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

A Milestone of the Millennium: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

What an unexpected delight on Good Friday to see today’s excellent Deceptive Cadence blog from my old my mates at NPR devoted to a program we produced 14 years ago, as part of our ambitious Milestones of the Millennium series.

A Visitor’s Guide To Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’

And I do mean ambitious: We attempted nothing less than to “create a picture in sound of the pivotal events, places, movements, artists and musical works of the past 1000 years” through what amounted to a weekly documentary folded into our ongoing five-day-a-week production of Performance Today.   Oh yeah, and also with “build outs” on this newfangled Interwebs thingy.

PT’s Milestones of the Millennium Series

But wait -there was more! We also entered into a partnership with Sony Classical to create an entire Milestones of the Millennium CD project:  “The program series will be accompanied by Sony’s release of historic recordings highlighting the development of music over the past 1000 years. Each Sony Classical compact disc will contain musical choices inspired by the series, with liner notes written by the NPR commentators.”

High concept as hell, balanced by decidedly modest sales in the marketplace.  Doubt anyone has the entire collection, but I was surprised to see that after being out of print for quite some time, Sony has now made a few of the titles available as MP3 downloads on Amazon and other sites.  And you do see the odd CD copy for sale here and there.

But, bacj-s-bach-the-brook-and-the-wellspring-national-public-radio-milestones-of-the-millennium-0.jpgk to Bach:  Of the entire two years’ worth of productions, this program on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was one of the very best, hosted by NPR’s Lynn Neary and produced by Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr.  It’s a “guided tour” through Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, with commentary from such luminaries as noated Bach scholars Christoph Wolff and MIchael Marissen, tenor Ian Bostridge, conductors Joshua Rifkin,Ton Koopman, and Kenneth Slowik, as well as soprano Ann Monoyios.  Take a listen here.

Incidentally, Bach was the subject of the very first MIlestones of Millennium program, which aired January 1, 1999.  It was called  Johann Sebastian Bach: The Brook and the Wellspring, featuring a commentary by the Boston Conservatory’s Jan Swafford“Using the metaphor suggested by the composer’s name (“Bach” is German for “brook”), Swafford explains how Bach emerged from a family of musicians to become perhaps the greatest master and innovator of all time.”

The Brook and the Wellspring

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…..

A Tale of Two Sites

…both in the “music discovery” category (sometimes called “Music 2.0”) are worth investigating:

First is a site called MOG “a music asylum run by its inmates,” (with a tip o’the’cyberpen to UTunes Advisory Boardster Andrew Dell’Antonio for pointing it out). MOG uses an impressive amount of social-networking tools and techniques to build a site to (in their words:)

Share

…your songs, music library, videos and thoughts on music with friends and mogger

Participate

…in the Web’s most raging music community.

…both in the “music discovery” category (sometimes called “Music 2.0”) are worth investigating:

First is a site called MOG “a music asylum run by its inmates,” (with a tip o’the’cyberpen to UTunes Advisory Boardster Andrew Dell’Antonio for pointing it out). MOG uses an impressive amount of social-networking tools and techniques to build a site to (in their words:)

Share

…your songs, music library, videos and thoughts on music with friends and mogger

Participate

…in the Web’s most raging music community.

Discover

Get instant recommendations and personalized content at the click of a button.

Most impressive are the pages for artists, which are almost entirely generated by MOG users or wikipedia.

Besides on-demand song, video, and album listings, there are bios, photos, discographies, RSS feeds, commerce links, and links to fan sites and newsgroups. At the heart are easy-to-manipulate tools to contribute all of the above to the site, or to embed them in off-site blogs, etc. Veryy interesting.

And a bit buggy….one of the major drawbacks to MOG is that the audio files don’t necessarily appear in a separate player, so you can’t navigate and browse with a song playing in the background, which would tend to defeat a lot of the purpose. And, as is the case with almost all online music destinations, it’s heavily weightd towards rock/pop/singer-songwriters. For example, a search for violinist Julia Fischer (just named Gramophone Magazine’s Artist of the Year) comes up empty.

(with a tip o’the’cyberpen to UTunes Advisory Boardster Andrew Dell’Antonio for pointing it out.

It’s almost the reverse case with the launch on Nov. 5 of the NPR Music site.

Full disclosure: A lot of this was Co-Project Director Ben Roe‘s blueprint while he was at NPR. So best to leave the prose to one of the participating stations: WFUV in New York.

NPR and 12 NPR member stations, including WFUV, have launched NPR Music, a new, free, comprehensive multimedia music discovery web site. There are five specific genre sections (Pop/Rock/Folk, Classical, Jazz & Blues, World and Urban) to explore, where you can hear songs and concerts, read reviews and interviews, scan the music news we’ve pulled together and find blogs from all over the country.
There are already 3,000 new and archived features, with 200 more getting added monthly. Some of the content will come from NPR and some from the member stations (like our interviews with Patty Scialfa and Gil Scott-Heron).
“WFUV and NPR each have great music resources, and together we can share that love with listeners,” says WFUV New Media Director Laura Fedele. “We’ve had some amazing music moments here in our studios, true personal conversations with artists, and now NPR Music can bring it all to music fans across the country who might not be FUV listeners… yet!” You can access the NPR Music site through our home page at wfuv.org.

Searchable Artist pages are also a hallmark of this site (plenty on Julia Fischer, though the archived content is thus far only scratching the surface of what exists at NPR and across public radio), which, if developed, could be a real boon to researchers and educators interested in editorial commentary, live concert performances, reviews, and first-person interviews with the likes of Terry Gross, Fred Child, Scott Simon, John Schaefer, et al.

The Madonna Model or the Radiohead Revolution?


So Madonna has given Warner Brothers the boot in favor of concert promoter Live Nation, while at the same time Radiohead has devised a pay-what-you’d-like scheme for their latest self-produced, self-distributed release, thumbing their noses at long-time label EMI. All in the space of a few days. The blogosphere – and the mainstream media, for that matter, are all a-twitter.

Have we reached, then, the Tipping Point? Is it curtains for certain for the much-lambasted Record Industry?

Frankly, I think the tipping has already happened. And I’m also not persuaded that the record industry’s days are over …. so long as they don’t think of themselves solely as purveyors of recorded, um “product” as Billboard magazine terms it.

One of the things I’ve discovered in plying the classical, jazz, folk, etc. waters over the years is that these minority formats tend to be the canaries-in-the-coal-mine for the bigger genres. Long before it was a gleam in Thom Yorke or Trent Reznor‘s eye, the excellent classically-oriented Magnatune label was offering the pay-what-you-think-its-worth option. And for some serious artists with serious credentials, too, many of whom had recorded for the so-called “major” labels. The Economist introduced me (and, it turns out, a whole of folks) to the Magnatune concept more than two years ago:

From a listener’s point of view, the firm’s website is enticing. You can legally listen, free of charge and with high sound quality, to full albums by any of the 200 or so artists who have signed to the label. (Your correspondent was immediately hooked by a song called Making Me Nervous by a one-man electro-pop band from Ottawa called Brad Sucks.) Music streamed is free, but to download it to your computer or burn CDs, you have to pay. Just how much is a matter of choice—Magnatune allows you to decide what the music is worth, and to pay as little as $5 for an album or as much as $18. Once paid for, the music is not locked up using digital-rights management software, so you are not prevented from making copies.…

Magnatune was born out of the simple reality that is known to any classical musician: You don’t make your money from record sales. There are possibly a half-dozen living classical musicians you have a positive income stream from their recordings: Yo-Yo Ma, James Galway, Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo, Van Cliburn, and… Andrea Bocelli? Go ahead, name another.

Same is true in jazz. I’ll bet the only artists that actually get any meaningful income from records are Dave Brubeck (thanks to the perennial popularity of Time Out, released in 1959) and maybe Diana Krall.

And even in larger the pop-music sea, that’s not and never has been where the money is — for 90% of the artists, that is. Even in the best of times working with a label was a deal-with-the-devil cost-of-doing-business proposition: You signed with a major because of the potential they represented to promote, market, and, if you got lucky, actually to move mass quantities of your physical “product” into the hands of your fans. Can’t do that selling your self-produced record out of the back of your trunk and running handbills off on a mimeo machine in the back room.

Hmmm…but in the iTunes world you suddenly don’t have to worry about having the supply to meet the demand, do you? Thus a big-name well-established act like Radiohead, with a carefully-cultivated image-conscious fan base, doesn’t really have much more use for EMI. No wonder the label’s new prez Terry Hands said it was a “wake up call,” according to a leaked internal e-mail:

The recorded music industry… has for too long been dependent on how many CDs can be sold,” Hands wrote. “Rather than embracing digitalization and the opportunities it brings for promotion of product and distribution through multiple channels, the industry has stuck its head in the sand.”

Hands warned that more artists could follow Radiohead’s lead and take their careers into their own hands. “Why should [superstar acts] subsidize their label’s new talent roster – or for that matter their record company’s excessive expenditures and advances?” asked Hands.

Why indeed? And that’s where the Madonna / Live Nation model is so interesting — it’s part of a larger chess match within the music industry:

Madonna’s deal to abandon Warner Music for concert promoter Live Nation signals more than just a tectonic shift in the music distribution business: It shows how far Live Nation is willing to go to break the hammerlock Barry Diller‘s Ticketmaster has on online concert ticket sales.

The core benefit to Live Nation of the $120 million recording and touring contract with the pop superstar is the opportunity to tap into concert, recording, merchandising and other lucrative revenue streams. But don’t discount the role that lowly ticket fees play.

   

Ticket buyers may be annoyed by the $5 or more in fees tacked on to every ticket ordered online or over the phone, but they’ve proven to be a gold mine for Ticketmaster. Ticketmaster’s revenues jumped 14 percent to $1.1 billion in 2006 and generated almost a 25 percent operating profit margin.

Thus, To these eyes the “three-CD deal” (with up to $50 million in “advance payments”) is really a “signing bonus” for Madonna, in order to cash in on where the REAL money will be made. I think Digital Music News editor Paul Resnikoff gets it right:

“…You can’t download a live concert – at least the real, in-the-flesh experience. Maybe you can hop onto BitTorrent and grab some amazing concert footage. Or even purchase a live performance album release. But what is your girlfriend (or boyfriend, bff, sibling, spouse, child, etc.) going to get more excited about – a video download, or a real ticket to a real show?One can be duplicated, viewed on-demand, and buried within a massive iTunes library. The other is a one-time, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Labels are now specialized in producing assets that can be reproduced instantly and infinitely. They are also specialized in an asset that is increasingly generating excitement for other assets they do not control.

Live Nation makes its money off of something that can never be duplicated. And that is why they can afford the elephantine deal terms to lure Madonna.

And even, if they don’t get all of the $120 million back out of Madonna (who will be 60 when the deal ends!), what’s the value to Live Nation if they can break Ticketmaster’s hammerlock on sales??? I’d say……Priceless.

So after reading all this, there IS a next logical step for the much-maligned record companies….what if Ticketmaster, for example, went out and bought EMI, a well-oiled production, distribution, and marketing machine?