Making an Internet service that just works is both hard and rare. Think FaceBook: what an enormous amount of totally useless crap around the fact that it’s a communication channel with people I know. It’s even harder and rarer when working on a media format that’s known for complicated copyright issues – that’s books, audio and video – and very old-fashioned ways of handling these issues. Most usually, an Internet music service is a radio that plays random music based on your preferences, and finding exactly the song, or – God forbid – an album you’d like to listen to, is impossible. In addition to that, there’s more often than not some territorial restrictions, which is even more stupid, with the Internet being, by nature, non-territorial…
I’ve been following the music services pretty closely ever since they closed down Napster, which I’m really missing now. I’ve also seen my preferences on how I want to consume music change dramatically. No more am I interested in buying a CD album, which I was still strongly promoting only few years ago. But after iTunes came and did not suck quite as hard as every other online music store, I’ve begun to believe that buying online is the way. And after that, of course, what soon follows is the natural dealbumization of music consumption – no more do I feel it necessary to buy the whole album, when I’m just looking for the one song. The question is, why would I want to buy an album full of “songs I maybe don’t want to listen to”, when I can just buy the one I want?
Now don’t take me wrong, I don’t think that this is the way. Although limiting the idea of a “musical body” to 70 minutes and X number of songs is not the way, but a technical restriction, I still think that the album-thinking is one of the basic principles I’d like to preserve in music for the future generations. I know many wiser men than me say that album is disappearing, but I still have faith. A little.
Back to the issue, which is online music. After Napster, there hasn’t been one single good Internet music service. Emule had it’s moments (and a cute donkey), but it was way too complicated. iTunes is OK, but the problem is that it’s iTunes – a DRM-infested bloatware that tries to think for you. And while it often does quite a good job at it, when fails, there’s nothing – absolutely *nothing* – you can do about it, and there’s nobody you can contact to help you out with it. It’s the Mac way – if it fails, you’ll just have to eat it up. BitTorrent is, I think, way too heavy on music – it’s great for movies & software, that are naturally much bigger chunks, but downloading a single song via BitTorrent feels a bit stupid, and I still have a bit of a bad feeling on downloading the whole discography of say, uh, Miles Davis in just a few hours. It’s his whole life’s work, to listen to just one song, or an album, and tossing the rest to rot on my hard drive just doesn’t feel right
And this brings us also to the question of paying. Most of the services I mentioned above made their success by offering the music for free. That means two things: it’s free for you, but the musician doesn’t get paid either. Now how is that different from you buying an album from the store? You have to pay for it, but the musician doesn’t get paid. So, where’s the competition? In me owning more plastic cases and colourful papers?
In order for “The Music” to get me to pay for listening to it, there needs to be a compelling reason for me to do it, so that I don’t just take the easier and cheaper way. We know the reason can’t be both making it easier and cheaper, since that would mean somebody would rebuild Napster (okay, they did, but it sucks). But it can be easier. Other attributes it could have are diversity, quickness, multi-functionality, knowing my money goes to the artist as directly as possible, trustability, etc. And the answer on “who’ll win the Internet” -competition is: the one who comes up with a way to combine these – at least most of these – elements together. The one, who makes music consumption again fun for the consumer and profitable for the artist.
One service has emerged just recently – well, it has been around ever since 2006, but now it’s really starting to be good one: Spotify. I haven’t had so much fun discovering and listening to music in ages. It’s a clever streaming service based on a downloadable client, like Last.FM, but much more versatile. Basically, you can find full albums of whatever music you can come up with, and listen to it whatever way you want. For free, you have to suffer audio ads every 20-30 minutes, but for 9,99e/month there’s simply no restrictions. It’s your music tax, something you pay and then are free to use it as much as you want. Could it be a winner?
Propably not, but it’s getting closer. Spotify gives me a good reason to pay for: nobody bugging me about listening to music. It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s fun, it’s about me getting what I want, and it’s about discovery. Now, it’s not a heaven on Earth, although for now I might feel like it is – Spotify requires you to be on the Internet, and since it’s streaming high quality, it’s not actually a small amount of bandwith it’s eating up. Also, you can’t download the music and push it to your iPod, or listen to it on the plane or anything. Another feature missing is the ability to actually buy the music I like (although the FAQ is claiming it’s there, it doesn’t seem to work), because having it locally on my computer still has some advantages.
And then there’s this one cool feature, which is playlists. Now, creating a playlist isn’t actually a big issue with most of the music services out there, although they never work, (it does with iTunes, though, but you need to own that stuff). With Spotify, I can right-click on a song, put it to a playlist I’m working on, and then right-click on the playlist and make it a “collaborative playlist”, and share the HTTP-link of my playlist between all the users of Spotify, my friends and strangers. There’s even a quite active FaceBook group called Spotify Playlists, where you can discover heaps of music you’d propably never come up with any other way.
So Spotify is good. But how about the money? One thing the service doesn’t clearly state is how much of the money I pay for my monthly use of the service goes to the artist, and how it’s distributed. Is it a collecting agency model, where only the ones that get heavy “rotation” get paid? Or is it the Record Industry model where nobody but the label gets paid? One thing is sure: Spotify does earn music from me listening to it. And it’s quite good, as long as I would also know where the rest of the money goes.
But how is that good for us, a small Finnish band called Älymystö that’s not on any of the big labels and that’s distributing it’s music under Creative Commons licensing for free? Spotify claims that they are building an upload platform, and has a following blurb about it:
Promoting your music on Spotify is free. Your own artist area allows you to build a direct relationship with fans, old and new, across the world. Develop revenue streams through the sale of downloads, merchandising, concert tickets and more, as well as earning a share of the revenues we create through our advertising and premium businesses. Powerful, granular, in-depth reporting is available to participating labels and artists.
Ok, sounds great. We’ll see how that’ll work in the end, I have a healthy doze of doubts, but I’d be lying if I wouldn’t say I’m enthusiastic.
Right now, Spotify is in private beta, meaning you need an invitation for the free version, and they are not giving them out easily, so if you come up with one, make sure you’ll use it. I hope they don’t fuck this up, because at least for now, I’ve had just great experiences with Spotify, and I’ve been listening to whole albumfulls of music much more in the last few days I’ve done in months.
A person much wiser than I am, John Buckman, gave a very interesting presentation at the Creative Commons event in Stockholm few months ago, that addressed some of the topics I brought up here, called “Money for Nothing”:
I emailed the Spotify premium user customer service, and they – I can’t believe it – actually answered. You don’t get that normally with an Internet service. Here are the questions and answers:
1) You seem to have made agreements with record companies, and you share
your revenue (from advertisements, monthly user fees and downloads) with the
companies, right? Have you revealed the % on your cut? Do you know how the
money is then distributed between the musicians?
1. Yes we have sign agreements with the major labels and the biggest indie.aggregators like Merlin and the Orchard. It´s an attractive royaly that´s based on how frequently the tracks is playing. Then how much every artist gets is up to the labels.
2) In the future you propably will accept unsigned musicians as well, that
are working under Creative Commons or such licenses and distributing their
music online for free. How do you pay for these?
2. Yes, we will sign up “unsigned” artists. everyone have the same deal!
3) Do you pay something for collecting agencies?
3. Yes, we have a deal with the collecting societies, so we take care of that!
(Via Älymystö blog)