Sony Breaks Down, Offers Non-Copy Protected Songs

turd_in_punchbowl.jpgAnd then there were none.

Sony, the last of the major labels without a non-handcuffed version of its recorded music, finally relented, announcing something called “Platinum Music Pass.”  Business Week broke the story last Friday, and Guardian Unlimited elaborated on it this morning.

With only the Guardian details to go on, I’m decidedly unimpressed.  The Platinum Music Pass is a credit card-type product which, according to the article, is only sold in stores.

Sony BMG, home to artists including Beyonce, Britney Spears and Celine Dion, said on Monday it will launch a gift card service on Jan. 15 called Platinum MusicPass that will feature digital albums from its artists in the MP3 format. The format does not use DRM protection.  Fans will be able to buy the digital album cards in stores and download full-length albums from a MusicPass Web site after they type in an identifying number. The cards will be available at U.S. retail outlets such as Best Buy and Target.  “The introduction of MusicPass is an important part of Sony BMG’s ongoing campaign to bring its artists’ music to fans in new and innovative ways, and to develop compelling new business models,” said Thomas Hesse, Sony BMG president, global digital business & U.S. Sales.

This is innovation to Sony, the worst consumer electronics company on the planet.

This means, apparently, that you’ll have to drive to a Best Buy, plunk down your cash, take your purchase home (be green, please – don’t ask for a bag!) and then log on to download your unprotected songs.

As far as missing the point entirely goes, it don’t get much worse.

To paraphrase the washed up  English rock star from “Love Actually,” let’s just let this festering turd of an idea sit and sparkle for awhile, shall we?

Local Rhythms – Will They Ever Learn?

shotinfoot1.jpgIt’s been an up-and-down week for the music business. Rhapsody recently merged with Urge, the MTV-sponsored download outlet that never did get a whole lot of traction. This week, the newly launched site began selling unprotected MP3 songs, which play on iPods, music phones – everything.

Even better, and unlike iTunes, their MP3s cost the same (89 cents each) as encrypted songs.

That’s good.

Now, on to the bad and the ugly…

Did you see the MTV Video Music Awards this weekend? After suffering through Britney’s train wreck of a set (intervention, anybody?), Alicia Keys’ questionable fashion sense, and a nauseating wave of forgettable performances, I think Congress should pass legislation forcing the “M” from the network’s name.

Finally, there’s (yet again) news of the industry’s sinister side.

A perk of doing a column like Local Rhythms, apart from the obvious fame and fortune (ha!), is the free music. Many writers frequently receive new discs, but lately they’re arriving with some nasty strings attached.

Things got scary for Erik Davis recently, when a pre-release CD from Beirut (an über-cool band I’ve never heard of) ended up in a pile, destined for his local thrift store.

Happens all the time – poor critics need beer money too. But the disc had a digital watermark – with Davis’s personal information – embedded in it.

An astute hipster snagged the unreleased record, and uploaded it to the Internet.

Each song was stamped with Erik Davis’s name. Almost immediately, he began receiving threatening phone calls. Fortunately, he was able to make peace with the label. But the gist of his story is that other record companies, particularly the biggies like WMG and Sony, aren’t playing so nice.

The new Mark Knopfler record, for example, is both watermarked and shrink wrapped with threatening language. This “Unique Identifier,” the packaging snarls, “allows Us to Identify the Intended Recipient (You) as the Source of Any Unauthorized Copies.”

I understand their compulsion to control the flow – sort of. I mean, what’s so sacred about releasing music on Tuesdays? What’s the harm in a little early buzz?

But baiting critics, music’s best friends, makes no sense at all. It’s crazy – if the radio won’t play new music, who else will spread the word?

The record business isn’t dying – it’s killing itself. Stick to the clubs – to wit:

Thursday: Michael Pickett, Salt Hill Pub – As a long-time friend of live music, Salt Hill occasionally attracts some amazing talent via word of mouth. Pickett is one such artist, a Juno-nominated Canadian bluesman with a gritty, authentic sound. Like many in the genre, he’s best when interpreting the work of others, but oh, with such twist! Woody Guthrie, as passed through the hands of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, for example. Free music doesn’t get any better.

Friday: Jeffrey Foucault, Hooker-Dunham (Brattleboro) – I’ve long heralded the talents of this amazing singer-songwriter. “Northbound 35” is one of a handful of songs I’d take to a desert island, and his work with Redbird is also sublime. What makes this show special is the inclusion of Chris O’Brien on the bill, a amazing tunesmith we’ll be hearing more of. In fact, he’ll be doing his own showcase at Boccelli’s October 12.

Saturday: Irene Kelley, Claremont Opera House – Nashville is a songwriter’s town, and there aren’t many singers who could get by without a steady supply of lyrics from the likes of Kelley – Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson, Pat Green and Little Big Town, to name but a few. But the clincher is the Kelley has quite the honey throat herself, and a knockout collection of true country music, is proof positive – a great kickoff to the local opera house season.

Sunday: Thomas Dolby and the Mafia Jazz Horns, Iron Horse – Though “She Blinded Me With Science” seemingly relegated him to the ranks of the one hit wonders, Dolby’s persevered beyond the MTV years – gratefully, considering what a mess they’ve become. Tonight, he’ll re-work some of his old songs and introduce some new ones, accompanied by a horn section that sits somewhere between bossa nova and Moby electronica – or Dolby electronica, to give old school credit where it’s due.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Firestones – A cool jam session that moves from club to club but spends a lot of time at this Quechee restaurant. It’s a coalition in the truest sense of the word, always on the lookout for new players looking to dip their toes in new collaborative waters.

Wednesday: Larry Dougher, Elixir – We begin and end with blues this week. Dougher typically plays with his rollicking three-piece band, but tonight it’s solo acoustic at White River Junction’s new home to refined small plate dining. There’s music pretty much every night of the week at Elixir – definitely worthy of our support.

EMI To Offer DRM-Free Tracks

emiapple.jpgVia BBC comes word that EMI Music will sell songs unencumbered by Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes on iTunes beginning in May, with more digital music sites to follow. EMI will offer the so-called “premium” tracks at a higher price than the current 99 cents/track. The non-DRM’d tracks will have better audio quality, with a 256K bit rate, which Steve Jobs called “indistinguishable from the original source material.” That’s a debatable claim, but it’s twice as good current 128K AAC currently available.

A couple of pieces of very good news – iTunes customers who have previously purchased EMI tracks can upgrade them, for 30 cents each, to DRM-free. Also, the price to purchase entire albums will be the same. No word how that will work on the recently announced “Complete My Album” feature.

Is this the beginning of the end for DRM? Maybe. EMI CEO Eric Nicoli’s statements on the move are quite extraordinary given the industry’s prevailing attitude on the subject:

“We have to trust our consumers,” he said. “We have always argued that the best way to combat illegal traffic is to make legal content available at decent value and convenient.”

Apple CEO Steve Jobs shared the podium with Nicoli, and had this to say:

“This is the next big step forward in the digital music revolution – the movement to completely interoperable DRM-free music …”The right thing to do is to tear down walls that precluded interoperability by going DRM-free and that starts here today.”

Trust your customers? Tear down the walls? What on earth is going on here? It almost gives one hope.

If customers bite, it means big bucks for Apple and its industry partners, says ZDNet’s Dan Farber and Larry Digman:

Why will the music industry follow EMI’s lead? Let’s do the math.

Say I have 1,000 songs purchased on iTunes with the DRM. Let’s assume all of those songs are EMI tunes. I hate DRM so I’ll spend 30 cents a song to ditch DRM for a total of $300. Multiply that by a million customers and you get $300 million.

That won’t happen overnight, but you can see the sales adding up for the music industry.

For Apple, the math looks like this: More music downloads.

Listen to the podcast. Note: the first several minutes are standard EMI promo stuff, with an advance listen to a Chemical Brothers track.

Local Rhythms – No DRM

nodrm.jpgSteve Jobs is like that old ad for BASF – he doesn’t make the computers, digital music players or cell phones, he just makes them better. How? By thinking like the people who will ultimately use the MacBooks, iPods and iPhones that his company, Apple, unleashes on the world.

On Sunday night, the world will watch the annual Grammy awards unfold. Amidst a sea of self-congratulation, the stubbornly out-of-touch music business will again refuse to face some obvious truths. First, lawsuits won’t make people buy music, and second, encryption schemes won’t stop them from stealing it.

Which brings me back to Steve Jobs. In an open letter published on Apple’s website last Tuesday, he called for an end to digital rights management (DRM) schemes – the many ways record companies lock up their online music. His declaration carries some weight, because iTunes is the world’s largest legal download service, and the iPod is far and away most popular music player.

Jobs made a call to simple, common sense. In a world, he wrote, where last year 2 billion songs were sold online, “while over 20 billion … were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves,” how can anyone stop piracy?

On the other hand, if the industry took all the money wasted on making CDs that aren’t bought, the warehouses where they’re stored, and the fleets of trucks that deliver them, they could change the world and save their business.

When faced with the choice of a drive to the mall or a click of a mouse, what will most people do? But music purchased through most download services is fraught with problems that often render it unplayable. Tech-savvy fans turn to free (and currently illegal) download options for convenience as much as price.

If only the industry could agree upon a way to monetize this practice. They view Napster, which ushered in MP3 file trading in 1999, as the beginning of their end. Left out is the fact that CD sales rose, not fell, in Napster’s wake.

In making millions of songs easily available to casual listeners, Napster sparked an explosion of interest in previously ignored music. The industry responded by litigating them out of existence. Eight years later, they still haven’t learned that more fans means more business. Hopefully, Jobs’ modest proposal will spur them to find fresh ways to face this challenge.

On to live entertainment:

Thursday: “The Male Intellect,” Claremont Opera House – It’s a weekend for laughter, with Dubac’s critically acclaimed one-man show tonight, and Brooklyn funny woman Mary Dimino Friday at Hullabaloo in downtown Claremont. Dubac hilariously explores the confusing gulf between the sexes, while the down-to-earth Dimino looks at life from a female perspective, including this funny take on weight: “I started as a woman, and ended up Spongebob Squarepants.”

Friday: – Pondering Judd, Salt Hill Pub – A first-time appearance by this Seacoast Americana combo, who can pick and grin like Nashville cats, and then kick out the jams with e-Phish-iency (sorry about the pun, it’s been that kind of day). They’ve opened for Guster and the Saw Doctors, and were just named best rock band of 2006 in a recent Portsmouth poll.

Saturday: Last Kid Picked, Newport Opera House –
Local heroes hold down the musical end of Winter Carnival for another year. They’ll play everything from “My Prerogative” to “Boys of Summer” – the Ataris’ version. Newport boasts the oldest winter carnival in the country; this is the 91st year. LKP hasn’t played every one, but they’ve done a bunch. The best part about this show, perhaps, is that it’s indoors.

Sunday: Mike Monaghan, Center at Eastman – Saxophonist Monaghan freelances with the Boston Pops, and has worked with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Anita O’Day. Sunday’s show begins with the Bill Wightman-led JOSA Ensemble, who will then back Monaghan. There’s a real chemistry between Wightman’s band and the musicians he recruits for JOSA that makes each performance special and unique.

Tuesday: Altan & Paul Brady, Hopkins Center – This is a great double bill of Irish music, featuring Altan, a six-piece traditional band, and Brady, a terrific songwriter who’s given songs to everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan. Brady will do his own set and sit in with Altan. His soulful voice should blend well with lead vocalist Maihread Ni Mhaonaigh’s pristine soprano.

Wednesday: Jerry Douglas, Iron Horse – He didn’t invent the Dobro, a resonator guitar turned flat and played with a combination of steel sliding and finger picking. But to hear the sounds emanating from Douglas as his hands float and dance across the instrument, you’d be forgiven if you thought otherwise. He often backs people like Allison Krause. To see him up front is a real treat.

Zune Faces Competition In Sansa Connect

sansaconnect.jpgWith the announcement of the Sansa Connect at the recent CES, Microsoft faces serious competition to the the much-hyped Zune. Two key differences in the Wi-Fi player are the focus on Internet radio, and a less DRM-crippled version of Microsoft’s much-hyped song sharing feature.

Microsoft doomed the so-called “community” aspect of the Zune at the outset, requiring that wirelessly traded songs first be purchased from the complicated, consumer-hostile Zune Marketplace, and limiting beamed songs to three plays before they were crippled. No surprise, then, that the Redmond giant announced yesterday that their iPod killer died last quarter. It lost, as my Canadian friends say, a WHACK of money:

The company is betting heavily on the consumer electronics business for future growth, and late last year it introduced a digital media player, Zune, which competes with Apple’s iPod. But Microsoft’s consumer entertainment and devices unit has contributes no profits yet, losing $289 million in the quarter.

Sansa’s device runs on Zing’s technology; their offering got a shot in the arm with the recently announced alliance with FON Networks which will provide free Wi-Fi access in several cities, which should make the Internet radio component much more valuable:

FON’s WiFi network is the largest in the world touting over 215,000 distinct WiFi hotspots, with over 17,000 in the U.S. alone. Hotspot providers are members (called Foneros) who share their unused bandwidth on a FON router in exchange for free WiFi access when roaming through any other FON access point. Through this partnership, consumers using ZING platform, software and services on their mobile players will have the opportunity to become free Foneros and have free unlimited WiFi access directly from their music players.

The only downside to the Sansa Connect is that there’s no explicit Rhapsody component. But the product spec sheet seems to say that the device will connect to any Plays-For-Sure service on the go. I would assume that includes Rhapsody. If this is so, then I’m even more excited, based on the Engadget CES demo showing some insanley cool features, like direct-to-device downloads, community friend finders and such.

This device itself isn’t news, and not just because this post comes two weeks after CES. Anyone with a Sirius Stiletto will recognize the design; SanDisk didn’t build it from the ground up, they simply licensed and re-branded Zing’s device.

Two complaints about this: The Zing device has 8 GB of onboard memory, the Sansa Connect only has four. SanDisk is touting the SD expansion slot, but as readers of this blog know, at the present time this additional storage will only work with non-DRM’d content, on the Rhapsody player anyway.  That kind of defeats the whole purpose of the extra space,  and makes we wonder why the Connect doesn’t simply ship with the full 8 GB.

It probably has to do with the fact that SanDisk’s main business is storage cards.  A company engineer told me a couple weeks ago that SanDisk is working on ways to make this extra capacity integrate with the device. I hope it happens before the Connect becomes available for retail customers in March.

RIAA – More Legislative Mischief

obey.jpgIt turns out that bipartisanship is alive and well in Washington, but for all the wrong reasons. Flannel-shirted man o’ the people Lamar Alexander and Dianne Feinstein, who should know better, are doing the RIAA’s bidding again.

This time, it’s a revival of the presumed-dead PERFORM act. Also sponsored by Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham, SB 256 would (via ARS Technica):

force satellite, digital, and Internet radio providers (but not over-the-air radio) to implement measures designed to restrict the ability of listeners to record audio from the services … If the name of the bill sounds familiar, it should. The bill was originally introduced in April 2006 with the support of the RIAA. It died in committee, but the senators are hopeful that the bill will pass this time around.

On the other hand, New Hampshire Senator John Sununu just introduced a bill that would forbid broadcast flags of any sort – technology which is at the heart of PERFORM. In the up-is-down, black-is-white world of Washington, I’m siding with the Republican logic of free markets:

“The FCC seems to be under the belief that it should occasionally impose technology mandates,” Sununu said in a statement. “These misguided requirements distort the marketplace by forcing industry to adopt agency-blessed solutions rather than allow innovative and competitive approaches to develop. We have seen this happen with the proposed video flag, and interest groups are pushing for an audio flag mandate as well. Whether well-intentioned or not, the FCC has no business interfering in private industry to satisfy select special interests or to impose its own views.”

PERFORM is corporate welfare of the worst kind. Record companies can’t seem to come up with a way to grow their business that doesn’t involve a lawsuit or a technological straightjacket. Our government has no business keeping them in business. Music won’t die if RIAA collapses; anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. More likely, they’re a record company executive.

In an engaging article in this month’s Fast Company, someone aligned with musicians – you know, the people who actually PLAY the stuff the guys in the suits sell – made this observation:

“We’re heading to a do-it-yourself world where artists will be taking more control of their careers,” says Michael McDonald, John Mayer’s manager. Or as[John] Legend puts it: “In the not-too-distant future, this could mean you won’t need a label anymore. That’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

If RIAA’s hand isn’t in that pot, tough.

Sansa Rhapsody Caveat – SD Expansion Worthless

sansarhap1.jpgOK, I love my new S250R, but today I learned something that made me love it less. Sandisk advertises the MicroSD expansion slot as a way to add memory to the device. The documentation describes a process for dragging and dropping tracks to the card.

First of all, the supposed device integration breaks down here. Why do I have to open File Manager to add tracks to the card, why not do it in the Rhapsody program?

Leave that aside for an even worse surprise. Only unprotected content can be added to the card. Sandisk tech support said I can purchase tracks from Rhapsody and move them to the card using Windows Media Player, but Rhapsody To-Go tracks can only be stored on the main flash drive.

I tried that – purchased a track, opened Media Player, and atttempted to import it. Surprise, surprise, Media Player doesn’t understand RAX (Rhapsody DNA-encoded) tracks, and it didn’t work. Maybe the Sandisk support guy meant that I can burn the track to CD, re-import it and THEN copy it over. If I wanted to do that, I’d buy another iPod.

Besides, I’ve always thought of “memory” as an increase in the overall size of the workspace or the storage area. Sandisk apparently treats it as a completely separate space, and places restrictions on what can be done there. Worse, nothing in their documentation reflects this. The fact that only unprotected MP3 and WMA files will work on the device should be written in bold letters anytime MicroSD is referenced in the manual.

This would be annoying but understandable if it weren’t for the purported tight integration between the hardware and content vendors. Sandisk and Rhapsody get equal billing on the E250R, but when it comes to memory expansion, the functionality is unchanged from earlier players.

I’ve complained to Sandisk about this and am waiting for an engineer to explain it to me. If and when that happens, I’ll post more here.

For now, though, I’d advise anyone looking to expand the E250R or any other E2xR player for anything other than your own ripped CDs or purchased content to save their money.

Hands-On With Sansa Rhapsody

sansarhap.jpgThe new line of Sansa Rhapsody portable media players represents the strongest challenge yet to Apple’s market supremacy.  One of the iPod’s key strengths is its’ integration with the iTunes Music Store.  The Sansa devices, ranging from the 2 GB E250R to the 8GB 280R, are built to work seamlessly with Real’s Rhapsody music subscription service.

The Player

The Sansa Rhapsody is slightly shorter and somewhat thicker than a comparable iPod Nano, but it’s packed with more features.  A built-in voice recorder and video playback capability, for starters.  It’s light but substantial, with a scratch-resistant steel back and smooth matte black front.  The interface mimics the iPod’s click wheel, though the arrow buttons are separated from the raised ring used to navigate through selection lists.   Best of all is the small menu button at the bottom left of the keypad, used to quickly return to the top level; it’s also an on/off switch.

The screen is bright, and the main interface looks like the Mac’ OS X “dock,” with icons inflating like balloons as they move into the select position.  It’s neatly organized; most users will be navigating it easily within minutes.  The only complaint is that backing up from choices isn’t quite as easy as moving forward.

Rhapsody Channels

The player’s main innovation is integration with Rhapsody Channels, genre and artist-themed playlists designed to encourage musical discovery.  The player comes standard with a few already built in, and its’ easy to add favorites.  Each channel contains up to 200 songs, which are discarded after they’re played.  Synchronization with Rhapsody adds new tracks.  If you want to save a song for later use, it’s a click away.  Tunes can be added as subscription tracks that expire when the monthly credit card charge stops, or purchased outright.

Once a song is added, it’s immediately available on the device.  Upon computer synchronization, it’s placed in the music library.  So far, the Sansa Rhapsody is the only player to offer this kind of on-the-go functionality, though some integrated portable satellite radios let users click on songs and sync to a PC.

Channels can explore a certain theme, like alt-Country, Classic Rock or Acid Jazz, or present like-minded music for fans of particular groups.  The Rolling Stones Channel, for example, included selections from Bo Diddley, Humble and Eric Clapton, along with a healthy dose of Stones.  If a certain song offends your sensibilities, you can skip it or use the player’s rating system to ban it from ever being played again.

DNA is the new DRM

Another interesting element introduced with the Sansa Rhapsody is Real’s new Digital Rights Management (DRM), known as Rhapsody DNA.  Unlike Apple’s DRM, which only works on iPods, songs with DNA DRM will work on other players.

Playing encoded songs on DNA-enabled devices like the Sansa Rhapsody enhances the user experience with additional metadata such as album artwork and artist notes.  This information adds particular value to the Channels feature.  When the Small Faces’ “Itchykoo Park” came on, a quick click revealed a mini-band biography and the song’s release year.

Digital music often provides a bloodless listening experience, all bits and no bite.  Real DNA’s metadata doesn’t supplant liner notes and CD booklets, but it illuminates the experience better than anything offered by any content provider to date.

With the ever-present tether to the Internet, one can only expect metadata quality to improve.  Sansa routinely updates the player’s firmware, adding new functionality to the device.

Priced to Move

Prices for the players range from $139 for the 2 GB (500 song) E250R, which costs 10 dollars less than a comparable iPod.  The E280 is priced the same as an 8 GB Nano.   Feature for feature, however, the Sansa leaves the Apple player in the dust – though the inclusion of an FM radio makes no sense at all.

Currently, the Sansa players are only available through Best Buy.  The big box retailer is bundling a store-branded version of the Rhapsody music service with a two-month trial to entice customers.  The player’s free content, which fills up half the device, syncs fine with other versions of Rhapsody.

There have been many pretenders to Apple’s throne since the iPod was introduced six years ago.  Microsoft’s wireless-enabled Zune player, along with a dedicated music service, is due next month.  The Zune Marketplace may be the player’s undoing, though, as content bought there won’t work anywhere else.  Apple, for its part, also insists on keeping iTunes songs exclusively tied to the iPod.

By opening their new players enough to work with other services, and allowing Rhapsody content to work with other devices, the Sansa Rhapsody performs a neat balancing trick.  Loyalty is rewarded with an improved user experience – but it’s an added benefit, not a requirement.

Amazon UnBox: Up The Creek

What’s the point of buying WMA files?  As pointed out by Cory Doctorow, Microsoft’s DRM is a format fraught with problems.  It’s not even an issue of own versus rent; the mischief this scheme can perform on a system is ridiculous.

Worse still, at least for Amazon, it doesn’t work to protect files.  Witness the current war between WMA DRM and the rogue FairUse4WM application.  The cracking tool not only unlocks content for playback, but also strips rental data:

What I meant to imply is that if you’re Amazon or any other company relying on a technology that others seemed determined to break and that’s core to your business model, that is definitely cause for concern. Not just to avoid piracy of downloaded content, but also to manage rental expiration (another “function” of DRM and a clear demonstration of the nearly arbitrary remote control that such a technology can give to others over your system)

It’s one thing to insert a flag that renders the files inoperable after a certain point in time, quite another to open up a system to willy-nilly file deletion.  I’m starting to understand the vehemence of certain DRM-haters.

SpiralFrog Developments

spiralfrog.jpgYesterday, the anticipated agreeement between EMI and SpiralFrog was announced. Coming on the heels of UMG’s acquisition of BMG, this gives the not-quite-free download service more critical mass. Tucked into the announcement was a nugget that I consider more important to the evolution of digital music, free or otherwise:

In addition, SpiralFrog has also obtained a worldwide license to enable users of the service to search for and display the lyrics of EMI Music Publishing’s English language repertoire.

When records were king, album covers provided the visceral kick missing from simply listening to the songs. The CD diminished this experience signficantly (particular as baby boomers’ vision waned and microscopic liner notes got harder to read); the download age eliminated it completely.

That’s sad, because the digital music experience has the potential to provide all kinds of rich content, with the cooperation of copyright holders of course. That’s why this announcement is big. Here’s a challenge to EMI (and UMG): why not include the lyrics in the ID3 placeholder, where they rightfully belong? In the media player, offer an option to stream them, news-crawl style, on the screen?

Really, that’s only the beginning. Musical credits open up a whole other realm of possibilities. And don’t get me started about what could happen when WiFi MP3 players become the norm. Ticket pre-sales, track previews, street team swag – the sky’s the limit, guys.

Wake up from your petulant, lawyer-enabled fog and create the future.