Of Qtrax and broken dreams

Last thing last night - around 2am, Goodwins Mean Time - I was preparing to turn in. A last look around the news, and an outfit called QTrax was making some waves.

Last thing last night - around 2am, Goodwins Mean Time - I was preparing to turn in. A last look around the news, and an outfit called QTrax was making some waves. Free music downloads, ad-supported, special client, unspecified DRM, blah. Really, nothing we haven't seen before.

First thing this morning - around 7am GMT - the phone goes off.

"Grunt", I say. Moments before, I had been punting a Venetian gondola around London's extensive network of underground canals, sliding into the candle-lit caverns at Oxford Circus to tie up next to a scale model of HMS Belfast.

"Rupert! QTrax! Heard of it?". It is some young monster from the BBC, come to dispel the sleep of reason with the harsh, sugar-coated steel of Radio 5 Live

"Erm, yes. Qtrax. Music. Downloads. Free. Balderdash", I reply, in roughly that order. The blazing candelabra that had festooned the marble vaults, casting flickering orange-and-black ripples over the waiting travellers in their Edwardian dress, fade to grey 21st century Holloway light filtering through my 20th century Holloway bedroom curtains.

"That's the chap. Newspapers full of it. Looks like it's not working. Chance to steal a march on the Times. Editor's dead keen. Can you do a telephone interview at 7:45? And did we wake you up? Sorry!"

In the background, I can hear someone talking about Macdonald's offering A-level qualifications. I must still be dreaming. But what the hell.

"Sure, sure. I'll get right on it."

There is time for coffee and browsing, but neither really help put the stamp of reality on the day. Qtrax does indeed purport to be a free legal music downloading service, with 30 million high quality tracks from all the majors. You download its special client, which in turn downloads the music from the not-notably-legal Gnutella P2P network. The client filters out bad and unlicensed tracks, bungs on some DRM, adds adverts and the stuff's yours.

Only there are a few tiny problems. The client, advertised as being available from midnight Eastern Standard Time (5am GMT), is not there yet. None of the record labels will confirm - and some deny - that any deal has been done. No details of the business model are available, none of the very many technical and practical questions the world is asking has been answered, not a note of music has been downloaded.

I try to prepare some witty apercu about Tin Pan Alley meeting Silicon Valley, but mercifully my inner censor is awake at last and advises against being clever at this time of the morning. Coffee is a fine substance, but not up to such a task.

At 7:45, I slide onto the airwaves, coming on immediately after an equally groggy-sounding Alex James-From-Blur (last time we met he tried to get some schoolgirls to beat me up, but that's another story), and give my considered opinion that the whole thing is immensely weird and most unlikely to be as advertised. I note that the BBC has promoted me to editor of ZDNet UK. which is nice.

And with a click, the dogs bark, the circus moves on, and I'm left to contemplate a week untimely ripped from the womb.

On mature reflection, Qtrax is immensely weird and most unlikely to be as advertised. It wouldn't be the first time that the unholy nightmares of venture capital, the music industry and online dreamers have spawned something unable to survive in an oxygen atmosphere – but if you fancy a laugh, pop onto Google News and read what various newspapers reported yesterday compared to what's coming out now. Ah, hubris.

But yes, Macdonalds is set to issue qualifications 'equivalent to an A-level'. I think it's time to propose that London Underground convert its tracks to canals and start digging the new moorings for HMS Belfast, somewhere beneath Broadcasting House, just north of Oxford Circus. It makes more sense.

(PS - circus is back. News 24 sending a car. More Qtrax. Amazing what you can buy with $30m VC funding...)

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