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Web as music’s future, not DRM or music labels

Music is something very personal. For me, music is how I focus. Music gets me through a tough day in the office or up a steep hill when out jogging. Music is also an exceptionally lucrative business. The stewardship of which being hotly contested, with the music labels on one side, while you & I are on the other:

“Want radio? No problem. Click play, get radio. Want video? Awesome. Click play, get video. Want a track on-demand? Oh have we got a deal for you! If you’re on Windows XP or Vista, and you’re in North America, just download this 20MB application, go through these seven install screens, reboot your computer, go through these five setup screens, these six credit card screens, give us $160 dollars and POW! Now you can hear that song you wanted to hear … if you’re still with us.”

So says Yahoo Music’s general manager Ian Rogers in a recent ‘blog post regarding his thoughts on the direction of music. And who can argue with that?

You see, the more the music labels don’t get the idea of simplified and unrestricted access to music, the more people are just going to walk.

The music labels just can’t use theft as an excuse any more. And in many respects, the continued insistence by the music labels on using DRM (Digital Rights Management) encoding for music sold & distributed over the internet is at odds with the greater part of their business:

“Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.”

There’s much more I suppose I could say at this point, but it would suffice it to say that the music labels are running scared of disruptive technology, instead of thinking of new business models to harness the sheer power of the internet.

The winner takes all

To make matters worse for the music labels, their general disregard for the needs of the consumer seems to extend like a rash, across the very skin of their businesses, coming up in blotches very close to their stable of artists.

Here’s another sign of the general ignorance of the music labels, in that they’ve failed to recognize just how prone and incredibly vulnerable they are right now:

“When Brit-rock veterans Radiohead decided to self-publish their next album online, it was a bucket of ice-cold water over the heads of EMI, Sony BMG, Warner Music, and all the rest of the old-school industry elephants.”

If success is simply good marketing, then the web is a huge part of the marketing mix. In fact, if you’re smart, you could succeed through the web alone.

And if big-name artists can go it alone, and do so successfully — in a way that is entirely and demonstrably reproducible — then more will follow.

It isn’t like Radiohead are breaking new ground, here. There have been ‘indie’ bands for years. But what is new is the way in which the web can be used as a vehicle for so many things; distribution, selling on-line, promotion, communication et cetera.

However, the fact remains that the music labels were a very functional part of the process, all of which will need to be replicated in some way.

Not every aspiring, would-be or established group is going to explore this route. Some probably just won’t care enough, while others wouldn’t be smart enough. And going it alone isn’t going to be an easy thing to do, either.

It’s more likely that established artists would see the most immediate benefits from something like this, as they’re already established. So there’s a whole infrastructure in place which they can tap into.

For the smaller artists, being spotted and taken on board by a music label is still going to be the most viable route to success for the time being.

Listening to the sound of the future

As we move inexorably forward, towards a more personal and contextual web, things like music will benefit immensely.

As discussed in my three-parter on the Semantic Web, our likes & dislikes will be known to the search engines, which will aggregate those things we like the most.

As things like Podcasts, photos, music and video are tagged & labeled accurately, their relevance to our likes & dislikes will be strengthened.

So in that sense, we will extend our current role of ad hoc promoter — recommended music to our friends, which we do so well — and become an even more functional aspect of the success or failure of a band or artist.

And the music labels? The fat lady just sung her lungs out and no one’s calling for an encore…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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