A new music download site has made deals with two of the largest music catalogues in the world — potentially, then, they could become a challenge to iTunes. But the model is way different.
From The Guardian UK:
The deal follows SpiralFrog's agreement with Universal Music Group announced last week and means the site can offer users free legal downloads from artists such as James Blunt, Kelly Clarkson and this week's Mercury Prize winners, Arctic Monkeys.
While iTunes charges for music — 79p a track in Britain — on SpiralFrog users will have to watch a short advert before they can download a song free.
As far as artists are concerned, it is understood they will get royalties based on how many times songs are downloaded, with the money coming from SpiralFrog's advertising revenue.
All well and good if you want stuff these major labels have signed and approved of — to me it implies that if you’re not an artist with one of these majors then you might have trouble getting your track available on these sites in the first place, and even then, if your stuff isn’t hot, the advertiser who is paying you will eventually balk at funding fringe stuff that doesn’t draw (the right) consumers to their products. The advertiser holds the purse strings, and will naturally pull the other strings too, despite what they may claim, so this model puts the control of what music is available back in the hands of the majors and their corporate cronies.
Not that iTunes is fair and balanced, either. I don’t know the details, but I have heard that they are like record stores of yore — doling out position (visibility) to a very very limited number of artists. No surprise there — there is limited space. I’ve also heard that true indie artists get inferior treatment — lower royalty rates (or higher entry costs), less attention, and sometimes they are refused entry outright. Who’s manning the velvet rope here? What happened to that Long Tail where everything is available?
Now, a lot of this inequity might be due simply to pragmatic realities — there are only a finite number of tracks that can be processed and added at once — large, but finite.
Soon enough a site will open that is like a Google search for music downloads — downloads that are not copy-protected but you still pay for. eMusic tracks have no copy protection, for example, but their catalogue is limited. Eventually a meta search will turn up the tracks you want, wherever they live, on whomever’s site. Consumers don’t care who they buy them from if the interface is easy and intuitive. Soon enough iTunes consumers will find they have reached the 5th authorized player on their tracks and the frustration will set in when they can’t listen to the music they paid for. They’ll start to look elsewhere.
No mention whether or not SpiralFrog’s tracks have similar copy protection or similar malicious malware attached; maybe they won’t. But I can bet that the big advertisers won’t leap to sponsor the last 3 CDs I bought — Anja Garbarek, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Thelonious Monk. Niche advertisers might sponsor these kinds of records — they could sponsor them on their own sites via their own servers. Putamayo CDs are in effect sponsored by the health food stores and eco-boutiques that give them display space. A Mormon-owned Home Depot like chain, like the one featured in Big Love, might sponsor the choir’s CDs, and bars and coffee shops might sponsor the Monk CDs. The abovementioned search engine interface would find the tunes wherever they lived and the money would flow accordingly. They don’t have to be given free, as in the SpiralFrog model, but there are some obvious synergistic and mutually beneficial models that would naturally evolve to make this kind of sponsorship lucrative. For some.
Still, it still puts access in the hands of advertisers — a third party, so to speak. You’re not getting your groceries from the farm, you’re getting the ones that the store decides to stock. The mutually beneficial aspects of having a third party will rub off most when there are large numbers. Beco at The Red Hot Organization pointed out to me that a Lenny Kravitts tune was sponsored by a vodka company — you could get it free from their site and nowhere else. They took out ads, billboards, etc. Apparently it worked, and his visibility and CD shot up as a result. But what big vodka company would do that for some of the stuff I buy? A niche brand that might be a perfect match but they probably couldn’t afford that kind of marketing for fringe stuff. Often, though, the fringe stuff wouldn’t be right for that mass audience anyway — so no harm done. That stuff is better marketed via MySpace, websites and word of mouth. Or via specialized stores. But the point is, in this model it will never get the chance at a wider audience. The playing field had at least the illusion of becoming level — but maybe not for long.