I listen regularly to a few podcasts–This American Life (for many years),  The History of Rome, New York Times Book Review are regulars.  Some I’ve dropped from the rotation, like New Yorker: Out Loud (now I listen only to those that grab my attention) and The Ethicist (you love or you loathe Randy Cohen.  I loathe.)  Last fall I discovered Radiolab, produced by WNYC.  It’s terrific.  The shows are well-researched, well-reported, varied, interesting, engaging, funny, emotionally draining–and Radiolab’s tightly-edited multi-voiced opening montage is like a 7-second roller-coaster ride.  After listening to a few episodes I downloaded most of the show’s back catalog, which provided my commuting and workout soundtrack for weeks.  I caught up on prior seasons and now feel empty–new episodes do not come often enough.   Finding Emilie is a gripping narrative, intellectually challenging, and emotionally profound.  If you like it, you’ll like Radiolab.

Music’s Future

What Lies Ahead, last night’s panel discussion on the future of music, was informative and altered my thinking about the future of the  delivery and consumption of information in general.  The venue was too large for the size of the audience but the audience, which included musicians and others in the music biz, was knowledgeable and opinionated.  The event’s student organizers deserve great credit and should be proud of what they pulled off.

Some random thoughts:

  • Moderating this panel of five passionate, experienced music industry participants was not easy.  Keeping the conversation close to the topic was like herding squirrels.  Balancing audience questions and panel responses was almost impossible.
  • The spirited, and at times heated, discussion of the roles of “gatekeepers” and “tastemakers” was fascinating.  The relevance of radio and the major record labels as vehicles for breaking new artists have waned.  Independent labels, blogs, genre magazines and e-zines have all taken on a role in getting out the buzz on new artists but the mass of information is overwhelming.  One panelist rejected the idea of tastemakers–those who influence others’ choices in music, fashion, etc.–even though he runs an independent label, produces hip hop artists, and is himself a tastemaker.
  • I have no desire to sample Crunk Juice.
  • The panel talked for an hour before music piracy came up — and was dismissed quickly.  “It’s too late” said Duran Duran’s manager.  Piracy is a fact of life.  RIAA lawsuits were mentioned even more briefly.
  • There may be a market for vinyl, but most of the panelists saw the future of distribution as all-digital.
  • The role/need for/identity of gatekeepers and tastemakers applies to all digital information.  Who will be trusted sources for news?  Some current media brands will survive, many will not, and something will come along to fill the role.  Individual blogs are too diffuse, but blog aggregations may form and acquire followings.
  • The co-founder of Newbury Comics warned of Big Brother-esque changes in the Internet.  “If 200 Airbuses crash because some hackers thought it would be cool, we’ll have fixed IP addresses within a year.”

Music Industry Updates

The music industry generated some news while was hobbling.

The RIAA announced that it is dropping its campaign of mass lawsuits.  The RIAA has filed copyright infringement lawsuits against over 35,000 people in the past five years for allegedly pirating copyrighted songs, a fact most college students know well.   Most suits were settled for between $3,000-$5,000, a significant sum for many of those sued but I would be surprised if the RIAA netted much money for its members after the cost of filing and administering the lawsuits.  The suits may have deterred some individuals from pirating copyrighted music–e.g., a lawyer-turned-college-professor with financial assets and a professional reputation to protect–but did not put a dent in the amount of piracy.  The RIAA’s new strategy is to enlist the support of ISPs who agree to tighten the screws on users the RIAA identifies as distributors of copyright-protected files.  Cooperating ISPs will forward RIAA-generated cease-and-desist letters to their offending users.  If a targeted continues to make copyrighted songs available for downloading “they will get one or two more emails, perhaps accompanied by slower service from the provider. Finally, the ISP may cut off their access altogether.” (Sarah McBride and Ethan Smith, “Music Industry to Abandon Mass Suits,”  The Wall Street Journal, 19-Dec-08)  The RIAA is not dropping pending lawsuits and may continue to sue high-volume individual file-sharers.  The WSJ’s law blog speculates the RIAA’s problematic lawsuit against Jammie Thomas was central to its change of strategy.  That’s the case in which the jury awarded the RIAA over $220,000 in damages for Thomas’s piracy, and the trial judge decided a few months later than his instructions to the jury were wrong.  He had told the jury that making copyright-protected songs available in a shared folder constituted copyright infringement.  He reconsidered his instructions after other court rulings undermined the “making available” theory, holding that the RIAA must prove  copyright protected songs were actually copied to establish copyright infringement.

Involving ISPs in an enforcement role is potentially quite effective, if enough ISPs join the effort.  A former student articulated this very concept in 2002.  After graduation he developed monitoring software and a business plan to implement the concept and wooed the RIAA and ISPs to its merits, without success.  He was a half-decade ahead of his time. Alert readers will note that the RIAA’s ISP initiative targets distributors, not downloaders; it appears that free-riders–those who take without giving–will continue to fly under RIAA radar.

Yesterday Apple announced two significant changes in the iTunes st0re, multi-tier pricing and DRM-free music.  The record labels have wanted iTunes to drop the flat $.99/song price model in favor of pricing that reflects a song’s popularity.  Now iTunes will sell songs for $.69, $.99, or $1.29; in exchange the record labels agreed that songs sold on iTunes will be free of digital rights management limits on copying and use on multiple computers.  These changes bring  iTunes in line with the Amazon’s MP3 store.

Qtrax: Oops

Someone commented recently about Qtrax, a recently-announced music file-sharing company that promised a free download service with 25 million licensed songs. There’s only one problem: as reported in Music site Qtrax forced into humiliating U-turn, the company neglected to secure deals with the four major record labels before its splashy $500,000 launch party. These folks would have felt right at home during the late-90s dot-com bubble.

Time to Change tactics?

The RIAA has brought thousands of copyright-infringement lawsuits for illegal music downloads in recent years. Nevertheless, as The Guardian reported on Monday, “illegal music downloading is at an all-time high and set to rise further” because “a growing band of consumers are unconcerned about being prosecuted for illegal downloads.” In the face of such abject failure of its current business model and enforcement tactics, how long before the recording industry shifts business models?

iTunes Fix

Before my trip I wrote about problems I was having with iTunes on my Windows XP system. Helpful reader comments and suggestions put my on the path to a cure. I (a) uninstalled iTunes, (b) uninstalled Quicktime, (c) reinstalled iTunes and Quicktime (I found no stand-alone iTunes installer), (d) uninstalled Quicktime, and (e) reinstalled Quicktime using the stand-alone installer. (I can’t believe I did all of that without throwing the CPU out the window, but I did.) Then I left for a week. The trip had nothing to do with the fix, but I did forget about the problem. Upon returning I synced my iPod and, for the first time in a month, it synced properly. I was afraid to play iTunes for almost a week because I couldn’t face it hanging again, but yesterday, crazy risk taker that I am, I opened iTunes, pushed play, and . . . it played. No problems yet. Sincere thanks to those who helped.

Music Mishegas

It started last week. I synced my iPod and noticed that a half-dozen podcasts failed to transfer from the hard drive. Around the same time iTunes started to crash without apparent cause: when I double-clicked on iTunes playlists, when I played music from the iTunes library, when I updated podcast subscriptions from the iTunes window. Within a few days iTunes would crash as soon as I played anything. I uninstalled and reinstalled iTunes three or four times (I lost count, it was so much fun). No change. I Googled “iTunes crashes windows XP” and “iTunes troubleshooting” and found a number of similar tales but no explanation or solution. I tried some of the suggested fixes–deleting the iTunes program folder, adding “.old” to the iTunes library program files–but nothing changed. I’ve updated and run my antivirus and antispyware programs and run Registry Mechanic three times in the past seven days. I’ve ignored the suggestion to reformat the hard drive and reinstall Windows XP, iTunes, and every piece of software, testing after each to identify the culprit. If it comes to that I’ll throw the computer out the window to have the satisfaction of hearing it shatter, and buy a new one.

Now it gets weirder. I wanted something to play music files and installed Winamp. I also installed Anapod Manager to manage the music library and iPod files. The first few times I played music on Winamp it worked fine. I don’t like the cluttered, busy, teeny-weeny interface but it worked. Until it didn’t. Last night, clicking on a file to play it, Winamp crashed. It crashed three more times, just to make sure I got the point: your music files are screwed up. The questions are why?, and how do I fix the problem?

Maybe I should dust off the turntable and pull the albums out of the basement.

Music Without Shackles

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

News reports out of Midem, the music industry’s annual trade fair in Cannes, show the major labels moving in a new direction: downloaded music in unrestricted, non-digital-rights-management-controlled formats. The industry is facing slower growth in online music sales and at least some industry insiders have “a new appreciation” for music sold online in unrestricted formats, according to this New York Times article. EMI group may be leading the pack, announcing last week that it will stream music for free on Chinese Web site RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaster predicted the shift to unrestricted formats “will happen between next year and fives years from now, but it is more likely to be in one to two years.”

iTunes: Up or Down

I posted last week (iTunes iNtrouble?) about a report by Forrester Research that, according to The Register, Bloomberg, and others, disclosed a collapse in iTunes’ sales in 2006. The claims of trouble at iTunes “threw the cat among the pigeons,” as a boss used to say. Apple shares dropped almost 3% after Orlowski’s story, others claimed iTunes 2006 sales are “surging,” and the report’s author criticized the media for taking one sentence of the report out of context. Which figures are correct? It is hard to say since Apple does not report iTunes sales separately. Analysts look at other official Apple figures or figures from other sources to deduce iTunes sales trends and, not surprisingly, different sources yield different conclusions. For instance, the Forrester Research report is based on 2,700 debit and credit card transactions. Carl Bialik, The Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy,” examined the different methods here. (Subscription required)

Commentary branched off from there. Andrew Orlowski’s December 12 article in The Register pointed to digital rights management as a cause of Apple’s declining sales, a theme reiterated by others: ” . . . the metrics are beginning to support the notion that DRM, at least in part, is actually driving people away from Apple’s music store.” (Joe Lewis, Orlowski spun another strand, predicting the advent of blanket licenses in which users subscribe to online sites for a small fee and obtain “the right to exchange music freely” and licensors (artists and labels) divvy up the pie in some equitable fashion.

Others attacked Orlowski’s article. In the “‘Collapsing iTunes Store’ Myth” characterized Orlowski’s blanket-license model as a “socialist fantasy” mandating a “Soviet style choice:”

The point was not just to create a sensationalist article, but to use it as proof for later articles that followed a preset agenda: iTunes can’t succeed, because Orlowski has other ideas in mind about how to distribute the world’s music. links to a chart and analysis from Blackfriars Marketing of Apple sales supporting the Apple press-release claim that iTunes’ sales are, um, just peachy. Absent actual Apple iTunes sales figures this dispute is mostly noise, revealing more about the use of the Internet to flog a topic into tiny pieces than about iTunes’ sales or the future of digital music. Google, for example, produced over 10,000 hits for “apple ‘itunes sales’ ‘forrester research report.'” I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I’m neither confident of iTunes’ imminent downslide nor optimistic about its continued dominance over the music download market, merely curious about how the future unfolds and how we perceive it.
It reveals something else, too: the passionate, minute interest in the present and future of digital entertainment. It’s hard to imagine a report of, say, declining sales of Sony HDTVs provoking the same type of commentary.

iTunes iNtrouble?

The Register’s Andrew Orlowski reports here that iTunes “has experienced a collapse in sales revenues this year.” Forrester Research’s analysis of credit card transactions shows that since January 2006 iTunes’ average transaction size and monthly revenue have declined respectively by 17% and 65%. Orlowski also reports that revenue is flat across the entire digital download sector. Orlowski attributes much of the blame to low consumer interest in music encrypted with digital rights management when pirated music is freely available. As an alternative to DRM music he points to discussions in the UK about blanket licenses under which consumers might pay a flat fee, perhaps as part of a broadband subscription service. Under such a scheme consumers would obtain the right to download and share music free of restrictive digital rights management and copyright infringement liability, and the collected fees would be allocated among artists and the recording industry.

The issues raised go beyond iTunes’ fate. If the iTunes business model does not work then the recording, television, and motion picture industries must adopt another. I cannot imagine these industries embracing a model in the U.S. that does not include digital rights management as a security blanket. Fighting piracy by allowing users to download and share freely, even after paying to do so, would require a seismic transformation in industry attitudes. It would be similar to the transformation required to fight the drug trade by legalizing drugs and selling them through state-regulated-and-taxed channels. The question is, how badly broken must the business models become for these industries to make the U-turn from “sharing copyrighted material equals theft” to “pay the man and share as much as you like!”?