DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music

With all the recent discussion of EMI and other music companies releasing their music catalogs with DRM-free files, I had to wonder what will happen with subscription music services like Rhapsody Music, Napster, Yahoo Music!, Urge, Virgin Digital, etc. Subscription services offer unlimited access to giant catalogs of songs, and they use DRM systems to make sure the music is locked down from thieves. You can boogie just as long as your monthly payments keep coming. Could subscription services work without digital rights management (DRM) systems like so many are campaigning for the buy-by-the-song businesses?

I’ve been using Rhapsody for awhile now and I’ve essentially stopped buying CDs. I have a collection of a couple thousand CDs and LPs but I’ve stored them away. Digital music subscriptions are just too damn convenient over both getting my lazy ass out of my chair and tracking down CDs I never re-alphabetize or ripping and maintaining digital collections on my always changing computers. I can’t believe anyone would be buying digital music from iTunes or any other pay-by-the-song services. Ownership, whether digital or physical means work – librarian type work of organizing, filing and preserving. Buying files without DRMs will mean easier backups, but you still have to manage your tracks – and after awhile iTunes gets unwieldy with large collections.

Physical CDs are great for playing anywhere, lending to friends, and getting the maximum sound quality. MP3 songs are great for making compilation CDs to share with friends or for emailing single songs to distant friends. Rhapsody allows for sharing songs, but your friends need to be members of Rhapsody. Rhapsody just started selling MP3 DRM-free music – so now it’s possible buy a song and share it – although I don’t think that’s the purpose of the new feature. It’s doubtful the industry wants Rhapsody to transmit all their subscription tunes over the net via unencrypted MP3 files, but would that be so bad? If everyone subscribed to music would it matter? The key to subscription music is the convenience of not worrying about owning files.

Rhapsody does all the work for me. I think of a song or album or artist and type in the name in the Rhapsody search box. If it’s there, and most of the time it is, I just play the music. When I’m tired of listening I close the window. Rhapsody does allow me to download the song files to my computer, but I don’t use that feature. First, I don’t use a portable player. I play songs through my computer or my stereo system via Wi-Fi and Firefly Media Server. I do have an iPod but I use that for audio books. When I’m at work I play Rhapsody through Internet Explorer and my computer’s speakers. If you do have a compatible player you can download files to your player. If you want, you can download thousands of albums to your computer, as much as it can hold, and as long as you pay your bill the songs will play. But is that the ultimate way to experience music?

When I was a kid I used to have this Sci-Fi fantasy that I could mentally play music in my head and it would sound like I was listening to a loud stereo. Just think of the song and my neurons would dance. Rhapsody is close to that. Rhapsody even has players that use Wi-Fi to connect to its services. I doubt I will ever have music transmitted directly to my brain, but if Rhapsody (or competitors) were available anywhere I went, then that will be good enough. Once you hear music in that light you realized that DRM locks aren’t needed. I don’t want to own the music. I don’t want to store the music. I don’t want to manage music files. I just want to listen.

Right now if Rhapsody took the locks off its songs people would steal them blind. That’s because some people can’t see the utopian view of listening to subscription music. Why horde songs when you can listen to what you want when you want and where you want? I do all of this for $120 a year – Yahoo and others even offer cheaper deals. Rhapsody currently charges more to people who want to download songs to put on compatible portable players, but if they ever perfect Internet everywhere on portable devices that wouldn’t be needed.

Finding Music v. Buying Music

I was just reading an interview with Daniel Radcliffe who told about where he was and what he was doing when reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. At one point he mentioned he was listening to a group called Takk and their album Sigur Rós, a band I’ve never heard of before. So I fired up my browser, typed Takk into Rhapsody search box and began listening to it. That’s how I find out about music now. Oh sure, I could have zipped over to the iTunes store and bought it for $9.99, but why? For the price of one album I get to listen to them all. I’ve gone beyond how to afford music. And I never wanted to be in the business of stealing music. For my ten bucks of legal rental payment, I’m now in the music finding business. I can’t believe kids steal when legal music is so damn cheap.

If the music industry could acquire X million subscribers worldwide they would probably make as much money as they used to make selling physical albums but without the costs and overhead of actually making, shipping and selling CDs. Once you get past the part about owning music you realize the problem becomes finding great new music. And Rhapsody has many features that help there too. One of them is the ability to send songs, albums or playlists to other Rhapsody members. If I discover a great new album, I can hit the share button and send it to my friends. They don’t get the actual song, but a link to where to play the music. That’s all that’s needed. The holy grail of musicians and music publishers is to get millions to people to start playing a song. Having easy access makes that much easier.

This will be a major paradigm shift in the world of music. Why listen to radio? Just request a playlist or music channel if you want surprises and randomness. This allows everyone to become music programmers by building playlists. No more mixed tapes and CDs. Create a playlist and email it to your girlfriend. When you meet new people you won’t flip through their CD collection, you can request their favorite playlists and listen to the music. You can make friends by having your playlists analyzed and compared to others. It’s a whole different world.

The greatest thing about subscription music services is discovering new music. You can try anything you want. On Tuesdays when new music comes out just play as many new albums as you can. You aren’t restricted. When Stephen King lists his top 25 rock songs in Entertainment Weekly, just pop over to Rhapsody and listen to them.

Subscription services will have to maintain their DRM systems until the mass of people realize that owning music is a pain, but eventually DRMs won’t matter.

Where Subscription Music Fails

Since 1964 I’ve been buying music, and even though I’ve had to sell my collection a couple of times since then, I’ve gathered a couple thousand albums – far more than I want to rip and preserve on hard disk. Rhapsody is great for the new stuff and the famous stuff, and crappy songs from artists that only their mothers would buy, but it is far from complete. I have a lot of albums that Rhapsody doesn’t. And if I want to play, “Fresh Air” by Quicksilver Messenger Service, I have to dig through my closet. That really puts some holes in my musical heaven.

For subscription music to really work it needs to be complete. Every online retailer should have access to everything imaginable – and publishers should allow the various online subscription libraries to promote music in whatever fashion they want. No need to have a big brother monopoly, but it would defeat the idea if I had to subscribe to a bunch of services just to get the variety I want.

The next big problem is sound quality. Compressed music is pretty damn good, but it ain’t stereophile quality. In my ideal dream music system I don’t want to own and store music, so it doesn’t matter how big the files are just as long as the music can be piped to me in real time with no interruptions. My assumption is technologies will only get better and transmission speeds will only get faster, so music libraries should have no trouble improving the quality.

A side effect of all this should be the end of the format wars. The wizards behind the Internet curtain will worry about such details. We might have to upgrade our browsers, sound cards and drivers from time to time, but that’ll just give computer companies reasons to sell us new computers. A few years ago when SACD music came out I expected to repurchase all my favorite albums – the ones I first bought on LPs and then later bought again as CDs. I didn’t because SACD music didn’t catch on, but under my dream system, instead of buying all new albums I’d just need to buy a new sound card and speakers.

Another music related fantasy I have is all the black boxes and wires will disappear and music will magically come from nowhere. It would be great if they could put SACD quality surround sound in tiny little speakers built into my monitor. I love the look of those new 24″ iMacs – and what a thrill it would be to have one if it worked like the Apple sales photos without a rat’s nest of wires docked at the back and produced Bose Wave audio quality sound without any visible speakers. Oh, drat, Steve Jobs doesn’t believe in subscription music.

What’s Playing Right Now

Rhapsody is good enough now that I very seldom get out a LP or CD. Right now I’m listening to Joe Cocker from 1969 and 1970. I’m listening to albums I haven’t owned or seen in years. Rhapsody is one great trip down memory lane. I often play albums that I remember flipping by in stores years ago when I was a teenager and my bagboy job at the Coconut Grove Kwik-Chek wouldn’t allow me to buy everything. And 128kbps WMA is probably better sounding than my old $199 stereo I bought in twelve payments from the Columbia Record Club in 1968 – my first experience in credit. I play my music through a sound card plugged into a Sony amp that’s connected to Bose bookshelf speakers sitting on each end of my computer desk, so I sit in the sweet spot. Rhapsody’s web based interface has become so good that I often skip the full client version. I just flip through the library and click the little plus sign to add songs to the playing queue. I can’t believe people actual pay for songs 99 cents at a time and then have to worry about saving them. Hell, I would have already run up a $20 bill just writing these last few paragraphs

What Happens If Subscription Music Fails

My worry is the music industry will decide to call it quits on subscription music. If they do I don’t expect to start buying DRM songs for 99 cents. I might buy a few $1.29 DRM free songs, but what I’d do is rip my CD collection, create a pool of favorite songs I’ve discovered over the last fifty years and go musical Rip Van Wrinkle and time travel through my tuneverse. Which is what I think many people have already done and explains why CD sales are down – they’ve just checked out from the system. If Apple has sold a 100 million iPods and one billion songs, it sounds like selling digital songs isn’t that big of a business since on average people are only buying ten songs. I wonder how many rental songs have been played in that same time?

I’m not sure about the health of subscription music. I know few people who use it. I show it to friends all the time. I think most of my baby-boomer music friends are content with their small collections of CDs which they ripped with iTunes. But real music fans should try subscription music so they can try new stuff. It’s nothing at all to try out several new albums of unknown artists each week. If subscription music goes the way of SACD then I doubt I’ll be trying as many new groups as I am now.

Can Artists Make Money From Subscription Music

I’m playing “In A Big Country” and I wonder if the old group Big Country will make any pennies from my few moments of nostalgic pleasure. With enough subscribers it’s possible for the music industry to generate the same billions they used to earn by selling CDs, but will any of that moola reach the deserving talent? Are there accounting systems that let the artists see how many times their songs have been played? That could be pretty cool info to track. If I pay $10 for a month of music, that’s 1,000 pennies. If I play 33.33 songs a day, that would equal to 1 cent per song per play.

To earn a buck a group would need 100 plays – to earn a million bucks would require 100 million plays. At a royalty of 10 percent, a group would have to sell 1 million $10 CDs to make a million dollars. Since most fans play their favorite songs over and over again, groups wouldn’t have to reach 100 million people, but get 10 million people to play the song 10 times or 1 million people to play the song 100 times. Thus it’s quite possible to make money at a penny a play, but I doubt the music industry is that generous to artists with their subscription income. At a tenth of a cent per play it would take a billion plays to generate a million bucks. I bet I played Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” at least a thousand times, maybe a good deal more.

I also figure the $10 a month fee Rhapsody charges won’t always stay that low. It used to be $9.95 a month paid monthly, but the by monthly fee has since gone up, so I have to pay by the year to get that low rate. If the subscription services could get 100 million users world-wide they would be in the 12 billion dollar annual revenue range and we know at least 100 million people world-wide love music enough to buy an iPod. If everyone paid the $15 monthly fee that goes with having a portable player, that industry figures grows to 18 billion. It’s quite easy to see the music business making plenty of money via the subscription model. Whether they pay their artists any more than what they paid when they sold music as LPs or CDs is another issue.

Conclusion

If the music business could get the majority of their clients to support the subscription model there would be no need for DRM systems. No one would want to clog up their drives to horde music or waste their precious free time trying to acquire and manage files. If my record collection were digital files I’d have 20,000-25,000 of the little buggers to deal with. What a pain it would be to protect all those gigabytes. The only data on my computer should be the data I created. The only data I should worry about backing up is the data I created. Music should be store elsewhere play anywhere.

Update: 12/24/07

I can now play “Fresh Air” through Rhapsody.  Several music services have closed or limited their efforts.  The big ones are still Rhapsody, Napster and Zune.  Rhapsody is expanding its services by partnering with hardware companies like TiVo and cell phone services.  Denon is even making a table top radio that has a dock for an iPod, plays XM music, is compatible with MP3 CDs and connects directly to Rhapsody – thus offering the Rhapsody library without a computer.  Rhapsody has also made marketing deals to give away songs with hamburgers.  They are making a valiant effort to push the concept of subscription music.

8 Responses

  1. [...] practical future. I, on the other hand see a different future as described in my blog entry, “DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music” that the subscription model should be the future of digital music. If Rogers is right then I [...]

  2. Just wanted to thank and congratulate you on this really fine essay. I’m a Rhapsody subscriber too, and while I still buy and listen to my CDs for the reasons you outline (i.e. Frank Zappa is my favorite artist and he’s not on Rhapsody), I find myself listening to Rhapsody more and more. I did recently upgrade my phone and Rhapsody subscription to be able to listen to Rhapsody content in the car and at the gym, and I gotta tell you: I’m a complete subscription music convert. I totally love it and am finding all kinds of new stuff I like.

    I found this essay from a google search as I was wondering how my Rhapsody subscription gets divvied up among the artists I’ve played. I’m still really interested in knowing the answer to that. I.e., I have several friends who have released albums, which are available on Rhapsody. If I play them on Rhapsody instead of popping their CD in, would they get some pennies? Not sure, would love to know. I LOVE the idea that artists could actually be paid based on actual usage rather than the arcane weirdness method used to pay them now :/

  3. [...] two most successful essays “DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music” and “Did AAPR Rip Off My Old Mother?” were flukes dealing with topics outside my [...]

  4. the band is sigur ros and the album is takk

  5. Thanks for your time on the analysis – I completely agree, as a Rhapsody subscriber, that the format is much more suited to those who truly want to sample a wide variety of new music. Turns out that many albums I’d never thought of buying I now listen to all the time because I could sample a bunch of songs from different bands. The idea that a person is ‘renting’ music bothers some of my friends under the illusion they ‘own’ their iTunes music with the closed system. Why not try it on a non-apple player? But, of course, where Rhapsody fails the worst, Apple excels – making music available on mobile platforms without the mess of DRM. But when married to a Sonos System, Rhapsody makes for the perfect through-out the house system. Think of a song on the living room couch – search for it on the handset and – BOOM – play it (without the incremental $0.99 charge).

    Perhaps with Yahoo leaving the rental music business, Rhapsody will gain more critical mass. They need to put some marketing dollars to work, and beef up and then promote their ability to work across mobile platforms.

    Good luck to all working to get artists paid – they’re getting lost in the shuffle in all this, but that’s were a new distribution model will emerge in a few years, no doubt. Some sort of open-source music distribution model for bands. I think I need someone under their mid 30s to figure that out…

  6. [...] I jumped back into the subscription music game, this time with Rhapsody, which is compatible with my cheap-o player. I preferred Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go’s pricing and discovery features, but, well, it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s still a bargain to have access to 4 million songs for the cost of a CD per month. I stumbled onto this post that explains the allure of subscription music better than I could: DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music. [...]

  7. Good points. As an update, it looks like music subscriptions are still doing ok. Rhapsody is actually cheaper than before, 10 bucks gets you a portable device subscription now. So far I’ve only run into 4 artists I was looking for that weren’t in the catalog (The Eagles, Beatles, King Crimson, and Zappa). In another strike against musical ubiquity, not all albums are present for every artist. But this is generally the exception, I’m amazed at how much stuff is out there. My only other beef is the slowness of their interface. There are many times the application just freezes up for a minute or two. I can only imagine it is taking a digital coffee break. I should clarify I’m talking about the interface here, not the music playback.

    After joining, I probably listened to more new music in the first month than I had in the past 3 years. My initial average was 4-5 new albums a day, now it’s a “more conservative” 2-3 albums a day average. I can’t believe I didn’t sign up for this sooner. Yet oddly, I don’t know anyone else using it.

    • I’ve been looking at Napster again. It’s now $5 a month, if you buy 3 months at a time, plus you get to keep 5 MP3 songs each month, which sort of makes the streaming part free. Rhapsody is much improved by its iPhone/touch app that allows users to download songs to play offline. You can also download songs to play offline on PCs too, but they seem to have hidden that function pretty well. I have a fast Internet connection, so my access to Rhapsody is pretty good. It is annoying when I have Internet problems and can’t play Rhapsody, so that’s why I’ve been downloading some songs. Of course, it clutters up the hard drive.

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