Oh, you guys:
Qtrax—the free, ad-supported, “legal” P2P service that launched at MIDEM today—apparently isn’t as ready for prime time as it claims. The company claimed it had licensing agreements with all four major record labels, when in fact it has none.
The inconsistencies with its music licensing status is just one of several missteps that may make Qtrax one of most bungled service launches in the history of digital music. The company’s press release and pre-briefings with reporters all pointed to the “live” launch of the Qtrax service. But on Monday the site shows it is only a beta launch, something the company didn’t mention in its press build-up.
Allan Klepfisz, Qtrax’s CEO, says the service will go ahead and launch with the four majors’ catalogs. When asked if he is worried about a lawsuit, Klepfisz replied, “The answer is nobody has threatened us with a thing.”
Meanwhile, back in reality (this article also discusses last.fm’s new service):
Despite a stable of early ad clients signed on for the untested site, Mr. Kent still was uncertain about what the market’s ad model would look like. “I don’t think any music sites can make money on impressions alone,” he said. “You’ve got to get out there to make the advertisers notice you. You have to stand for something and be a brand. Ad money is going to follow a brand over a long period of time.”
MIDEM is apparently a huge music trade show that happens every year in Cannes, and it’s going on right now, so there’s a flurry of announcements of various significance coming across the wire from sources like billboard.biz and Coolfer. Many of these announcements demonstrate that digital music is finally going through its own little dotcom bubble. I know there’s a bubble a-borning because there are all kinds of businesses popping out of the woodwork that fail even the most basic bozo check.
Take, for instance QTRAX, the most recent attempt to take peer-to-peer filesharing legal. How do they intend to do that? By wrapping DRM around their “25 million” track library (which in actuality has nowhere near 25 million different tracks), so they can track media plays, so that rightsholders and advertisers can get paid – which, to me, presupposes that you’re going to have to use their client to listen to your music and view the non-optional ads. Which leads me to heave a huge sigh, because I just don’t have the heart right now to discuss the now-ubiquitous practice of using advertising to make your halfassed idea suddenly seem profitable. Ad-based business models are the beenz of 2008.
If Brilliant Media’s claims add up, they’ve got a pretty impressive team working on their software, because the initial version is using Windows Media for its DRM, yet they have a roadmap promising Mac OS X and iPod support by mid-April. There are all manner of technical reasons that make me skeptical that they’re going to be able to pull this off. For starters, the only supported library for accessing Windows Media content on the Mac is Flip4Mac’s, and it’s a buggy piece of crap.
On the other hand, it may be irrelevant, because I have a hard time seeing too many people using QTRAX. As this article in the International Herald Tribune makes clear, “free” music services are suddenly plentiful, and web-based services like last.fm’s are way easier to use. This leads me to conclude that the major labels have flipped from their former paranoid selfishness to a passionate desire to sign deals with everybody who’s not Apple, because they want to break Apple’s hold over the download business. I’m skeptical that this is going to do them any good in the long run, although it’s refreshing – if a little unsettling – to see the 4 majors coöperating, instead of continuing to try to corner the market themselves.
I’m also just plain ambivalent about the focus on Apple. I work for a competing music service (Rhapsody), so I’d like to see our business grow (if only because I think subscription music makes more sense for more people than its limited success so far indicates), but at the same time they’ve managed to create a download market by using the very tools (software-hardware bundling, platform lock-in, flat pricing, no DRM) that made the major labels crazy. Without Apple, there wouldn’t be a market for the major to take away. I don’t really feel sorry for corporations, and it’s not like Apple needs my sympathy anyway, but it’s off-putting to see how public and gleeful so many groups are about taking Apple down.
Following up on my note about last.fm offering free / ad-supported streaming of full tracks, everyone should read this missive from Rogue Amoeba, the authors of Audio Hijack Pro and Radioshift, two very useful tools for internet music fans. It’s difficult to concisely describe the very delicate balance of competing forces that makes legal on-demand streaming possible. I honestly think Rhapsody and Napster owe their continued viability at least partially to a need by the major labels to not look like they’ve been chumped by Apple (the iTunes Music Store looms very large when it comes to music and the internet). I really like last.fm and I’d like them to succeed, but what they’re doing is increasing the volatility of an already fluid situation.
Today marks the rollout of last.fm’s on-demand streaming music service. This is and isn’t a big deal. On the one hand, it’s free, and they got the agreement of the four major labels and the largest indie aggregators (IODA and the Orchard), so there’s a lot of music, and it’s all available now. You should go check it out. On the other hand, Napster did more or less the same thing over a year ago as a way to drive potential paying customers to their site (and their higher-quality paid offering) and doesn’t appear to have benefited from it; analysts keep saying they’re doomed, and Rhapsody, my employers, have been steadily pushing our integration with social networking sites like Facebook. On a third hand, last.fm has been offering free internet radio for a long time now, and the difference between “internet radio” and “on-demand streaming” means a lot more to people trying to market (and profit from) those services than it does to your average music fan, I suspect.
I think it’s interesting that this is the first big change last.fm has made in the wake of selling themselves to CBS (which has no relationship to the old CBS Records label they sold start Sony back in 1988, although confusingly enough, they did restart a new CBS Records label at the end of 2006 to push music tied to their television shows). Subscription streaming is a tough, and so far unprofitable, business, and CBS must really believe that it can create a big market for last.fm’s advertisers if it hopes to make its money through advertising alone. It baffles me that so many executives think they can save the music business by giving its primary product away for free, especially because one of the main lessons I’ve taken away from watching the onward march of filesharing is that people vastly prefer having the music in their possession, legally or not.
In any case, I’ve been using Audioscrobbler to keep track of my listening for several years now, and after some growing pains, last.fm has turned into a smooth and professionally-run service. I wish them luck. We’re all going to need it.