Music industry sounds awful

David Coursey: The music industry could be that stupid after all. After winning exclusive rights to control its online distribution, it's debuting a system that few can use.

COMMENTARY--OK, so the music industry really is as stupid as all those Napster users always said. I know this because I've researched a news story that sounded so odd when I first heard about it on the radio that I just assumed I'd heard incorrectly.

"What do you mean those commercial Napster replacements won't allow me to download music to my MP3 player?" I thought to myself, certain that I'd missed something.

After all, how could the record companies' partners--companies like RealNetworks, Sony, and AOL Time Warner--let them get away with such foolishness? Everyone knows the main reason for downloading music--at least one of the main reasons--is to be able to download it and carry it around, generally on an MP3 player of some sort.

BUT NOOOOOO, these hoity-toity music services--Pressplay and MusicNet by name--aren't going to allow music to be downloaded to a player. For $10 a month, give or take, users will be able to download 30 to 50 songs to their personal computers. And that's as far as the music goes.

Not that being unable to download to MP3 players is such a problem--except for the customers, that is--because these services won't be using MP3 as their format. They'll be using Microsoft's Windows Media format, as well as some proprietary formats of their own. The most important benefit is that these formats were created with "rights management" in mind, meaning the built-in ability to prevent dubbing the music to your player or burning it onto a CD.

These formats will also generally offer better sound quality and/or smaller files than equivalent MP3-formatted music. So, you'd be able to put more hours of music onto your player--if you were able to put it onto your player at all. Nice Catch-22: The same technology that makes it impossible to copy the music also makes the files smaller if you were able to copy it.

I KNOW ALL THIS because on yesterday's AnchorDesk radio program I spoke to Rick Dube, who follows these things as an analyst at Webnoize, the new media consulting firm. Dube sounded about as nonplussed as I am by all this, and warned that this prohibition could turn the companies into losers right from the start. (Listen to the interview.)

Furthermore, the sorts of people who'd be willing to play $10 to download a fairly limited number of songs--say, people who want to keep up with the hot hits--may already be very nicely serviced by music radio stations, Dube said, further undercutting the services' initial appeal when they roll out over the next six months or so.

I would suggest we all boycott MusicNet and Pressplay as an appropriate reward for their foolishness. But that would require actually playing attention to them, and from what I've seen, it's more likely customers will look but not buy without any encouragement from me whatsoever.

THE AWFUL PART is that we really do need a legal (and inexpensive) way for consumers to download music. But it has to be music that can be used just like music from the CDs we now own--freely copyable to our portable devices.

The danger is that by screwing up their initial releases, the new services will chase potential customers away. If that happens, it will be a long time before they return to take another look.

There is still time for the record companies and their Internet industry patsies to do the right thing. But when the music industry is involved, that's not what we've come to expect. So let's just sit on the sidelines and watch big music shoot itself in the foot.


Would you subscribe to a $10/month music service that won't let you download songs to an MP3 player?
Would never do it
Would probably not do it
Maybe--I'm undecided
I'd probably do it
Definitely do it--not a problem for me

Tomorrow on AnchorDesk Radio: David interviews Intuit Chairman Scott Cook and IDC Analyst Alex Slawsby

What do you think of the music industry's latest lame idea? TalkBack to me.


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