Music: January 2008 Archives

When is Free Really Free?

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In some respects, this is a continuation of my last entry about Qtrax. While the final position of Qtrax has yet to be established, it's interesting to look at another high profile example that got plenty of coverage last year - Nokia's Comes With Music package.

As you may or may not recall, Nokia announced that a new range of Nokia phones would come with the ability to listen to free music from the Universal catalogue. Well, according to a piece from Bloomberg reported by Engadget, all is not quite what it might have first seemed.

Telecoms operators have something called ARPU which they're continually driving to maximise. It stands for Average Revenue Per User, and it refers to all those bolt-on services that you buy aside from airtime and texts. These days there's obviously data, any number of subscription text and video "content" and so on. Music downloads have been a recent addition, although issues based around getting your music from one device to another begin to rear their head and have probably stymied sales somewhat. But music remains popular, and advance access to concert tickets is another key area with all the major operators doing things in the area.

But when manufacturers like Nokia (or Apple) introduce their own services, they can sometimes undercut the telecoms operators, and an impasse can be reached.

So this report is interesting for two reasons. First, it explains that the "free" music is not really free, and that Universal is getting a cut of the handset cost and potentially part of the monthly contract in a similar way to Apple taking a proportion of its users' contracts. That cost might have to be built into the "music contract" that a user will have to sign. Secondly, they realise that without the assistance of the operators like Orange and Vodafone, they can't really get the scheme off the ground.

It still seems to me that it's unnecessarily confusing for an Orange subscriber with a Nokia "Comes With Music" phone has two different mechanisms for getting music - almost certainly incompatible with one another. But then PC users have a multiplicity of mechanisms for buying digital music from heavily DRMd iTunes music to mp3s from Emusic.

The market will have its say in the long term, but I would be very wary of anybody claiming that they're offering free music. We're at an experimental stage where new payment mechanisms need to be tried on for size. Jumping straight to free probably isn't sustainable in the long term.

Qtrax

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So what's the deal with Qtrax?

On Saturday, Channel 4 News carried a report highlighting the launch of a new music service. Qtrax, they reported, had signed deals with the big four record companies and would be launching their free music service on Sunday.

Details were a little sketchy, but it was clear that the service would be ad-funded and users would have to register so that ads were targeted on a demographic basis. The service would be peer-to-peer, minimising the load on Qtrax's servers.

The music would work on a number of portable devices, which would also serve the ads (quite how was not clear), and in a couple of months' time there would be a version which worked on iPods.

Consumer listening trends would also be reported back to record companies.

The end of the Channel 4 News piece highlighted the fact Apple's iTunes would have the most to fear (and although it didn't mention it, Amazon announced at the weekend that it's mp3 download service would be rolled out internationally in 2008).

I eagerly went to the site on Sunday, only to read that the "Beta Download" would be available at "midnight EST."

Well I wasn't going to wait until 5am Monday morning, but another look today sees the same announcement still up.

Of course last minute technical hiccups are common enough. But this doesn't smell right.

A story from Australia reports denials from Warners about a deal being in place with Qtrax, and more denials from EMI and Universal. So what's going on?

Qtrax president Allan Klepfisz told AP that Warner was expected to agree to terms "shortly". He claimed that all other parties had agreed to the terms but some deals were yet to be formally signed.

Huh? So they don't have deals currently in place? How were they going to launch at midnight today or any other day?

I'm not the only suspicious person either.

Maybe Qtrax will launch in a couple of days as advertised. But selling DRM-free downloads, or perhaps introducing subscription models might be the first moves to make for a beleaguered industry.

Summarising Digital Music

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More on the music industry will be forthcoming. But today the IFPI which represents the recording industry worldwide has published it's digital music report. The report runs to 28 pages including front and back covers, a contents page, three full pages of pictures and drawings, and a list of members. But we're all busy people, so there's a summary which runs to 9 pages.

That's less a summary, and more a slight abridgment...

Tin-Pan Dead End Alley

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"Pandora's ex-customers in the UK will be wondering why the service they want can't be catered for by the recording industry. And they are not alone - for what are the millions of illicit peer-to-peer file-sharers, but a huge potential market? Internet users are showing the industry how they want their music in the digital age."

From the New Statesman

This week EMI makes between 1500 and 2000 employees redundant.

Is there a link? Discuss.

Pandora and Internet Radio Services

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If you're interested in this sort of thing, then you'll already know that Pandora is shutting down in the UK. The full email sent to Pandora users is on James' site.

As the email explains, the service has been shut down because they were unable to come to an agreement with the music rights organisations in the UK. Essentially, they want to charge on a "per listener, per song" basis.

Unable to reach an agreement in the UK, they're going to block the service to UK users from next week.

It's a principled decision that seems fair and reasonable. But the people who aren't fair and reasonable are the music collection agencies with whom they haven't been able to deal with.

Commercial UK radio stations have to pay for the music they play on the radio; part of the money goes to the performers, and another part goes to the copyright owners/song writers. That seems a reasonable compromise. They way that they collect this cash is to simply take a fixed percentage of all the revenue that the stations earn - for larger stations it's around 10%. That leaves enough cash over, hopefully for the station to pay its costs including staff, equipment, transmitters and so on, and still leave a profit.

If the station is commercially successful, then the artists and songwriters get more money. Stations have to send lists of the tracks they play, so the cash does go to the relevant artists. It's a win:win situation.

But the flat rate fee doesn't make sense. If it's set too high, as they currently are, then the business is unsustainable. This is what Pandora has found - the advertiser revenue they're generating is not enough to cover the costs. This is the same problem that faces all streamed radio in the US where they're also expected to pay on a per track per listener basis.

Radio services that are "simulcast" in the UK, like Virgin Radio or Heart FM, escape these costs because their internet broadcasts are seen as simply a different broadcast band. Your service might be on FM, AM, Sky, Freeview, DAB or the internet. It doesn't really matter because the more listeners you have, the more money you're able to earn, and the more money artists and song writers get.

It seems to me that like the record industry, which is slowly - painfully slowly really - dragging itself kicking and screaming into the 21st century, the music rights bodies are simply behind the times.

I don't want to give record companies too much credit because they simply don't deserve it. But more of them are finally seeing that selling un-DRMd music is a good thing. And they're realising that if they don't try new things, their CD sales are only going to continue falling without any replacement revenue at all.

Strangling new models for the music industry at birth is surely a mad idea. Here's a burgeoning company that wants to pay for the music it plays but finds itself frozen out by the industry. It's providing a service that we know people want and enjoy. But it won't budge.

So what happens now?

Well what if it were to set-up somewhere legislatively "difficult" - perhaps Russia where it took so long to shut down those mp3 sites. What are you going to do to stop them then?

Interestingly, while Pandora faces closedown in its home territory of the US, the Viacom Last.fm continues to broadcast. Working on a similar basis, they've followed a different route and signed deals with most of the four major record labels. As far as I'm aware, they've not done a deal with the largest of them all - Universal.

Yet is it really as simple as that? An album licenced to EMI in the UK might be on a different label in the US. So how does a global deal work? And then there are limitless independent labels, some of them having bigname bands on their labels. Radiohead's recent physical album release has come on the XL label for example. Last.fm has done deals with a couple of them, but they're the tip of the iceberg.

And even if you do a deal with the label, is that enough? I genuinely don't know the answer to this, but do you still need agreement of the performers, copyright owners or song writers as well?

It seems to me that under the relative safety of a massive media organisation like Viacom, Last.fm can play a little faster and looser than Pandora is able to. Like YouTube, which let's face it, has built its success on the back of other people's content (must stop using that word), Last.fm is in a position where it's waiting for people to come to it to do deals.

Who says the Wild West isn't dead?

Ordinary Song

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A good song, with a very good and very "radio" video...

Via Why That's Delightful

Some More Decent Radio (and TV)

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I missed one other programme that I should have mentioned the other day - this Saturday's Archive Hours is called God, Pirates and Ovaltineys.

"Sean Street investigates the history of the cultural battle between the BBC and commercial radio, which predates the pirate music stations of the 1960s by several decades."

That's got to be worth a listen!

Oh, and it might not be radio, but don't forget that this Sunday sees BBC Four repeat the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela Prom. Don't miss it!

US Album Sales Fall

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I'm really not sure what to make of the news that US album sales fell by 9.5% in 2007, and down 15% on 2006. Digital sales increased by a whopping 45% but only 10% of them are albums. Basically, as we know, most people only buy the tracks they want and not the whole album. This is the problem that record companies need to address as some artists now begin to only release singles.

We all know that once upon a time, single sales were all important and money-making devices. Then they became loss-leaders for albums (as marketing and video costs increased). Finally we're now at the point where albums are just devices to sell concert tickets and merchandise.

But what explains the malaise? Well obviously a generation is now being brought on "tracks" rather than "albums." But I'd also suspect that in the US they may have some other issues.

The top three albums of last year were Noel by someone called Josh Groban who I'd not even heard of. It's a Christmas album. Second is the soundtrack to the Disney TV movie High School Musical, while third is the comeback album from The Eagles which was available exclusively in Walmart in the US.

Now compare that with the UK's best-selling albums. At the top is troubled yet talented singer Amy Winehouse. Back to Black has sold 1.65m copies to date (including a "deluxe" version) compared with Noel's 3.7m copies. That's actually not that bad considering that the UK's population is around 20% of that of the US.

Second in the UK was Leona Lewis, last year's X-Factor winner, who sold a massive 1.27m albums in five weeks (and there were a few more shopping days until Christmas when these figures were compiled, with Lewis a likely stocking-filler album). Compare this with High School Musical's 2.9m. Both are arguably TV spin-offs, although the musical value of the UK title is probably a bit stronger than the US one. 13 year-olds may argue that point.

A slight word of warning - I may well be comparing physical US CD album sales with UK figures that include full album downloads as well as CDs. But I think the comparison is still worth making.

The BPI hasn't reported overall 2007 album sales as far as I'm aware, so it'll be interesting to learn what the overall decline (if it is a decline) is compared to the US. Interestingly downloads have shown a 50% increase in the UK compared to 45% in the US, but 95% of album sales remain on CDs (which explains why Radiohead still went ahead and released a physical edition of their new album last week).

I think the problem in the US is perhaps more to do with the quality of music, the lack of decent radio stations (who are ridiculously stymied from broadcasting online), and overall malaise in quality not especially helped by an endless procession of TV talent shows. I dont' really think filesharing is the big problem. I had a cassette to cassette recorder in the eighties, and CD burning has been around for ages. So copying your friends album has never been a problem. It's more likely to be simply spending cash on other non-musical purchases - especially DVDs and video games.

Quality

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A recent entry on Boing Boing pointed to an article in Rolling Stone magazine which highlighted the fact that producers mix tracks so that they sound good when they're ripped to an mp3 player, at the same time, removing the subtleties that a wider dynamic range allows.

Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow comments "...it seems to me that as a society, we're happy to sacrifice fidelity for ease of use, flexibility and low-cost (see, for example, the trend from landlines to cordless phones to mobile phones to Skype). Designing for that, as opposed to lamenting it -- is a damned good and realistic thing to do."

But has he read the full article? If he has, then he'll see that engineers and producers aren't happy with this trend. What we're getting are tracks with dynamic range compression to make them sound loud, thus removing some of the subtleties of the original sounds.

When you rip a CD to mp3 or similar lossy compression format, you're losing some of that range. We're often told that this compression simply loses audio beyond our hearing range, but it's really not as simple as that - an mp3 does not sound as good as a CD track when you play it through some decent speakers.

If all you're going to do is listen to your track through your iPod listening via the terrible ear buds that came with it, then you probably don't care. But give the crappy compressed version of the track to people who buy it from iTunes if they're happy with that. I still buy the majority of my music on CD because I want to hear the full range. I've got a rather nice stereo system with big floor standing speakers, and I can very much hear the difference.

Most FM radio stations also use lots of compression to make them sound "louder" and clearer than other stations on the dial. The music suffers.

You really can't just design for the lowest common denominator, otherwise we might as well design music to be optimised for those kids who listen to it from the speakers of their Nokia mobile phones at the back of the bus.

It really is strange that at a time when in the A/V world, we're all being persuaded to upgrade to HD TVs and high end 7.1 surround speaker systems to watch our Blu-Ray movies on, the CD world is going the other way.

But it's not just CDs - there are plenty of other areas where quality is losing out.

In the digital broadcast arena, poor quality seems to be accepted. Look at TV channels on Freeview and compare, say, BBC1 with ITV4. The latter, even with recently made programming looks terrible in comparison because it has a much lower bit-rate. ITV4 is on a multiplex that uses a more efficient compression technology, but it's still significantly worse. What that means is that channels look more "blocky" - something that's especially apparent as we all get larger and larger TVs (you can see a range of bitrates here).

A recent Deloitte & Touche report into the efficient use of spectrum by the BBC even recommended that the BBC should reduce its bitrate to squeeze more channels on. Viewers don't care they claimed. The BBC has promised to look into it.

In the run up to a full digital TV switchover in 2012, we're now looking at the resulting over-the-air pictures being worse than the previous analogue pictures. Yes, plenty of households had ghosting on their sets due to misaligned aerials, or coat-hangers stuffed into the back of their portable units, but that's not a reason to accept lower standards.

Satellite and digital cable are better but have their own issues. There's not a bandwidth shortage (at least for satellite), and those channels that are obviously lower in quality are so because they output in that format, or they're not prepared to spend enough on decent bandwidth on those platforms.

I am surprised that so few channels are broadcasting in widescreen - yes I'm looking at you UKTV and Virgin Media. Just about every TV sold these days is widescreen, yet even when a good proportion of their programming is now originated in 16:9, they persist in cropping it. There really is no excuse in 2008.

I'd love to say that my industry, radio, is better. But it's not is it? DAB can sound fine, but unless you invest in up to date codecs (ahem, Digital One), or don't overcompress, then it really doesn't beat a good analogue signal. Ask a Radio 3 listener or a DAB listener to the mono Radio 7.

The industry would argue that listeners don't care. They'll point to the fact that most DAB sets sold are "kitchen radios" which natively come with a single speaker. So there's no problem if they broadcast in 128k stereo (nearly every station), or even mono. Last Christmas, GCap launched theJazz and it's been pretty successful, in audience terms at least. Yet it's broadcast in mono. Now I'm no jazz aficionado, but surely this was a mistake. Jazz fans that I've met tend to be very particular about their listening environments, and high end kit is part of that. And maybe theJazz isn't really aimed at those hardcore fans (in the same way that Classic FM isn't really aimed at the die hards who prefer Radio 3), but it's telling that they even answer the mono question in their FAQs (and there is some space on Digital One these days...). Stereo was first broadcast in the UK in 1925 yet over 80 years later, we're not seeing greater dynamic range and more channels (5 or 7), but fewer.

If you look at the newspaper industry, they're continuing to upgrade presses to allow full colour on all their pages, and trying to ensure that ink doesn't rub off on your fingers. The technical quality is improving. Your local cinema probably sounds better than ever, and many screens are slowly becoming digital, meaning that we're seeing fewer scratchy old prints, instead getting pristine copies as we tend to see on recent well-mastered DVD releases.

But in so much of the broadcast arena, we're seeing declining quality. I'd argue that it was only recently that TV technology has improved to match a decent tube from ten or fifteen years ago, not displaying motion blur when showing sport, and handling dark pictures with lots of greys and blacks without "jaggies" appearing everywhere.

Quality really does matter. There are still many more stereo CD players in the world than mp3 players. At a time when record companies are facing a bleaker future than ever before, they might want to consider maintaining a quality product.

[UPDATE] Well what do you know? theJazz has just become stereo! Only 128kbps stereo - but that's still a vast improvement! Well done GCap/Digital One for finally getting that sorted.

And while we're talking about DAB - it's a shame today to hear that Oneword is effectively being closed down as Channel 4 pulls out of it. Oneword has always been a troubled station since there was never any real investment. Ironically they did have some decent programming, but it was just packaged badly. There'd be an unabridged adaptation of, say, Oliver Twist, that would run to forty episodes. Nobody is going to follow a series that long apart from one or two very real die-hards. Radio 4 rarely run a daily serial over more than a couple of weeks, and their hour long Classic Dramas tend to be between 1 and 4 weeks with very occasional "epics" that might run 13 weeks. But getting a producer to edit down the readings to more manageable lumps from the original unabridged audiobook versions was obviously expensive. And in any case, they filled time, and filling 24 hours a day with non-music programming is not a cheap thing to do.

There were some good shows like "Between The Lines," which felt almost unique in that it was book programme not presented by Mariella (Open Book on Radio 4, The Book Show on Sky Arts) Frostrop. But sadly it was lost amid the miasma of long form serials.

Of course this is also the problem that Channel 4 Radio is going to have. Widely touted as an alternative to Radio 4, it seems to me that it's bound to be closer to the non sports parts of Five Live. Not for nothing have they hired Five Live's Bob Shannon. They're unlikely to have more than a few serial book readings if they're sensible. Instead, the current affairs phone in is likely to prevail - less adversarial than Talksport perhaps.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Music category from January 2008.

Music: December 2007 is the previous archive.

Music: May 2008 is the next archive.

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