Vinyl and luck

April 16, 2007

Two interesting links from the Coolfer music industry blog today.

The New York Sun writes about how “hipsters” in Brooklyn (the Manhattan of the ’00s?) have “rediscovered” vinyl records. I don’t know if I qualify as a hipster, but I’ve continued to buy records whenever possible, new and used, even when the entire world was moving to CDs in the early 1990s. I consequently have more than 600 records today, and I actually listen to the things regularly–they’re not just taking up space in a box somewhere. Given the continued existence and crowds at well-curated record stores like Berkeley’s Amoeba (my personal version of Mecca) and Seattle’s Jive Time (used classics) and Zion’s Gate, it appears I’m not alone. The benefits are clear to many music fans–a generally warmer and rounder sound, and album art you can actually look at.

The big disadvantage: they’re harder to convert to a digital format to carry with you. Which is why, if Microsoft were serious about attracting hardcore music fans with the Zune, they should update their four-year-old Analog Recorder application–which works perfectly and is brain-dead simple to use–and build it into the Zune software.

The second article, from the New York Times Magazine, talks about a study that proves something that I’ve known for a long time: most people form their opinions about music based on other people’s opinions about music. Or, popularity breeds popularity. This makes it almost impossible to predict which songs or artists are going to be hits, and which are doomed to toil in obscurity. The study also definitively severs the link between quality and popularity–in a blind group, in which users downloaded songs based only on how well they liked them, the top downloads were completely different than in the eight study groups, in which users could see which downloads were most popular.

For those of us who’ve spent our entire musical lives toiling at the bottom of the ladder of success, it’s nice to know that our failure isn’t entirely due to lack of talent or laziness.


Celestial jukebox is here

April 11, 2007

Finally. Unlike Microsoft’s crippled Zune, the SanDisk Sansa Connect lets you connect to any open Wi-Fi network, and lets you download unlimited music from Yahoo’s subscription Unlimited To Go service, which is $15 a month or $12 a month if you buy a year in advance. You can also listen to Yahoo’s LaunchCast radio service for free.

Sounds like there might still be a few bugs to work out with the software syncing–apparently, it doesn’t sync downloads very well–and it’s only 4GB, which is too small for folks with large local music libraries (like me), but the fact that you can now have access to 2 million songs anytime, anywhere, is a significant change. And it looks like they beat a similar iRiver/Rhapsody device to market.

If Microsoft had launched Zune with this feature, it would have gotten way more attention. Now they’re going to be playing catch up.

Of course, Apple might be right–it might turn out that consumers want to own their music and aren’t interested in subscription services like this. But at least the choice is now out there.

Apple-EMI deal dooms WMA? Huh?

April 5, 2007

Since that last post, I’ve seen a couple other articles suggesting that Apple’s decision to offer DRM-less tracks in the AAC format is going to strike the death blow for Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (WMA) format.

Everybody loves a “Microsoft is losing” headline, but these articles are just stupid. Why?

  1. If device makers had thought they could steal iPod users by supporting AAC on their devices, they would and should have done so long ago. The huge majority of AAC files on people’s computers are unprotected files from CDs ripped in iTunes, not from the iTunes Store. (This is why the Zune natively supports AAC.) Removing DRM from a miniscule percentage of the overall number of AAC tracks out there doesn’t change the equation a bit. (In fact, if I were a player manufacturer, I’d support as many formats as I could afford to license so the user would never have to think about formats at all. Isn’t the idea maximum ease of use?)
  2. These writers seem to assume that the Apple-EMI deal will remain exclusive. I doubt that’s the case. EMI wants to sell tracks as broadly as possible, even to the tiny percentage of Zune users out there. Assuming they believe removing DRM will sell more tracks, why not allow Microsoft to sell DRM-free WMA files on the Zune Marketplace? And allow Napster, and Yahoo Music, and whomever else to sell DRM-free files in whatever format they choose. These folks would be happy to sell DRM-less tracks—like nearly every other digital media player, they support DRM because they have to, not because they want to. It’s costly to implement, alienates consumers, closes off interesting scenarios that might make users more prone to buy new digital media products, and so on.
  3. The Business Week writer talks about Microsoft’s “expensive licensing terms” for WMA. But AAC comes with licensing terms as well! And they’re more expensive for device makers than WMA (at least according to Paul Thurott).

News flash: Apple chose to make this deal for AAC because they’ve already licensed that format, and the iTunes infrastructure is probably built to deliver files in that format, and it’s a much more efficient (filesize for quality) format than their other option, MP3. Which, by the way, comes with licensing fees as well.

The undercutting of the PlaysForSure music store partners probably did more to hurt WMA than this deal will. And Microsoft doesn’t care because those stores weren’t selling many songs anyway, and Microsoft has plenty of other ways to push the Windows Media format—native support in every PC and Windows Mobile device shipped, Xbox Live Marketplace (for video), MSN Video, Zune Marketplace and so on.

But everybody loves a “Microsoft’s doomed” headline.

EMI offers DRM-less tracks through iTunes

April 5, 2007

Both Jobs and EMI have been telegraphing this move: for $1.29, you can now get all songs in EMI’s digital download catalog as 256kbps AAC files with–ta-da!–no DRM. And while Lefsetz is pissed that that they raised the price for these tracks, I like it as the first small step away from the record industry’s self-defeating efforts to control user behavior with inept and unfriendly technology.

Wired columnist Eliot van Buskirk, anxious for any headline that portrays Microsoft as loser, seems to miss an important point: the Zune natively plays AAC files. That’s right–along with going into direct competition with the players and stores that have long supported Windows Media Audio (WMA), Microsoft went and supported the file format favored by its number-one competitor. Sure, Microsoft would have liked to establish WMA as the de facto standard, but it’s basically acknowledged that particular war is over, and it’s lost. Microsoft is not even pushing WMA for telephone handsets anymore–instead, it’s gone and built a generalized DRM system (or “content access” technology as they call it) and will let the carriers apply it to any file format they want–including AAC.

In other words, Microsoft just hopes you buy a new PC to store all your digital media files. They’re not as concerned as they once were about what format those files are in.