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.

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iTunes Complete My Album Update

apple.jpgThere’s a press release on Apple’s website that clarifies the just-announced “Complete My Album” offer. It’s not due to expire on June 26, as my previous post indicated. Instead, it appears to be a permanent iTunes feature. The June 26 deadline is for all previously purchased songs – the date represents 180 days from March 29, when the offer was officially announced:

Complete My Album offers customers up to 180 days after first purchasing individual songs from any qualifying album to purchase the rest of that album at a reduced price. When users buy any song on iTunes the corresponding album will immediately appear on their personalized Complete My Album page with the reduced price listed.

Once again, the Cupertino company is at the leading edge in customer service and satisfaction. Wonder how long it will be before Zune and Rhapsody go down the same road?

Sprint Music Store – A Stupid Business Model Smartens Up

upstage.jpgI thought the idea of music delivery via mobile phone was cool until I saw the price tag. Whoever dreamed up this business must have been looking back with greedy eyes at the compact disc’s birth. In 1983, no one gave a second thought to paying twice the price of a vinyl album for a CD.

But when iTunes launched, the price of an album actually went down, to $9.99 or less. Of course, songs were famously sold for 99 cents each.

So what did Sprint do when it rolled out the first mobile phone music store in 2005? Priced songs at $2.49 each. Music was delivered slower and at a higher price.

Brilliant.

Sprint honchos thought things were going swimmingly back then, but total track sales to date are a paltry 15 million. So this week Sprint announced they were cutting the price to … wait for it … 99 cents a track.

More brilliant.

A few additional features in Sprint’s press release are even more interesting to me. Sprint Radio offers up to 50 music streams, and there’s also a free music page with 10 songs a month.

Spring also announced that Samsung’s new two-faced Upstage phone will ship in April, and there’s five other Sprint Music Store-compatible phones offered at 99 bucks, with a 2-year agreement.

Of course, long-time Sprint customers (like me) are out of luck there. Is it just me, or are most cell phone providers completely backwards? They punish loyal customers and give great deals to people they’ve never met.

It sounds like the dating game back before I got married.

One more thing – Sprint’s press release attempts again to flog the only idea dumber than 3 dollar a whack songs and ring tones – cell phone television. Good luck on that one.

NMPA Sues XM

Time-traveling back to 1979 in an attempt to re-fight the cassette tax legal battle, there’s another music biz lawsuit happening.  This time the National Music Publishers Assocition, or NMPA,  has sued XM Radio for making a device that’s able to record broadcasts.  Via ARS Technica comes this precious quote:

“Filing a lawsuit was our last resort, but we felt that we had no choice,” said David Israelite, NMPA president and CEO. “We want new technologies to succeed, but it can’t be at the expense of the creators of music. All that we ask is that music publishers and songwriters be fairly compensated for their efforts.”

What Israelite really means is that new technology can only succeed as long as it doesn’t change anything.  Seriously, though, these guys have been trying to skim from any and all duplication technologies since the advent of the piano roll.  It’s not like XM isn’t paying royalties – they pony up plenty.  NMPA, like RIAA, doesn’t appreciate paradigm shifts unless they don’t cost them a dime.

The notion of NMPA’s enthusiasm for the new electronic order is as laughable as George W. Bush calling for “bipartisanship.”  It means the same thing – in Bush’s case, “putting political differences aside” really means “shut up and do what I say.”  ARS Technica’s Eric Bangeman  sums it up quite well in his piece:

Despite assurances from music publishers that they “want new technologies to succeed,” the music industry has demonstrated that they are opposed to any and all devices that pose a threat to their business model. New technologies and devices are fine and dandy, as long as they allow the music industry to control how, when, and where we listen to their offerings.

Spiral Frog Woes Reflect Industry Shift

spiralfrog.jpgVia FMQB comes word that ad-supported music startup Spiral Frog has in the past month lost its CEO, three board members, and six of senior executives. All before posting a single song for download:

SpiralFrog was announced last year with an ad-supported model that would allow music to be downloaded for free by users. However, among the major labels, only Universal Music has signed on with the company thus far. SpiralFrog was expected to launch before the end of 2006, but no launch date has been officially announced yet.I won

Discussions at this year’s MEDEM conference in Cannes seem to indicate that for whatever value the ad-supported service may have, its complex DRM is out of sync with a growing mood in the industry, as reported by the International Herald Tribune:

Now that even digital music revenue growth is faltering amid rampant file-sharing by consumers, the major record labels are closer than ever to releasing music on the Internet with no copying restrictions — a step they once vowed never to take.

Executives of several technology companies meeting here at Midem, the annual global trade fair for the music industry, said this weekend that a move toward the sale of unrestricted digital files in the MP3 format from at least one of the four major record companies could come within months.

Indie labels have been doing this for some time on sites like eMusic. The straw that broke the camel’s back could be Microsoft’s decision to abandon its Plays for Sure partners with the Zune. It also could throw a spanner into iTunes’ works.