SpiralFrog Gets Gigged

The SpiralFrog announcement is but two days old, and the for/against camp is shaking out. UMG’s new free download partnership doesn’t have a whole lot of fans, and that’s fine. What bothers me is the insistence that record companies not only give away their wares, but do it without any restrictions.

It’s sort of like, thanks for the free meal, but it’s a little, y’know, under-seasoned.

We’ll take your free music, the critics are saying, but only with no DRM and unrestricted playtime on an unlimited number of devices. While you’re at it, get those nasty adverts away from me as well.

It’s not much different from the long-standing industry position in terms of extremity.

Every time I want to read Salon magazine, I have to sit through an ad first, or pay for an annual subscription. Without a paid subscription, I can’t move it via AvantGo down to my Treo. The New York Times wants 50 bucks a year if I’m to read Maureen Dowd.

I love Comedy Central’s full-disclosure, tongue-in-cheek ad box that everyone looking for Daily Show or South Park reruns has to sit though. “Payin’ the Billz” is what it says.

So why should free music content be different?

Fortunately, there are a few moderate, albeit skeptical, viewpoints about SpiralFrog. The most provocative observation comes from an editorial in the Financial Times online edition. A free, ad-supported service can move people away from illegal download sites and bump revenue up for the industry, but it has some pretty scary dangers:

A service like SpiralFrog has to be sufficiently attractive to win back illegal music users, while not proving so compelling that legal customers decide they no longer need to pay.

Exactly. I’m generally enthusiastic about SpiralFrog, but I wonder how long the model will sustain itself. I remember the original incarnation of EMusic, which allowed “all you can eat” downloading for a monthly fee. I enjoyed it immensely, downloading unrestricted copies of the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog, among others (it was mostly oldies then). The scheme lasted about one year before they started limiting tracks. Now, they’ve found a nice balance, selling 90 tracks for 20 bucks from a re-vamped lineup packed with indie bands like the Demonz, Neko Case and eels.

Another thing SpiralFrog doesn’t address is the plight of smaller bands from indie labels who likely won’t appear there, free or otherwise. For them, the future lies beyond the majors. I got an interesting email from Craig Hamilton of the folk-rock U.K. band Friends of the Stars, who proposed a scheme that’s as fraught with peril in its own way as SpiralFrog:

If you give us $10, we’ll send you 5 tracks from our forthcoming album. You can then distribute these 5 tracks to your small but dedicated group of customers free of charge, free of DRM and with our absolute permission.

You can send these songs as a goodwill gesture to existing clients, or use them as part of an offer for a new product. It’s your $10, so it’s your call.

Please feel free to tell your small but dedicated group of customers they can do with the music what they wish. They can share it, they can burn it to CD, and they can even ignore and delete it should they wish.

It sounds like a wonderfully egalitarian approach, but it is a lot like buying and ripping a CD, then emailing the tracks to all your friends. What’s different is that FotS is relatively unknown and looking for exposure. Once successful, what will happen to their policy? I don’t mean to criticize, just wondering.

Tamago is a more realistic marketplace model. It allows content owners to license their works to individuals, who then price and sell it over the Internet for whatever price is appropriate. The one problem I’ve always had with iTunes and their ilk is uniform pricing, though some smaller bands offer full albums for a low price (like Damone, a GREAT band from Boston, who sold their debut for 6 bucks on ITMS). Tamago isn’t limited to audio and video, either, with photos and written work available though the exchange.

In the case of Friends of the Stars, I’d suggest that rather than selling a blanket license for 10 dollars that allows for unlimited free distribution, they either limit it or build in a royalty system. The payout might even mirror the very successful “street team” approach used by a lot of bands, which rewards amateur, unpaid guerilla marketers with choice concert seats and other assorted swag.

The under-discussed message in all of this SpiralFrog hoopla is that it spells the gradual irrelevancy of record companies in the first place. The Internet has made a world where they aren’t really necessary, at least not until they start actually developing bands again, which probably won’t happen.

If the industry can’t make money from free music, what’s left?

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