The experiments in collective monetization carried out by Choruss at a small number of universities have “already turned out well,” according to founder Jim Griffin. In a lengthy interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Griffin discussed the goals of Choruss and some of the lessons it has learned thus far.

Choruss is a controversial and forward-thinking initiative started and funded by Warner Music Group. It acts as an incubator for creating new business models for recorded music distribution and payment. Choruss is currently working with universities to find out what compels students to pay for an unlimited music download service. At the same time, the initiative provides rights holders the chance to test ways to monetize sound recordings in new ways.

Scarcity is one reason to read the interview with Knowledge@Wharton. Choruss stays out of the public eye. Griffin appears on the occasional conference panel and has done few interviews since Choruss launched in 2008.

But the main reason to pay attention to Choruss is that it represents a bridge to a possible future of recorded music. For business models to evolve beyond the discrete payments that currently dominate recorded music revenue, labels and publishers need some experience with collective licensing. Publishers already deal with collective licenses for public performances. Although owners of sound recordings have no such history, Griffin calls such a payment system “inevitable.”

Here are some highlights from the interview:

-- Choruss is transitioning into an independent company, Griffin said, and Warner will still be involved. A 2008 report by The Register said the original plan was to spin off Choruss as an independent non-profit entity.

-- The experiments thus far have, Griffin said, “already turned out well.”

-- As he has done in the past, Griffin would not name the universities involved in Choruss and would only say a “half dozen schools” are currently involved in “Choruss-like experiments.” In December 2008, Wired.com confirmed that Cornell was participating in discussions with Choruss.

-- Students are not required to opt in to Choruss. Voluntary payers get an account and password that allow them to trade an unlimited amount of music. Griffin pointed out that students are not compelled to subscribe to Choruss out of threat to litigation. No details were given on the application students are using to share music files.

-- Griffin on the idea that Choruss imposes a “tax” on students: “That is ridiculous…There is a huge difference between requiring artists to be involved and requiring people to pay. And we are not dealing with compulsory licenses -- it is voluntary both on the part of the rights holder and on the part of the student.”

-- Other major labels, in addition to publishers and songwriters, are taking part in Choruss.

-- One big lesson learned was that Choruss was better off creating a service that is monetized rather than monetizing a network. Students didn’t want music from only a single campus network. Explained Griffin, “We realized that 80% of the students live off campus. They have jobs off campus. They go home over the holidays. They don't want their music service to stop at their network's borders. Their music service needs to traverse network borders.”

-- Choruss is considering payment models based on downloads (which would result in a fixed payment per instance) and plays (which rewards the rights holders of songs that are listened to more often). Said Griffin, “Maybe in a future digital world the artist who gets played more should get paid more. Maybe. That is part of our learning. How does one figure that out? How do you know which music is played most often?”

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