Jukeboxes in the Clouds
In 2003, Steve Jobs railed against music subscription services, telling Rolling Stone that “People want to own their music.” Now it appears that Apple might be changing its iTune. Apple’s recent $80 million plus purchase of music subscription service Lala suggests that the company that made it easy (and legal) to download digital music files to your iPod or computer might now be envisioning the future of music as a big jukebox in the clouds. One big question is where this will leave users? Another is where it will leave musicians.
People thought Jobs was prescient when he opined in 2003 that music subscription services “are going to fail. Music Net's gonna fail, Press Play's gonna fail … . You don’t want to rent your music.” He was right about that. And more recent ventures have borne him out; RealNetwork’s Rhapsody and Best Buy’s current incarnation of Napster have yet to show any real results. So why Apple’s change of tune? In a word — smartphones. Storage strapped hand-held digital devices have wrested some control from wireless carriers over which mobile apps one can use (including music apps), but they can’t compete for storage with the 160 GB of music one can store on a computer.
Then along came imeem — a social media network whose music locker service allowed users to store 80GB of music on their servers, which could then be streamed to a smartphone. Their Android and iPhone apps looked promising but for one problem: once a user uploaded their music to imeem’s servers they could stream it at will, but they couldn’t download it again, which amounted to another form of digital rights management (DRM). Financially, imeem faced an even bigger problem: their revenues didn’t cover the fees that the major labels charged them to license their music.
MySpace Music tried to address that issue by granting the major labels an equity stake in their new venture. Here the problem was an uncoordinated rollout and a failure to include the indie musicians and labels who formed the backbone of MySpace’s artist pages. Interestingly it appeared that imeem could solve that problem. Imeem’s earlier purchase of a faltering Snocap (developed by Shawn Fanning, inventor of the original Napster) had provided imeem with a technology for content identification and registration that would enable independent artists and labels to control the online distribution of their music through Snocap’s embeddable storefronts. MySpace apparently saw it that way too. They just picked up “certain assets” from imeem’s foreclosure for the fire sale price of under $1 million.
Now here’s the rub: Not included in the sale was imeem’s debt to the more than 110,000 independent artists who had been selling their music through Snocap’s storefronts. These artists have little or no chance to recoup their sales revenue and the servers that hosted their storefronts have been taken offline. As usual, as the various players in the music industry jockey for future position, struggling artists are usually the ones left out in the cold. Let’s see if Apple can do it better.
This article was simultaneously published on the reebee.net blog.
Reebee Garofalo is an internationally known scholar of popular music studies, who has written numerous articles on music and politics, racism, censorship, and the globalization of the music industry and has lectured widely on a broad range of subjects relating to the operations of the music industry. He is a professor at UMass Boston.