North Korean students in the past decade.

  • Which reminds me of a similar history-making venture I helped to orchestra for NPR in 1999: The Milwaukee Symphony’s trip to Cuba, which was the first time a US orchestra had performed on the island since the Philadelphia Orchestra had been there in 1959.  ‘Course, it was a little easier for our NPR crew to move around the country than it was for the delegation traveling to North Korea this week…I remember that producer Laura Bertran even managed to lend some technical and logistical help to the struggling public radio station in Havana to broadcast the concert live on the island. (Oh yeah, they played Gershwin, too….the Cuban Overture, natch)  Click here to hear some of the music from similar symphonic excursions in the past,  and here for a similar Washington Post story on other “Diplomacy Concerts” of that past half-century.
  • On the other hand, for the same station to air during afternoon drive a six-month-old repeat of a Mario Armstrong “Digital Cafe”  feature?  About an Internet startup being Beta tested?   With a casual disclaimer that “some information may be out of date?”  Incredibly. Lame.
  • Pete SeegerIt’s nice to see Pete Seeger getting his props from PBS this week, with an American Masters portrait airing tonight on most PBS stations around the country. Except, that is, in DC, where despite Pete being on the cover of the Post’s TV Week,  the local pubtv powerhouse WETA inexplicably is running a show a three-year old show on Judy Garland.    Huh?   I’ll have more to say on Pete in a later post.

Life imitates….Video Games? The Guitar Zeroes

The Guitar ZeroesI am perhaps the only person in the blogoverse to look at this and think immediately of the shape-note singing tradition that was developed in America in the 19th century. Back then, they used differently-shaped notes to teach people who couldn’t read music to sing; today, thanks to Guitar Hero, all you need are five color-coded buttons….

Okay, it’s not like I’m obsessed with this game or anything, but isn’t this yet more proof of the the game’s game-changing impact? Watch this entire video from the Plasticky Goodness blog on Current.tv and see if you don’t agree….

More on Guitar Hero – the new Digital Music Driver

Yesterday I noted that the incredible popularity of Guitar Hero (and its new cousin, Rock Band) has helped to spur sales of the “real” instruments in music stores. While the evidence isn’t yet conclusive on that front, there’s no questioning what the games are doing for the digital-download business. Here’s a grab from a recent Reuters news item:

In the two months since MTV Networks and Harmonix released the music-based video game Rock Band, players have purchased and downloaded more than 2.5 million additional songs made available after the game’s initial distribution. Activision, meanwhile, said it has sold more than 5 million new songs via download for Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock since it began adding downloadable content in early November. By comparison, it took wireless operator Sprint four months to sell 1 million songs on its over-the-air full-song download service. While new digital music services competing with iTunes and free peer-to-peer services have struggled to convince music fans to pay $1 for a single, downloadable tracks for games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are flying off the digital shelves. “With such a low installation base, we didn’t think that there’d be 2 million songs sold in eight weeks,” MTVN Music Group/Logo/Films division President Van Toffler said. “We live in a rough time around music where our audience struggles to pay $20 for a CD but don’t hesitate to pay $50 for a game. The notion to pay 99 cents or $1.99 to have a song and repeatedly play with it apparently isn’t a big hurdle.”

It turns out that’s an understatement. Consider these 2007 sales figures from NPD and Nielsen SoundScan:

Digital Music Sales $835 million on 840m units

Guitar Hero/Rock Band Sales $935 million on 10.5m units

Whoa. That’s right – Guitar Hero is a more efficient way to sell your music than iTunes. But put the two streams together is a powerful combination…and we’re talking about Legal downloads. Who knows what the effect is in the P2P world?This has become such a phenomenon that last week USA Today even coined it the “Guitar Hero Effect” in a news article, with salutory effects for bands both old and new:

DragonForce guitarist Herman Li and his speed metal bandmates used to play the video game Guitar Hero. Now, fans are flocking to the band after finding their song Through the Fire and Flames in the latest installment of the game, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

“Our CD sales have gone up, and we are high up the charts on digital downloads,” Li says. “It’s great. We don’t play commercial music. It took everyone by surprise.”

 

Rich Williams, guitarist for the classic rock band Kansas, says that after the release of Guitar Hero II, which included the band’s song Carry On Wayward Son, “the front row of almost every show we did was filled with young teenagers. It’s all due to that. It’s brought us a whole new fan base.”

Digital sales of the song rose from 119,000 in 2006 to 297,000 in 2007. “It’s been a positive influence for us,” he says. “It brought a younger crowd to us that otherwise might not have come in.”

All I can is that Niccolo Paganini’s got nothing on Hong Kong-born DragonForce guitarist Herman Li, who claims to be a self-taught musician. Take a look at this video trailer for “Through the Fire and Flames” Stupidly hard.

picture-2.png

Or, as Christian Soriano would say, “Fierce.”

 

 

 

 

Qtrax – When Is a Launch Not a Launch?

QtraxSo. Today is/was supposed to be Day One of a new online service with an irresistable headline: “From today, feel free to download another 25 million songs – Legally.” blared the Times of London this morning, breathlessly announcing the launch of a “game-changing intervention in the declining record industry” at the MIDEM Conference in Cannes.

Qtrax, is a new ad-supported online music service that, in the words of its own PR,

…is the first free P2P service to be fully embraced by the music industry. With a base catalog estimated at between 25 and 30 million copyrighted tracks from all the major labels, publishers and a host of leading indies, QTRAX has the largest legal library of any music service on the market.

How will they do it? Through DRM (Digital Rights Management) encoding of tracks from the four major record groups, and, the Times observes, “As with iTunes, customers will have to download Qtrax software. They will own the songs permanently but will be encouraged to “dock” their player with the store every 30 days so it can gather information on which songs have been played.” Oh, and the service is not compatible with your iPod.

Only….. it rather embarrassingly turns out that Qtrax had failed to cross a few t’s and dot a few i’s….as Reuters reported just a few hours ago….

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Qtrax, a new free music download service, backed off claims that it has deals with all four major music companies after Warner Music Group denied it had agreed terms with the start-up.

“Warner Music Group has not authorized the use of our content on Qtrax’s recently announced service,” Warner, the No. 3 music company, said in statement late on Sunday.

Qtrax said late on Sunday, “We are in discussion with Warner Music Group to ensure that the service is licensed and we hope to reach an agreement shortly.”

A source close to Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, told Reuters it also did not have a deal with Qtrax but discussions were continuing.

The Los Angeles Times also reported on Sunday that EMI Group executives said it had not agreed terms with Qtrax.

Sony BMG Music Entertainment, the second largest music company, was not immediately available.

Ouch! What a way to launch – missing three out of four of your major partners? Just one of many dubious claims to this new enterprise, I think.

What I found most interesting about the Times of London story was not so much the story but the reaction of the readers. They are neither fooled nor amused at the many obvious flaws in the Qtrax business plan. Here are but a few of the choice comments: (scroll to the bottom to read ’em). If I’m a Qtrax exec, these comments would make me plenty nervous:

They’ve created an Internet radio station that spies on you. All of your musical listening preferences are just one subpoena away from public information. God help you if you’ve been listening to death metal and are going through a child custody battle. Big Brother wants to watch you.

A crippled music industry is finally admitting defeat. Of course Qtrax will not work! I’m done with spying softwares and people controlling what I do, listen to, etc. Leave alone the advertising.

If there isn’t native Linux support, iPod support count me out straight away.

If it’s full of ads or poor quality rips – also count me out.

So does this mean that EMI and the others in the RIAA will compensate those whose lives they have ruined by lawsuits?

I really suspect that anything which has been “in development” for 5 years is at least 4 years too late.

Amen to that. If you’re still with me this far down, you might enjoy what the resident snarkologists (caution!: some geek-speak and may require translation) at the Register have to say about how the “backend” of the Qtrax system…

So when the going gets weird, the weird get ad-funded. Even in the short, strange history of digital music, they don’t come weirder than Qtrax, a music service that launched here at Midem in Cannes today. It’s a marriage of two desperate industries – the music business, and the ad-supported web startup. To steal a phrase from Sun’s Scott McNealy, it’s like watching two garbage trucks colliding.

So how weird is this?

Qtrax delivers an unlimited supply of free music to the web surfer, for them to keep, by scraping the Gnutella P2P network, sticking ads on the front end, filtering out the bogus files (that the IFPI and RIAA have put on the P2P networks in such abundance over the years), and wrapping the song files in DRM.

If that isn’t surreal enough, the company pushed a bewildered looking James Blunt on stage with a broom to say how stealing from the sweat shop was wrong. And that he didn’t really know much about what was going on – but he’d like to.

Qtrax is staffed by refugees from SpiralFrog, the clueless ad-supported web startup that was unveiled in a blaze of publicity but never quite launched properly – yet still managed to fork over $2m to Universal Music, the world’s biggest record company, before it had made a single transaction. These business geniuses have now raised $30m from venture capital for their latest suicidal tilt at the market.

If you’re going to fail, I guess, then fail hard and fast.

Music Lessons from Seth Godin


I’ve been an admirer of Seth Godin for a while. His book “Small Is the New Big,” (among others) is one of the seminal publications of the so-called Web 2.0 era. Godin periodically weighs in on the music business, (I think I mentioned this fascinating dissection on the future of the radio industry before) and what he has to say is invariably smart, on point, and a few laps ahead of the field. Some of what he says may appear stunningly obvious, but it’s amazing to me how little of it has been understood – or, more to the point, embraced, by the music-biz world at large.

So anyway, let me commend to you his Music Lessons blog entry posted earlier today. Godin’s 14-point manifesto-for-music-in-the-digital-age (starting with Point Zero!) is the first “must-read” of 2008, to my mind. Here are a couple of memorable grabs:

2. Copy protection in a digital age is a pipe dreamIf the product you make becomes digital, expect that the product you make will be copied.

There’s a paradox in the music business that is mirrored in many industries: you want ubiquity, not obscurity, yet digital distribution devalues your core product….

Most items of value derive that value from scarcity. Digital changes that, and you can derive value from ubiquity now…The solution isn’t to somehow try to become obscure, to get your song off the (digital) radio. The solution is to change your business.

You used to sell plastic and vinyl. Now, you can sell interactivity and souvenirs.

3. Interactivity can’t be copied

Products that are digital and also include interaction thrive on centralization and do better and better as the market grows in size (consider Facebook or Basecamp).

Music is social. Music is current and everchanging. And most of all, music requires musicians. The winners in the music business of tomorrow are individuals and organizations that create communities, connect people, spread ideas and act as the hub of the wheel… indispensable and well-compensated.

4. Permission is the asset of the future

… Permission is an asset to be earned. The ability (not the right, but the privilege) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them. For ten years, the music business has been steadfastly avoiding this opportunity.

It’s interesting though, because many musicians have NOT been avoiding it. Many musicians have understood that all they need to make a (very good) living is to have 10,000 fans. 10,000 people who look forward to the next record, who are willing to trek out to the next concert. Add 7 fans a day and you’re done in 5 years. Set for life. A life making music for your fans, not finding fans for your music…

5. A frightened consumer is not a happy consumer.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but here goes: suing people is like going to war. If you’re going to go to war with tens of thousands of your customers every year, don’t be surprised if they start treating you like the enemy.

There are 13 more equally thought-provoking points in Seth’s manifesto. Take a moment to read the whole thing. I’ll return to point 2) in a little while.

The RIAA – They Can’t Be Serious


Noticed that the top e-mailed story from the entire Washington Post site the other today was regular radio columnist Marc Fisher’s latest Report from the RIAA front, containing this loaded handgun of a paragraph:

Now, in an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.

The industry’s lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are “unauthorized copies” of copyrighted recordings.

Huh? Ripping your CD (or vinyl, for that matter) into your PC is a crime? No wonder the music-blogosphere is burning up, and Jerry Del Colliano is hyperventilating. They can’t be serious! After all, the in the “Betamax case” (brought in 1976, ultimately settled in 1984) the Supreme Court famously said that home taping for “personal use” was OK — and thus the VCR and TiVo industry was born.

Ironically, in its initial response to the lawsuit, Sony in fact argued that the precedent of home-taping had been introduced by the cassette recorder, which was of course used for recording AUDIO only. So now the RIAA is seriously going to clamp down on the 21st-century version of this practice?

No, I don’t think they’re serious about it all. I think the clues to what’s really going on here lie in this analysis of the Betamax case by the Frontier Foundation:

It’s thanks to the Betamax ruling that the makers of VCRs and every other technology capable of infringing and non-infringing uses (e.g., personal computers, CD burners, the TiVo DVR, Apple’s iPod, and Web browsers) can continue to sell their wares without fear of lawsuits from copyright owners.

The whole article is pretty good — it really does suggest that RIAA sees another opening here to lay claim to more legal territory, and try to chip away a little more at the accursed Betamax ruling. It’s not you at home they’re after — it’s winning the hearts and minds of the Court. Doubt that anything so politically charged will happen in 2008, however…..