Why SpiralFrog’s Free Music Plan Will Work

spiralfrog.jpgWatching the record industry trying to come to grips with the new realities of the music business is a bit like watching Sam I Am’s evil twin at work. You remember the Dr. Seuss character, haranguing that poor guy, who’ s probably studying for his chloresterol test.

Trying to force an unwanted breakfast on him – “would you eat them with a fox, would you eat them in a box?”

Well, now it’s music instead of green eggs and ham.

“Would you buy it in a stream, a cell phone beam with an encryption scheme?”

But RIAA’s cute little muffin-head has now turned mean and ugly: “How about if I sue your spouse, lien your house and smash your mouse?”

I do not like this, Sam I Am….

SpiralFrog, announced by Universal Music Group on Tuesday, is the industry’s first credible attempt to confront the new economic order. In an unprecedented move, the service plans to make UMG’s entire catalog available for free download – with restrictions. They’re working to bring other companies on board.

With SpiralFrog, tracks can’t be burned to a CD, but can be copied to a Microsoft-sanctioned portable music player, which also has to be re-docked to the computer periodically.

It’s obviously Windows-only, which makes perfect sense. They’re trying to slow down the Apple digital music juggernaut, which means no iPods, no iBooks, no iNothing.

Some, most notably Bob Lefsetz, consider SpiralFrog another big swing and a miss by the usual suspects:

These are the same guys who came up with Farm Club and PressPlay. Literally the same guys, Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine. Doug’s a sexagenarian song guy. Jimmy? He’s an opportunist. Believing these guys have the digital answer is akin to believing the guys who did the Mentos movie are going to eclipse Paramount.

Much as I love the guy, I think Lefsetz is missing an important point. Magazines, papers, and now television have all latched onto web-based advertising as the key to making content available for free online. Now, here comes the music business – can Hollywood be far behind?

For Lefsetz, it’s the restrictions that kill the deal. People want to own music, the argument goes, and this scheme makes them rent it. Well, something that’s free can’t be rented. In this case, it also can’t be owned.

Every time I hear him make this argument I wonder – how many promo CDs are in his collection? How many concert tickets has he actually PAID for in the past 30 years? What’s the ratio of free (as in you didn’t buy it, the record company gave it to you) music to the stuff he truly owns?

One more thing, Bob. LPs don’t count.

Regular people buy one or two albums a month, and a year later they’re tired of them. Online mavens steal a lot more music than that, but I’d be surprised if their listening habits are much different. They just don’t have anything to sell back to the used record store.

Here’s another news flash – downloading music is a huge pain. For every quick track pulled from LimeWire, there are five more stuck waiting for available hosts, or completely dead on the vine. Spiral Frog, at the very least, will behave more like iTunes and less like Kazaa, which is a very good thing.

I think this is a revolutionary move.

Like the New York Times, I’m sure Spiral Frog will eventually offer a paid premium content component, sooner rather than later. But with the tectonic shift in advertising, something impacted by Tivo on the one hand and the Long Tail of business on the other, the time is ripe for a model that doesn’t force cosumers to buy music when they’re convinced it’s their right to have it for free.

Let ’em have it – right after this word from E-Trade.

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