The Warner/YouTube Deal

warneryoutube.jpgAt first glance, the deal announced Monday between Warner Music Group and YouTube is a step in the right direction. It’s definitely better than UMG’s threats to take copyright violators to court, but just barely so.

The terms of the agreement provide YouTube with ad revenue, and give WMG a way to screen music used in uploaded videos. They can either allow it, order the content removed, or submit a bill to the auteur demanding a royalty payment. This is a good thing, says Warner head and liquor family scion Edgar Bronfman:

As user-generated content becomes more prevalent, this kind of partnership will allow music fans to celebrate the music of their favorite artists, enable artists to reach consumers in new ways, and ensure that copyright holders and artists are fairly compensated.

In other words, Bronfman wants money from the millions of kids who lip synch to 50 Cent on their webcams and upload the awkward results to YouTube for a handful of friends to view. Yeah, right.

Here’s what will happen – a replacement for YouTube will spring up immediately, probably in the form of a BitTorrent pirate site without borders or servers, and millions of adolescent vanity projects will migrate there. YouTube will rapidly become an industry whorehouse, its cool factor wiped away.

Maybe I’m wrong, and the company will cast a blind eye to the majority of uploads containing copyrighted material. Maybe they’ll realize the free promotional value these fan tributes represent. But I doubt it. As they sink into irrelevancy, replaced by artist direct models, viral marketing that doesn’t depend on corporate benovelence, and peer-to-peer promotion, Bronfman and his ilk will shamelessly grab at every dollar like it might be their last. Because one day it will.

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Rock Legend Gives iTunes Music Store Black Eye

whalkooper.jpgAl Kooper isn’t merely a key figure in the history of rock, he’s also an astutely vociferous critic of the online music business. Recently, he weighed in at The Lefsetz Letter on the iTunes Music Store’s sorry state of affairs. Apple duly responded to Kooper’s complaints about format locking, nonexistent customer service and one of my pet peeves, their seeming inability to post a list of new music releases on Tuesday.

Apple’s response proved that it’s possible to put your foot in your mouth and shoot it at the same time:

New release day is Tuesday at iTunes. We turn the store at midnight eastern every Monday night. All the new releases delivered by the labels are up at that time except for the very few where there are problems with the delivery, which is usually on the label end, sometimes on ours, but we try to correct those delivery errors as soon as possible. By 2 or 3am eastern all the new releases and new catalog titles are available for purchase.

They missed Kooper’s point, which wasn’t that new releases weren’t available for purchase, but that there was no top-level information on what they were:

They have a page that’s accessible from the homepage if you click on “See All.” This takes you to a page that has 5 vertical rows listing the new releases of the last five weeks including the current one. At first, when they failed to get the new releases uploaded on Tuesday, they would push ahead the releases they had listed so that September 22nd releases from last week, were now labeled September 29th, so the average Joe would think they were on time. They wouldn’t make any announcement that the new releases were going to be uploaded two days later and you couldn’t write in and tell them they sucked for doing this.

Seems clear enough. What’s missing form Al’s post is information on iTunes 7. Now, there’s not even a list, no past lists, just a three screen view of album cover clip art, 6 discs per screen. Today’s included at least two reissues. For contrast, Rhapsody features 1136 total releases for September 19. On iTunes, it’s possible to drill down by genre. But the previous week’s lists are now gone from view, meaning that Apple is actually moving backwards. (Note: I checked this again on Friday, September 22, and the lists had returned.  Probably an ITMS bug, if anyone knows please comment)

Most of Apple’s reply to Kooper amounted to insulting him for alleged cluelessness and chiding him like a sputtering child. Al had wondered why Apple couldn’t add any value to the songs on ITMS beyond DRM and cover art. Says the company:

I also don’t believe that Al can walk into a store and get a CD booklet if he doesn’t buy the entire album. Last I checked I cannot walk into a Best Buy, purchase two tracks off an album to see if I will like the rest of it and get the CD booklet to go with those two tracks. That would be great though, wouldn’t it?

Ah, but you CAN purchase two tracks off an album at iTunes, it’s pretty much the whole point of the store, and ITMS COULD, if they chose, provide rich content. Rhapsody does,and Microsoft’s Zune, for all it’s problems, holds out the promise of wireless up-to-the-minute content (I’m hoping that comes to pass). All Apple can offer is a snarky non-defense of a 20th century paradigm. This after curtly dismissing him at the outset:

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, i’ll assume he doesn’t know any better as opposed to being a grumpy old man.

Kooper fired back at Apple’s attempt to characterize him:

If you bothered to check my account before you chastised me for my “grumpiness” you would have seen that I have downloaded approximately three thousand, three hundred, and thirty six tunes from iTunes (3,336) since its inception a few years ago. I thought it was a fair answer to Napster, and I remember buying 45 RPM singles in the 1950’s for $.99 each. I LOVED iTunes when it first started.

Oops. Now, what started as a good natured pissing contest between Lefsetz and Kooper is evolving into a bit of a public relations snafu for Apple. Kooper continues:

Gotta go. The Wall Street Journal wants to interview ME about what I think about all this Apple stuff – Me? A grumpy old man who should know better ? Funniest thing – You haven’t heard the last of me but hopefully I have heard the last of you.

Can’t wait for that Wall Street Journal story.

Ticketb*stard and Streisand

babs.jpgThere’s an old expression – “I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire” – that sums up my feelings for Ticketmaster, the king of the concert cartel and the ruiner of live music worldwide. There’s no rash too painful, no complication too unbearable, no situation too hopeless, that I don’t wish on them. When it comes to rock shows and ballgames, the only ones worse are the vermin that run StubHub, RazorGator and the myriad of “agencies” with chain link doors and greasy guards who smell of yesterday’s lunch.

And EBay scalpers – hey, it’s a long list.

Guess it’s kismet that they’re at war with each other. Ticketmaster is now in the innocuously named “secondary,” or auction market. Meaning that they’ve started carving off their best seats and marking the price up themselves, ahead of the reigning ticket Mafia. They’ve even co-opted an old sports biz trick, pioneered by the San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners – they sell their tickets twice. Customers can use the Ticketmaster web site to move a marked-up ticket without even having to set foot at the actual event.

Now, instead of fans waiting on line for a chance to see their favorite performers, or cheer on their home team, speculators compete for a chance to hit the lottery. The mother company keeps a percentage. What Tony Soprano might call a “vigorish” if he were less cultured.

I bet there are days Tony wishes he wasn’t in the trash business. Could it be that’s HBO’s big surprise series ending for “The Sopranos” – Tony follows his Seger/Deep Purple muse, and whacks his way to the top of the New Jersey concert market?

But apart from big dogs like Streisand, Madonna, Clapton and their ilk, the concert market is actually tanking. Oh, there’s always one or two Dane Cooks every year, but no one lasts for too long – ask John Mayer.

You wouldn’t know it from Ticketmaster’s bottom line, but most musicians are learning a hard truth:

Ticket sales are falling while total revenue is climbing. There are big shows, but fewer of them. Going to see live music has turned into a trip to Disney World for most people, at around the same price and with the same amount of product placement. Sadly, that experience now has about as much to with music as Jack Sparrow does with naval history.

Tom Petty was right. Thank god for the clubs, where real music, not money, is still king.

Barbra Streisand is Tesla to the Eagles’ Edison when it comes to price gouging. The first 100 dollar concert ticket was her 1995 New Year’s show at the Las Vegas MGM Grand. Yeah, it seems like Wiggles shows have been north of that forever, but this was 1994, and Babs opened the floodgates.

Conservatives hate Streisand for her politics, I despise her for that.

Now she’s out on tour. One last cash grab before the pipes sag along with everything else. You couldn’t pay me to see her, but she still has fans willing to overlook the fact that, apart from playing Rosalind Focker, her last movie was over a decade ago. Her die-hard fans are, to put it as gently as possible, dying. Her recent duet with Barry “The Survivor” Gibb didn’t tear up the charts, either.

So here’s a bit of news about her tour, and the requisite scalping component, in today’s Wall Street Journal:

…top tier seats carrying face values of $750. Sales have been slow, with excellent seats going unsold in Atlanta, Columbus, Ohio and other cities. This, in turn, has undercut Ticketmaster and Ms. Streisand’s efforts to sell some of those seats at auctions for even higher prices.

Streisand and Ticketmaster passed the $100 threshold by rationalizing that if the scalpers were getting the money, so should they. Now they’re not happy with even that. Total tickets go down, money goes up, but that can’t last.

Something’s gonna give, most likely when the dinosaurs start dying off.

Zune Swoon

zune23.jpgAs noted by MTV, the official announcement of Zune, Microsoft’s attempt to compete with the iPod, was made last week. Whatever hope I had for this device disappeared the moment I realized that Marketplace, the iTunes-like music store designed to feed the Zune, is yet another iteration of DRM, one that abandons the fledgling Plays For Sure standard:

Users can also share homemade recordings, playlists and pictures wirelessly with no restrictions, though Erickson said songs purchased from iTunes or other download stores that have digital rights-management protection will not play on the Zune.

This means that Rhapsody, AOL’s Music Now service, Napster, not to mention iTunes, are all left out in the cold with Zune. It had better be a damn good device, or Marketplace the be-all end-all store. Otherwise, Zune will end up a eCost closeout before next Christmas.

More bad news is that the rumored iTunes song buyback isn’t going to happen either, at least it wasn’t part of the announcement. Add to that the ridiculously overhyped wireless song sharing feature’s actual specifics, and it becomes clear that the only bit of foresight Microsoft had in creating this mess was offering one in brown.

Zune players connect to one another via Wi-Fi, and users can ship songs, playlists or photos to a friend’s device. Each song can be played three times before it will be disabled.

Reading between the lines, that means only Marketplace songs can be shared. Right, like real music fans are chomping at the bit to swap self-crippling content with their buddies.

It does have one intriguing feature, something I hope Apple or Creative Zen picks up when they roll out a Wi-Fi player:

At launch, Zune will include artist profiles, upcoming events, music suggestions and favorite play lists from musicians. Forums will be added later to encourage interaction between users…

I hope that means Wi-Fi streaming of concert announcements, early ticket sales and fan club only specials. Something like that could would be revolutionary.

Otherwise, most of what Zune promises is more clumsy me-too crap.

Today’s Free Download – The Static Age

Blank ScreensBefore U2 became an IMPORTANT band, they made records like “Blank Screen,” the third long player from this Burlington, Vermont-based quartet. You know, when they were sort of nice boys, but two pints away from trashing the lobby. Then came Pride (In the Name of Love) and somehow you knew that presidential photo ops couldn’t be too far off.

I wish they’d made more songs like “I Will Follow,” and today’s free download’s a throwback to those innocent/dangerous times. “Cherry Red” is a melange of 80’s pop (thumping Police bass line with Translator orchestral flourishes) and Killers-like sinister sonic fury.

It would be easy to link to all three IODA Promonet free links on this post. “Trauma” and “Count the Dead” are also great tracks in their own way.

When faced with such conundrums, I always opt for that which feels closest to home, and “Cherry Red” tweaks the classic MTV nostalgia nagging me of late – particularly after watching “Vertigo,” the video from their last record, “Neon Nights Electric Lives.” Its sweeping keyboards, Cure haircuts and shadowy outdoor shots made me half expect Downtown Julie Brown to shout out “WUBBA, WUBBA, WUBBA” at the song’s end.

TSA is Higher Ground’s band of the month, with a show set for early October.

Blank Screens
The Static Age

ReIgnition Recordings

Buy at iTunes Music Store
Download “Cherry Red” (MP3, 192kbps)

Lefsetz’s Sonos Mea Culpa – Maybe

lefsetz.jpgFor those among us who hang on every word uttered by music biz uber insider Bob Lefsetz, it’s shocking to hear him praise the virtues of Rhapsody. I thought it was his opinion that only idiots and clueless record company execs believed in rental, but here’s the man himself as he sees the light:

I’ve spent eons downloading, STEALING, so much of this stuff. But now all you have to do is lay down ten bucks a month, and you can hear it EVERYWHERE!

Granted, he’s waxing Rhapsodic about the new (and outrageously priced, but Bob gets it free) Sonos player, an Internet radio that doesn’t require a computer, only a broadband connection. From the sound of Bob’s post, it’s also the greatest remote control ever devised.

But I gotta say, Mr. Lefsetz sounds like Sam I Am finally digging the green eggs and ham. I’m glad he’s beginning to understand that the ability to call any song, from anywhere, at the touch of a button is worth ten bucks a month. The instant gratifaction factor alone sold me a long time ago.

I get it on my PC, like most proles unwilling or unable to lay out nearly a grand for the latest gee-whiz gadgetry. It bypasses Windows, though, and that’s a good thing.

But causiing a cranky rental holdout like Lefsetz to grudgingly depart the P2P pulpit – that’s priceless.

Welcome to the club, Bob.

More iTunes 7 – Album Sorts Improved

itunes7album.jpgWhen I relied on my CD collection, organization kept me from going crazy. This was even more true when the media was LPs. I had thousands of them – still do, for the most part – and if I hadn’t kept them alphabetized, my enjoyment of them would have been seriously dimiished.

So I’m pleased to see one of the new, albeit less crowed about, features of iTunes 7. Click on the Album column a few times, and you’ll see it changes from Album to Album by Year and Album by Artist.

That’s how albums should be organized, but iTunes, like most brute force database solutions, didn’t take into account, so that when I clicked on Artist and scrolled to Beatles, different album titles would be mixed together.

With the new cover art view (still waiting for the automatic artwork download feature to work as advertised, it’s about 30 percent there), I can browse my collection by disc.

When I sort Album by Year, I’ll see With the The Beatles, followed by Beatles for Sale and so forth.  This works even better with CD-only artists.
itunes7album2.jpgThe program won’t allow you to sort all your albums by year – to see Sgt. Pepper followed by Are You Experienced, and then Atom Heart Mother for example, or drill down by a particular criteria – in the top level view.

But if you create a smart playlist, you can then organize within genres. This is handy if you have, say, a lot of folk music and a lot of punk/alternative, and you’d like to see just folk ordered by year of release.

Of course, the results you get when you click on the column are only as good as the data in your ID3 tags. To clean those up, there’s MusicBrainz, an open source tool that cleans up the messy metadata in your MP3 collection. If you P2P a lot, this is an essential tool.

Of course, you don’t P2P outside the boundaries of the DMCA, do you? That would be stealing.