Category Archives: music

Weekend listening: Space and the seasons

I’m back to posting weekend recommendations, but this time it’s for listening instead of reading. One nice benefit of Spotify and similar services is that you can go back and listen to all those albums you never got around to buying, or sample new music you don‘t yet want to buy—or, if you’re truly a child of the Internet, you may never buy at all but simply listen via audio streams or YouTube.1

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been listening to lately; unless otherwise indicated album links are to Spotify, track links are to YouTube:

  • Blows Against the Empire (Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship). This is a relic of that just-past-the-60’s time when NASA was still landing men on the moon and techies and hippies alike thought we would soon be living in space colonies at the L5 points or (in the case of this concept album) would “hijack the starship” and flee both the solar system and the Man. The players include members of Jefferson Airplane (caught halfway between “White Rabbit” and “We Built This City”), the Grateful Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and musically it’s about what you’d expect from that combination.
  • Einstein on the Beach (Philip Glass). Written half a decade later, this opera (really a combined dance/theater piece) is more revolutionary, at least in musical terms, than Jefferson Airplane/Starship ever were. (In fact, if you’re a teenager who wants to really annoy your parents with your musical tastes, skip the gangsta rap and play this for a while.) For the full experience check out YouTube for excerpts from live performances.
  • The Campfire Headphase (Boards of Canada) (not on Spotify). The influence of minimalist music like that of Glass and others spread throughout popular culture in the 1980s and beyond, in particular influencing electronic dance music (EDM) and so-called intelligent dance music (IDM). Boards of Canada is an interesting example of homage to 1970s minimalism: They favor the sound of that era’s analog synthesizers and even occasionally incorporate counting numbers into their tracks (see for example “Aquarius” on Music Has the Right to Children), echoing the opening of Einstein on the Beach. Continuing today’s theme, in an interesting footnote to Felix Baumgartner’s recent parachute jump from near space several people paid homage to the official video for “Dayvan Cowboy” (which features an earlier record-setting jump) by resetting the track to footage of Baumgartner.
  • The Hawk Is Howling (Mogwai). Minimalism of a sort came to rock in the form of “post-rock”. The basic recipe: keep the guitars and drum, ditch the vocals and the verse-chorus-verse song structure, stretch the song out to two or three times the normal length, and give it a nonsensical and/or pretentious title. Mogwai is one of the best-known post-rock bands, and this is a representative album; for a taste of the musical results performed live check out “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” or (continuing my chosen theme) “Thank You Space Expert”.
  • Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (Max Richter). Taking a break from space, I conclude with Max Richter’s “remix” of one of the most over-played classical pieces of all time. The opening “Spring” tracks illustrate the method: Richter ditches the famous opening melody and focuses on just one of the phrases that occurs halfway through the original, repeating, modifying, and amplifying it.

1. Basic Spotify is free and ad-supported, while Spotify Unlimited for your PC costs $5 a month; I consider it one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. (Spotify Premium for your mobile device is even more fun, but I don’t recommend it unless you can tolerate the excessive cellular data charges you’re likely to run up.)

Changing my (blog) name, plus Plus

For those following this blog, note that I’ve changed the canonical site name from blog.hecker.org to frankhecker.com. Any links and feed URLs referencing the previous domain name will still work for the foreseeable future, but if and when you have time you may want to update your bookmark list, RSS newsreaders, and related information to reflect the new name.

A little history by way of background: I was around when the Internet was first being commercialized, and I had the opportunity to register hecker.com for myself if I really wanted to. However I passed because I didn’t have a server to associate with it and I thought I needed to be running an actual server in order to register the name (though I’m not sure that was the case even then). When I finally got around to having a personal server in the late 1990s I found that hecker.com had already been taken by a company that registered thousands of surname domains so that they could offer a shared domain service in which multiple people could have their own personal subdomains under a top-level domain: jane.smith.com, john.smith.com, and so on. So I settled on the next best thing and registered hecker.org instead for use as my primary domain, at the same time registering frankhecker.com (as well as the .org and .net variants) to prevent anyone else from getting it.

When I first started a blog I hosted it at hecker.org using custom blogging software. I later got tired of the management hassles involved, and moved my blog to WordPress.com, using the subdomain blog.hecker.org because I was still hosting other things at hecker.org and couldn’t afford to dedicate the entire domain just to my blog. Since then though the blog has assumed more importance as my public face to the world, and I regretted having a somewhat unusual domain name for it. I’ve therefore decided to adopt the conventional approach and use frankhecker.com as my primary blog name. (As noted above the old name of blog.hecker.org will continue to work, thanks to the magic of HTTP redirects.)

Note that my primary personal email address remains hecker@hecker.org; I have no plans to change that. However I can also receive email at frankhecker.com, so for example sending email to frank@frankhecker.com will get to the same inbox as hecker@hecker.org. I may switch over completely to frankhecker.com for all uses in future, but in the meantime there’s no need to update your address book.

In other news, I’m now on Google Plus so you can add me to one of your circles if you’d like. I’ve been meaning to try Google Plus out before now, but I use Google Apps for my email and related services, and Google Plus wasn’t added to Google Apps until this week. I’ll publish notices of new blog posts to Google Plus, and maybe some other stuff from time to time.

Greg Sandow on the future of classical music

I’ve been reading Greg Sandow‘s blog posts for a little while, and today checked out his riffs on the book he’s writing, Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music. I found the riff on chapter 3 (The Culture Ran Away From Us) the most interesting one thus far, because it discusses some of the questions around how the mainstream classical music community (institutions, performers, composers, and audience) has gotten separated from contemporary culture, in a way that other arts have not.

One of the most interesting questions is whether the mainstream classical music community will at some point link up again with the main strands of contemporary culture, or whether it will continue to be isolated and eventually risk collapse into irrelevance as its audience dwindles, perhaps to be replaced by a new community that springs up around what Sandow calls the alt-classical scene. You can see echoes of that question in the comments by Jerome Langguth and Sandow on the post announcing the riff.

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I’ve already expressed the opinion (near the end of my music and the theory of disruptive innovations post) that the alt-classical or indie classical movement will not likely give birth to a complete new community/tradition/movement, but instead will be co-opted into the general indie rock/pop movement as it continues to move up-market aesthetically. From that perspective the mainstream classical music community will remain isolated as it is today and will eventually see itself completely disrupted by whatever the indie movement evolves into.

However it’s also possible that the mainstream classical movement community could disrupt itself, as it were, and give birth to new institutions, musical forms, performance practices, business models, and so on that are relevant to today’s culture but still recognizably grounded in the classical tradition (while partaking of other traditions as well). This certainly seems to be what Sandow is working towards.

Not being that familiar with the nitty gritty of today’s classical music world, I can’t speak to all of Sandow’s ideas and whether they’re practical or likely to have the desired effect. However from a high-level perspective some of Clayton Christensen‘s ideas may be relevant here, especially those discussed in The Innovator’s Solution regarding how established companies can renew themselves and avoid being disrupted by more nimble competitors. Of particular relevance is Christensen’s recommendation that companies avoid trying to force wholesale changes in strategy at the level of the entire organization, and instead establish quasi-independent spin-offs that have the freedom to experiment with new business models, product strategies, and branding approaches without having to incur the burden of the cost structure and differing priorities of the parent organization.

In the context of classical music this would correspond to, for example, having symphony orchestras fund groups of performers that wanted to do new music performance, not simply in the form of one-time events or special series under the orchestra’s aegis, but as autonomous subsidiaries that would be free to bypass the orchestra’s bureaucracy and rules where appropriate and establish their own products, brands, audiences, and funding sources and mechanisms. I’ll be interested to see to what extent this is being done today and whether Sandow’s book will address this and related ideas.

eMusic to offer streaming?

In reading the recent New York Post article EMusic mulls sale as digital market shifts (pointed to by eMusic subscriber okierambler in a recent message board thread), the most interesting part to me was actually at the very end of the article:

Sources said eMusic’s backers … are also seriously considering adding a streaming component in a bid to build upon its recent growth.

… According to sources, the streaming component would be a value-added feature for premium subscribers.

The thinking is that the economics of a download-only model and a streaming-alone model don’t work on their own, but putting them together in a tiered system could help retain subscribers.

I think adding a streaming option would be a great idea, not as a substitute for downloading but rather as an easy way to audition albums before deciding whether or not to spend my (limited) downloads on them. I wrote a lengthy blog post on this topic back in October (Should eMusic offer streaming?) discussing the pros and cons of this. I doubt my post influenced (or was even read by) anyone at eMusic, but it’s nonetheless gratifying to see eMusic apparently considering integrating streaming capability into the service.

I’m curious as to whether anyone else subscribing to eMusic shares my opinion on this, or whether people are looking to Spotify or other ad-supported or freemium services to provide your streaming fix. In this connection it’s unclear what any potential eMusic streaming service would look like. Here are some open questions along with my speculations and opinions to supplement my earlier thoughts:

Standalone service vs. tied to current eMusic service. The New York Post article claims the proposal is to offer streaming as an add-on to the current service, not as a standalone service. I think this is the best way to approach it—position eMusic streaming as a useful option to enable easier music discovery for eMusic subscribers, not as a competitor to Spotify, etc.

Extra-cost option vs. bundled into existing plans. The New York Post article is unclear on this point; however the phrase value-added feature for premium subscribers implies that streaming would be bundled into the overall eMusic subscription price for the higher-priced plans, and not offered at all for the Lite, Basic, or (maybe) Plus plans. I think bundling makes sense if streaming were positioned as a aid to music discovery for people who listen to and download a lot, and not as a substitute for downloading.

Right now I’m paying for a combination of the eMusic Basic plan (annual) and a $5/month Napster subscription for streaming (and some extra downloads — though remembering to actually download them is a PITA). If eMusic were to offer streaming I’d happily drop Napster and upgrade my eMusic plan to a Plus or even Premium plan. (I skipped getting a Plus plan when the recent price increases hit because of concern about wasting the extra downloads on stuff I wouldn’t like that much. Being able to try before I buy via streaming helps alleviate that concern.)

Unlimited streaming vs. a cap on streamed tracks. Of course I’d like any eMusic streaming option to not have a fixed limit on streams per month. However if eMusic has to pay streaming royalties on a per-track basis then it might make sense for it to impose a monthly limit on streams per subscriber. Since I’d be using streaming primarily to try out stuff before I download, I could probably live with a maximum cap of (say) 10 times the number of my download credits, e.g., 500 streamed tracks per month to go with a Premium plan offering 50 download credits.

Streaming tracks vs. (only) streaming albums. Would eMusic allow streaming individual tracks without restriction (other than a possible cap on streams per month), or would eMusic and/or the labels try to bring into the streaming world the concept of album only tracks (i.e., not allowing you to stream particular tracks unless you streamed the entire album)?

If eMusic allowed streaming individual tracks on an a la carte basis then labels might see this as a way for subscribers to evade the album only restrictions, especially for albums with a small number of tracks. (Don’t download that 2-track electronic release for 12 credits, just stream it instead.) On the other hand, to my knowledge no other streaming service implements album only restrictions of any kind, and I suspect the business and royalty model for streaming is different enough to make such restrictions unnecessary or at least not desirable.

Tied to PC vs. available on smartphones. The conservative approach would be for eMusic to implement streaming only in the context of the current web-based download service. For example, if you had the streaming option then the Listen to this album and Listen to this song buttons on an album page might be configured to play the full (streamed) album or track instead of just 30-second samples (as at present).

eMusic might also offer a standalone streaming app for smartphones, like the various iPhone apps for Spotify, etc. However I doubt that eMusic is eager to compete directly with (or be compared to) the streaming-only services, and there would be a number of non-trivial business issues that would have to be dealt with in creating an eMusic offering for mobile devices. Also, I think mobile streaming is more useful as a replacement for terrestrial and satellite radio than as an adjunct to a download service. I think that if eMusic does offer streaming that it won’t be for mobile devices, at least initially.

So, my final prediction: Sometime in 2010 eMusic will offer streaming as a bundled feature of the Premium and Connoisseur plans (but not Lite, Basic, or Plus). It will not cost anything extra, however introduction of streaming may occur in conjunction with a further round of (relatively small) plan price increases, possibly associated with adding more major label content. For those eMusic subscribers who have streaming, it will happen transparently using the existing Listen to this album and Listen to this song buttons on album pages. Such subscribers will be able to stream any album or individual track on eMusic, without any restrictions except possibly for a cap on total streams per month that is tied to the number of plan downloads.

There will not be an option to stream to smartphones or similar mobile devices (e.g., e-book readers with wireless capability), with the possible exception of devices that connect via wifi and have web browsers that provide equivalent support for eMusic downloading and streaming to that of standard PCs. (However even this may be restricted in some cases for business reasons.)

Your thoughts?

Some kind of a party

A while back my copy of iTunes saw fit to present me (for the first time?) with a party playlist. I honestly can’t imagine any party that would have this as a playlist, but the bizarre randomness of it all intrigued me and prompted me to present the unexpurgated list to the world (with comments where appropriate and links to eMusic downloads
where available):

  • Eve Beglarian, Far Off Country (Four), performed by Maya Beiser, from Almost Human. I like this album but have a bit of aversion to spoken-word accompaniments to classical tracks, like those here.
  • Neutral Milk Hotel, Two-Headed Boy Part 2, from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. This album is legendary among people who know it, but I have to confess I feel more admiration for it than love.
  • Mogwai, I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead, from The Hawk Is Howling. I’m a major Mogwai fan, but on first listen I thought this was relatively minor Mogwai. I’ll have to give it another try.
  • Arvo Pärt, Nunc dimittis, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, from Da pacem. I’ve been a big Pärt fan ever since picking up Litany (based on a recommendation in Wired, oddly enough).
  • Tristania, Angellore, from Widow’s Weeds. An experiment on my part in venturing into the melodic metal arena; not bad, but I’m still not that interested in metal.
  • M.I.A., Fire, Fire, from Arular. I was dining at Fatburger, which features a free jukebox with a net connection, when someone played Paper Planes from Kala. I decided to reciprocate by playing Galang Galang from this album.
  • Eve Beglarian, Far Off Country (One-Two), performed by Maya Beiser, from Almost Human. iTunes put two tracks from this album onto the list; I have no idea why.
  • Dumptruck, Better Of You, from For the Country (not on eMusic). In my opinion this is one of the best non-country country albums ever recorded, right up there with Meat Puppets II.
  • The Fall. An Older Lover etc, from Palace of Swords Reversed (not on eMusic). I have lots of Fall albums; this is one of the better ones.
  • Johann Johannsson, Englabörn, from Englabörn. I like Johannsson but don’t recall liking this album as much as IBM 1401: A User’s Manual.
  • Amiina, Saga, from Kurr. Another Icelandic production, not in the league of Bjork or Sigur Rós, but well worth listening to.
  • Team Dresch, Hate the Christian Right!, from Personal Best (not on eMusic). The Butchies have their charms but are no substitute for this band. Supposedly Team Dresch have reformed and are (maybe?) recording a new album; I always worry about this sort of thing but am definitely looking forward to it if it ever happens.
  • The Wedding Present, I’m Not Always So Stupid, from George Best Plus. I listened to this album only once; it was a bit too much of its time for me.
  • Super Furry Animals, Patience, from Rings Around The World. Another album I listened to only once, and need to try again.
  • Bocuma, Boards Of Canada, Music Has The Right To Children (not on eMusic). CollabNet didn’t really take off as a company, but I have to say that my co-workers there (who recommended this to me) had great taste in music.

The story of ‘swindleeeee!!!’

This used to be a page on my Swindleeeee! blog about eMusic; I subsequently moved it over as a page on my main personal blog when I merged the contents of Swindleeeee! into that blog. As part of a cleanup of my main blog I’m now moving it to be a regular blog post, in order to preserve it for posterity.

Ever since its founding eMusic has been repeatedly discovered by people who either don’t get the concept (“Hey, where’s Britney Spears?!”) and/or have severe difficulty using a computer and the Internet; these people also often seem to have a fuzzy grasp on such matters as grammar and spelling. And thus on August 11, 2003 (a date which will live in infamy), after experiencing problems with downloading music mrcat first uttered those immortal words, “E Music is SWindle.”

Despite the helpful replies of various eMusic customers mrcat’s problems continued unabated, and he soon resorted to repetition to add urgency to his pleas: “I still Cannot Download Music, WHYYYYY???? … Bring BAck my Money,E Music is SWindle. Bring Back my moneyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy”. After a final message from mrcat (“Emusic Swindle, just swindle. I am not happpyyyyy.”), Buddha-Of-Siberia was moved to reply, “hey mr.cat who cries swindleeeeee… … Stop Your Subscription and log out… and stay outeeeeee.” And thus a new word entered the world, and every subsequent user complaint or pseudo-complaint regarding eMusic was heralded with the ironic cry “eMusic is swindleeeee!!!!!!”

The Swindleeeee!!!!! FAQ

I just know you still have some questions…

  • How do you pronounce “swindleeeee”? Like the question of which end to open an egg or whether the sign of the cross should be made with two fingers or three, this is a matter of bitter controversy; wars have been fought over less. Some (including myself) believe that it should be pronounced like “swindle”, but prolonging the final “l” sound: “swin-duhhhhhl”. Others believe that it should be pronounced it as “swind-leeeee”, i.e., converting the normally silent ‘e’ into a long ‘e’ on the second syllable. Still others compromise on a hybrid pronounciation: “swin-duh-leeeee”. Feel free to choose whichever side you please, but be prepared to accept the consequences. For more information check out the eMusic message board thread “Poll – do you prefer SwindULLLLL or SwindLEEEEE?“.
  • How many “e”s are in “swindleeeee”? This varies from person to person. As noted above, the original coinage had six “e”s, but in my opinion five are sufficient to get the point across, unless you happen to be feeling especially feisty.
  • How many exclamation points should I use? In general I think it’s good practice to have as many exclamation points as there are “e”s.
  • Can I use “swindleeeee!!!!!” in referring to digital music services other than eMusic? Yes, but know that the correct use of the term is in the ironic sense (real irony, that is, not the Alanis Morissette kind); thus you should not use the term with respect to a competing service unless you feel that it is not in fact a swindle.

Pakman speaks

This used to be a page on my Swindleeeee! blog about eMusic; I subsequently moved it over as a page on my main personal blog when I merged the contents of Swindleeeee! into that blog. As part of a cleanup of my main blog I’m now moving it to be a regular blog post, in order to preserve it for posterity.

I found public comments from David Pakman (formerly CEO of eMusic) always interesting even when he was repeating his favorite mantras (e.g., about the futility of DRM, eMusic as number two to the iTunes Store, and so on). Since I often found myself quoting from them, I thought I’d provide links to various of Pakman’s interviews, speeches, and other public comments, both for my own use and as a public service. Now that Pakman has left eMusic I’ll continue to maintain this page as I have time, both as a sort of memorial to Pakman’s time at eMusic, and also because I suspect he’ll have more interesting things to say in future.

  • How eMusic hopes to keep Its groove (Fortune, July 16, 2008). An article about eMusic’s web site enhancements, with a quote from Pakman on the perennially popular subject of whether eMusic will ever offer major label content: If we never get any major label content, this is still a very successful company (of course, he would say that).
  • @ Needham Digital Media Con: Interview: David Pakman, CEO, eMusic: Adults Still Buy Music (paidContent.org, May 8, 2008).
  • eMusic CEO on DRM and iTunes (Washington Post, February 28, 2008). Pakman brags on the Random House decision to drop DRM after a successful experience with distribution through eMusic. He also notes that the average age of the eMusic subscriber is 39 years old, and that 60 per cent of all eMusic downloads are as part of complete albums.
  • Music With No Strings Attached (Forbes, April 21, 2007). A very interesting and informative interview in the wake of the Amazon rumors (to which Pakman responds there are no talks right now with any strategic buyer). Pakman also addresses eMusic’s market niche (Our differentiation will not be in the format. It’ll be who we serve as customers), notes that eMusic would be interested in only a portion of EMI’s catalog, downplays the threat of labels leaving eMusic (We’ve got 13,000 labels on the service. Fewer than five have ever left.), explains eMusic’s subscription model and the motivation behind the Connoisseur plan (For us, subscription business optimization is about making sure customers are never always maxing out their plans.), and even speculates about possible eMusic interest in long-tail television. A must-read interview.
  • Startups eye Apple-EMI pact (Red Herring, April 2, 2007). Pakman praises EMI’s willingness to license music in DRM-free formats, and looks forward to eMusic doing a deal with EMI.
  • Gigs & Bytes: eMusic’s Pak Attack (Pollstar, March 30, 2007). Pakman riffs on the standard topics: the importance of interoperability, the reluctance of major labels to experiment with their back catalogs, and eMusic as a music discovery service. Most notably, he claims the eMusic has plenty of room to grow the business (We really do believe there are 3 million to 5 million potential eMusic subscribers just today) and has no near-term plans to sell out to someone else. He also claims that the average eMusic customer spends $14 per month, which combined with a subscriber base of well north of 250,000 gives a revenue estimate for eMusic of almost $50 million per year.
  • Apple gets behind the album offer with new format (Reuters, March 29, 2007). Pakman reacts to Apple’s announcement of the new Complete My Album feature of the iTunes Store: The premise that the album is dead is only true among the youth segment, which is really the iTunes customer. The article also notes that over 60 percent of all [eMusic's] downloads were full-length albums, although it doesn’t clarify what this actually means. (My best guess is that 60 percent of the tracks downloaded from eMusic were downloaded as part of a complete album download, rather than as individual tracks.)
  • eMusic CEO: DRM Will Be Dead by 2008 (The Independent, February 23, 2007). Pakman continues on his anti-DRM crusade, claims Steve Jobs was a bit disingenuous in his comments on DRM, and pleads that If we’re still talking about DRM in five years, please take me out and shoot me.
  • EXCLUSIVE: eMusic CEO Speaks Out On DRM And Consumer Dissatisfaction (hypebot, June 12, 2006).
  • Music Ally Debate, London: Buzz Of The Indies (paidcontent.org, July 19, 2006). Summary of Pakman’s comments at the Music Ally event. Interesting tidbits:
    • “Pakman said [eMusic] pays an average $5.62 per customer, per month, back to [independent] labels…”
    • “Pakman quoted 4.5 million downloads per month and a catalog of 1.5 million tracks…”
  • Making money selling music without DRM: the rise of eMusic (Ars Technica, May 22, 2006). Many Pakman comments sprinkled throughout an in-depth article on eMusic.
  • Q&A: eMusic’s David Pakman (MP3.com, January 27, 2006). Interview by Jim Welte.
  • Why DRM Everything? A Sensible Approach to Satisfying Customers and Selling More Music in the Digital Age (Groklaw, December 31, 2005). Article by Pakman.
  • eMusic’s Pakman: Does he think the iPod is holding back overall music sales? (BusinessWeek, December 21, 2005). Interview by Peter Burrows.
  • 5 Hypebot Questions with eMusic’s David Pakman on the Sony Rootkit Controversy (hypebot, November 23, 2005).
  • FMC: New Economics in the Music Creation and Distribution Chain (PaidContent.org, September 12, 2005). Summary of Pakman’s comments at a conference panel discussion.
  • Streaming Media East 2005 Wrap-Up (StreamingMedia.com, May 19, 2005). Summary of Pakman’s comments at the Streaming Media East 2005 conference.
  • eMusic updates it’s business to focus on really promoting independent labels and artists as well as merely selling their tracks (Inside Digital Media, Inc., September 27, 2004). Audio interview by Phil Leigh, with a lot of interesting information on Pakman’s background prior to joining eMusic. Warning: requires installation of the WebEx Java client.

Should eMusic add streaming?

In two previous posts about my current use of eMusic I discussed my musical jobs to be done and how I might now supplement eMusic with other services in order to optimize the use of my more limited number of eMusic downloads. One of the things I noted is my need to audition music prior to downloading it, which naturally leads to the question: Should eMusic create a streaming service to complement its current download offering? As I discuss below, I think it should, but only in a way that is consistent with eMusic’s current value proposition and business model.

Before getting into my own proposal I should address two possible answers to this question that reflect conventional wisdom. The first is simply to assert that streaming is the future way music will be delivered to listeners, and that services like eMusic that offer downloads are ultimately doomed. One sees this attitude reflected in the hype around Spotify, for example, as embodied in comments from Bob Lefsetz and others.

On the other hand, streaming services face a variety of obstacles both from a consumer point of view and from an industry point of view. As a listener my concern with relying solely on a streaming service is twofold: First, I’ll want to listen to music in contexts where there’s no network through which to stream. This concern can be addressed to some degree by offline caching of tracks; this is essentially what Spotify offers as part of its premium service.

However note that for various reasons such offline use is typically implemented using a DRM scheme that expires tracks if your subscription ends. (Spotify is no exception in this regard.) This restricts portability (you can use only approved devices) and doesn’t address a second concern: That I’ll lose access to my favorite music due to the actions of the service, the labels, or others with a legal interest in the music. Recall the recent controversy over Amazon deleting copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from users’ Kindles: what a DRM-based content service giveth, a DRM-based content service can taketh away.

From a music industry point of view the problem with streaming services is that they don’t yet have a viable business model. Even Spotify, the great hope for streaming, has people predicting its imminent death, with its founder begging the music industry to change its ways in order to help make Spotify and similar services sustainable for the long-term. This concern is well-founded; details on Spotify’s business model are hard to come by, but a reasonable analysis concludes that royalties and licensing costs for Spotify are extremely high, and that it’s able to survive for now only through special deals with labels.

My conclusion is therefore that traditional streaming services remain unattractive from both my own perspective (which may be shared by others) and a business perspective. My own concerns can be addressed by the possibility of getting DRM-free downloads, and the financial concerns might be addressable by a business model that eliminates either free-to-consumer streaming (requiring that all customers have a paid subscription) or all you can eat streaming (putting a cap on total number of streams per subscriber per month) or both. As it happens, eMusic subscribers are already required to pay a monthly fee and also have a cap on their use of the service; what they don’t have is access to streaming via eMusic.

This brings us back to the question we started with: Should eMusic add streaming? The second snap answer is that eMusic is by its nature a download service, that eMusic users don’t need or want a streaming service, and that eMusic couldn’t make a success of such a service.

Regarding the first objection: As I stated in my previous posts, I personally need a low-cost way to preview music for my permanent collection, and streaming services offer the most convenient way at present for me to do that. However the lack of such a service at eMusic means that I now have to use a minimum of two services. This is inconvenient for me and in the long run at least is bad for eMusic, since it takes subscribers like me away from the site and lessens our loyalty to the service. I suspect my experience is representative of many eMusic users.

As for the second objection, some might point to the present incarnation of Napster, which at first glance seems to be offering the same thing as a hypothetical eMusic+streaming service: a paid subscription service offering a combination of streaming and MP3 downloads. Yet Napster is seen as gasping in the face of competition from Spotify. Why should an eMusic+streaming service be any more successful?

The answer is that eMusic would not be trying to compete directly against Spotify. Rather it would simply be trying to better serve the existing eMusic subscriber base and offer a more attractive value to prospective subscribers, while doing so in a manner that is consistent with eMusic’s business model. Thus streaming in the context of eMusic would not be positioned as a primary service; instead it would be positioned (at least initially) simply as a way for subscribers to try out releases before they download them—an extension of the current Listen to this album function on every eMusic album page that plays 30-second samples of tracks.

(In the longer term eMusic could also offer standalone streaming, most notably in the form of an app for mobile devices such as the iPhone; this would allow eMusic subscribers to also audition releases in their cars and on the go, again without having to switch to a non-eMusic service. It may be better for eMusic to wait on this until it can offer the complete eMusic experience in a mobile context, including over the air downloads; however for business reasons, including existing eMusic contracts with wireless carriers, that may not be possible for quite some time.)

In order to minimize the impact on its existing cost structure and business model, eMusic could and (in my opinion should) put fixed limits on the number of tracks a subscriber could stream per month. For example, we can imagine an eMusic Basic plan that would offer 24 download credits (the same as today) along with the ability to stream up to 100-200 additional tracks (or 10-20 albums) on demand. How big could this limit be? It’s very hard to tell. Royalty arrangements for on-demand streaming are fairly complicated, with separate royalty streams going to labels and to songwriters and publishers (mechanical royalties). In some cases these royalties are paid on a per-track basis, and in some cases they are calculated as a percentage of revenue. (This discussion thread gives a good feel for the confusion occasioned by streaming royalty arrangements even among people involved in the music industry.)

I’ll leave it to others to figure out exactly what level of streaming service eMusic could offer profitably, and at what price point. Streaming capability could be offered as an extra cost option to the current plans, or bundled into future versions of the standard eMusic subscription plans (for example, as part of some future round of price increases). The important part is not the exact pricing, it’s offering a service that is well-integrated into the current eMusic offering, financially sustainable for eMusic, and perceived as a good value by its customers.

In this regard the division between downloads vs. on-demand streaming vs. automated streaming (Internet radio) is an artificial one from the point of view of customers. At heart eMusic is not a download service per se; it is a music service that delivers a particular type of experience to a particular type of customer. The first paragraph of the eMusic story says nothing about MP3 downloads; it talks about a more immersive, authentic music experience, better prices than mass market digital music retailers, the most musical context, subscription-based pricing that rewards discovery, and other aspects that eMusic thinks are key value propositions for the service. If adding a streaming component (or for that matter an Internet radio component) would enhance those aspects then eMusic should seriously consider investing in such improvements.

In the end there are two general ways forward for digital music services. The first is exemplified by Spotify today and by (the original) Napster in the past: attempts to remake the music industry through high-profile, potentially high-reward, and (to one degree or another) high-risk business strategies. The problem is that in a fundamental sense the music industry doesn’t want to be remade: There are multiple actors with their own interests, an attachment to traditional ways of operating, and both legal precedent and political clout to back them up; even with general consensus that the industry is in crisis the collective action problem is daunting. In the long term the structure of the industry may indeed change as new genres and industry players emerge, but this may take 10-15 years or more (as I’ve previously argued). In the meantime services like Spotify may achieve some measure of success, but it’s equally likely that they’ll just crash and burn as they run out of cash.

The second approach is the one that I think is most suited to eMusic: To work within the realities of the music business as it exists today and then to do what one can to serve customers best within those constraints, aiming for consistent profitability and growing the customer base organically (being patient for growth but impatient for profits, as Clayton Christensen puts it). To use a sports analogy it’s like hitting for singles in baseball instead of swinging for the fences, or having a consistent ground game in football vs. throwing the long bomb.

It’s an unexciting strategy to be sure, but then eMusic at present is an unexciting company. With the collapse of the rumored acquisition of eMusic by Amazon eMusic’s owner Dimensional Associates lost any immediate prospects for selling eMusic at an attractive valuation. Now with eMusic’s subscriber base relatively stagnant and the company’s image damaged by the Sony PR debacle, eMusic’s only hope in my opinion is to execute well, become consistently profitable, and achieve long-term sustainability. At that point eMusic may become an attractive acquisition candidate for someone looking for a nice boring business with steady cash flow and some plausible prospects for growth.

Now with Swindleeeee!!!!!

It was over six years ago that I first subscribed to the eMusic digital music service, and over three years since I started my blog Swindleeeee!!!!! to provide an outlet for my eMusic-related musings. My posting frequency (never that high) has in recent months fallen off drastically. I either don’t have anything I want to write about eMusic, or I don’t have time to write anything.

Rather than have Swindleeeee!!!!! join the millions of other blogs that have dribbled off into nothingness, I’ve decided to give it a dignified exit. More specifically:

  • I’ve moved all my old Swindleeeee!!!!! posts over to this blog under the music category, in case you ever have occasion to read them or link to them.
  • If you subscribed to Swindleeeee!!!!! using a newsfeed reader (e.g., Google Reader, NetNewsWire, etc.) and you want to see my future posts on similar topics, please subscribe to my music-related posts on this blog using the new feed URL http://blog.hecker.org/category/music/feed/.
  • As time permits I will redirect I’ve redirected all permalinks for the old Swindleeeee!!!!! site to the corresponding posts on this blog, so that the old URLs will still work for anyone who’s referenced them in a blog post or other context.

Thanks to all of you who read and commented on Swindleeeee!!!!! posts. Please continue reading this blog if you’re interested in what I might have to say on eMusic and the music industry.

Disruptive innovation in music

I’m contemplating ending my Swindleeeee!!!!! blog and moving all the old posts over to my regular blog, though that might not happen for a while. In the meantime I’ve started posting some things over at my other blog that might be of interest to anyone still reading this one. The latest one is a long post (over 7,000 words!) on the rather oddball idea of applying Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation to music.