Saturday, February 07, 2009

Hey, who tripped over that cord?

The Record Industry’s TotalMusic Experiment Is Sinking Fast: "TotalMusic, the digital music distribution initiative created by Sony BMG and Universal Music Group, appears to be on life support - or worse."

And so it goes. And, so do I. I know what you are thinking... "Hey Herskowitz, you were only there 3 months, how did you manage to screw it up so quickly?!". Heh... all I can say is that in that short time I had the privilege of working with some great people on something that I *know* was going to be extremely compelling. I regret that we didn't get to show you guys more about what we built - but in these extremely hard economic times (particularly for those in the music industry) it's hard to blame them from pulling the plug on a still-highly-speculative offering .

I only hope that someone else figures out how to crack this music-on-the-web nut in a way that is a win for everyone in the value chain. The problem is that to make a music service a win for everyone, then they all of the famished participants have to sit at the table - and be content to let all the others have a little bit to eat, even though they are still hungry themselves.

I, first and foremost, am a music consumer - so I'm always compelled by the innovation happening down at the consumer-level and then try to follow it back up the chain to the content creators. This gives me a decidedly different perspective than the artists and labels that are trying to solve this from the other direction. But, from where I sit at least, I see all of the innovation in digital music services coming out of bootstrapped companies and passionate tinkerers. Hell, there are very few private investors or venture capitalists that want to get anywhere near this space right now... and rightfully so considering no one has really figured out how to make any money out of this industry (and its products) that so many people love.

It should therefore come as no surprise that these small sites and services don't have the resources, or desire, to deal with licensing content directly. And for that matter, nor do the content owners - imagine the legal and contractual management overhead. So, where is the middleman? The platform? The catalog? The APIs? The no/low-involvement licenses? These are all required to not only stoke innovation, but to ensure people get paid. Without this we find ourselves in the same place repeatedly. Virtually all of the small "music 2.0" services go one of 4 routes for their content. 1) MP3 search engines like Seeqpod and Skreemr, 2) YouTube music videos (either with or without actually rendering the video frames), 3) Remote access offerings like Simplify and Orb, 4) User-generated uploads.

What I truly believe is that the market needs an alternative to #1/#2 that lets innovation be built quickly and painlessly upon open APIs - where people are paid, costs are covered, streaming is free and drm-free commerce is to be had. Simple, right? Well, maybe not so much...

In the meantime, yesterday I started to experiment with a couple of things that simply leverage what is available to me... MP3 search APIs, playlists, community charts and play data. I was able to quickly mash together some of this freely available and flowing data and stood up "friendP3" . It's simple really, it aggregates your (and your friends' if you desire) play data/favorites from the APIs and feeds of, iLike, Pandora, Rhapsody, Hype Machine and others. For every track/artist name it sees, it hits some search APIs to see if it can find a MP3 version of the track out in the wild. If it finds one, it then automatically embeds a flash player with the track loaded (along with the link to the MP3). This is all done from afar... the mashup was all done in Yahoo Pipes, the MP3s sit on other sites from around the web, the front end is just a hosted microblogging platform, and the recirculation and sharing back across multiple social networks and services is a simple "AddThis" implementation.

Currently, what is on is stuff that is being automatically generated from *my* friends on But when one of them listen to a song in iTunes, or on radio, or bookmark a song they hear on Pandora (web or iPhone version) and the MP3 just shows up the front door of friendP3 for others to enjoy. Conversley, I've also generated a feed that is made up of solely my history across these services and dumped that into my lifestream at (as well as my FriendFeed and Strands streams). For that matter, you could just take the "podcast" feed and to subscribe to it in iTunes or Winamp. I listen to stuff, and your local library would just get filled up in the background. Now mind you, I'm not endorsing that people use this in lieu of buying music. But, I do think that all of the above are fabulous discovery tools - and I know that I have already bought a couple of albums that I have a heard a track from friendP3 since yesterday.

The first question my friends ask me when they see it is... "is it legal?". The answer I give... "no one really knows", because there is no blanket statement that can be applied. Some of the content was made freely available by their rights holders, all reside on other people's servers, search and "content discovery tools" are generally deemed to be protected under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (although the Seeqpod/Warner Music case will test that), downloading (I've been told by some lawyers) is not a crime (it's the "making available" to others that is gray), and the endless number of other nuanced legal questions open to interpretation. The answers to all of which are/will have massive implications to the future of the web.

But wouldn't it be cool if there was a way to do this on a platform that plays nice with everyone? And compensates those that deserve compensation? And somehow can magically cover the costs associated with all of the above (hint: this is the kicker)? I sure think it would be. If anyone wants to build/fund that, drop me a line (jherskowitz at globallistic dot com)... I'm currently looking for something to do.

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James said...


Mike Desjardins said...

Well put, sir.

jherskowitz said...

Oh yeah... I'm a jherskowitz at globallistic dot com.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that what you're asking for is extremely hard to do. So many people have failed at exactly what you're trying to do. There's simply no way to make everyone happy in this arrangement. People want music to be free and labels want to charge for it. You can't have it both ways.

Anonymous said...

Labels & the industry need to have Internet start-up departments that is a clearinghouse for us little guys, so we can go to them and get the rights/contracts we need to avoid being sued and continue our innovation; bringing the music biz into industries/models they never dreamed of!

Also they need to buy seeqpods of the world and monetize all the music on the servers across the world. Right now that is not happening rather Warner is suing Seeqpod, hopefully the lawsuit is really a way to work towards monetizing all the music on the web.

The industry has progressed thankfully, but comparative to their film brethen (Hulu) they are far behind still.

Anonymous said...

The record companies want total, centralized control of music distribution. Everyone else on the Internet wants decentralization.

Record companies are no longer important to the creation and distribution of music. There will be ongoing battles until the record companies are dead, or they manage to restrict everyone's Internet rights to the point where decentralization of music is not possible.

Yes, in my opinion, the record companies do not care at all about the Internet itself, or what privacy rights they trample related to the Internet. If you gave them a choice, I'm sure they'd prefer there was no Internet at all and then they could keep their centralized control model pumping in the cash.

Anonymous said...

"but in these extremely hard economic times (particularly for those in the music industry) it's hard to blame them from pulling the plug on a still-highly-speculative offering ."

Ironically, it should be the other way around. They should be innovating their way out of the hole they dug for themselves. They should try everything to get people to buy something for any price. Instead, they pretend they still have some control and horde their resources. This is why there won't be an industry like we know it in another five years.

Anonymous said...

And compensates those that deserve compensation?

This is a serious, serious sticking point, like the spot on the blackboard in the old Far Side cartoon that says, "And then a miracle occurs ... "

Who, precisely, ARE all these people who deserve compensation? I'm not necessarily asking this to be abstract or snotty, I'm literally saying that these categories of people who deserve compensation and yet who do not actually create the music or haul the sound equipment around must be catalogued very explicitly. Everyone's just sort of doing a yes-yes-yes-of-course-whatever and handwaving on this and acting like everyone else is using the same definition, and we're probably not.

Who, exactly, are all the people who deserve to be compensated?

jherskowitz said...

janiscorteste, you bring up a very valid point and one that is often glossed over because it is not easy to categorically answer. It depends on who owns the rights to the music. That could be the performing artist, the songwriter, the label, the publisher, or someone totally unrelated to any of the above.

Anonymous said...

Any comments on the closure of Ruckus? How far away did you see this coming? Any thoughts on different approaches to try it again? (ie: what worked, what didn't, for Ruckus)

Anonymous said...

I think it also depends on the model used for music creation and delivery ... The problem is that the model has shifted; there are still plenty of non-musicians and non-promoters who can and are making money off of music delivery (the zillions of coders working on iTunes being an example), but they aren't the same middlemen they once were.

It just feels to me that the delivery model has shifted, and so the people who "deserve to be compensated" are no longer the same people they once were. It's a bit like the ascendency of the car over the horse, and someone trying to cobble together a way to ensure that blacksmiths can still get a cut of the pie as the horses disappeared. Of course, there were still tons of jobs to be created with the ascendency of the car, but they just weren't the same jobs. The blacksmiths had to just give it up and start training as mechanics.

What is the NEW business model of music delivery? What needs are not being met with it? And don't try to force it -- you're being an anthropologist, here. Observe what's HAPPENING. Chart the path a piece ofm usic takes from a person's head to someone else's ipod. What are the steps? Who is involved at each one? That's the sort of crunchy ethnographic garbage that needs to be done for anything like this. It's not a business model; it's anthropology.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insightful comments and for getting me thinking-

It seems to me that record labels were for 4 things: fronting studio time, pressing records, distributing, and promoting.

Audio files don't really have pressing costs, and the internet handles the distribution. If artists and consumers as a community can come up with a set of relevant search terms for their music, 'promotion' can be handled through search engines.

The way things are headed, recording and distributing need to be seen as the "marketing" side of the equation. Marketing is about spending money to get money.

You get money with "products", which are gigs/ticket sales, the licensing for movies and TV, and whatever other creative way people will invent to get people to buy their music.

I can think of a thousand ways an entrepreneur might make music pay. But record labels don't get a seat at the table because their function is obsolete. So what? What's the big crisis?

Anonymous said...

anonymous, where do you see producers (people like Todd Rundgren, Howard Jones, or George Martin) existing in that four-step process, part of the studio time? How are they compensated according to the traditional model? I don't actually know -- for someone like George Martin, who stamped his paychecks? Capitol Records?

Anonymous said...

I see producers as part of the studio process. I also see them like musicians- some are OK, some are great. You know when you hear a great one.

I think they are either a part of the record level, or subcontracted to make a recording for the label.

For what it's worth (not much) I'm not 100% sold on them being essential to the recording process, kind of along the same lines as me being comfortable playing shows without Jimi Hendrix in my band. I've written some good songs that would probably be better if Jimi was in my band, but he's not. I've made recordings that would have been better produced by George Martin, or Todd Rundgren, or whoever. Unfortunately, none of them will return my emails, so I make do.

I can make a recording on my computer that's way better than what Robert Johnson was ever working with, etc. You've heard the argument before, I'm sure.

I'm sure plenty of people will disagree.

Brian said...

There's already a company building that platform. It's MediaNet at

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