Despite the spin of the CBS PR machine, the re-launch of Last.fm as a free, ad-supported, on-demand music service is not new, unique or revolutionary. But it is pretty cool.
For better or for worse, it takes the vision and financial commitment of a major media or technology company for the music industry to get behind a new idea for digital distribution. Apple prodded labels into the digital download era. Amazon into DRM-free sales. CBS is nudging them into ad-supported streams.
Yes, to be fair other services got there first, such as Imeem. But the involvement of CBS shines a brighter light on the model in terms of press attention, consumer attention and advertiser attention. This helps all other similar services, including Imeem.
Make no mistake, bets are being made on this. The outcome in not guaranteed in any respect. A startup flush with VC cash making bets is one thing. A major media operation making a bet to the tune of $280 million — the price CBS paid for Last.fm last year — is quite another.
Now its time for CBS to cowboy up and show us some results. The industry has partnered with big brands before to no avail. Remember MTV’s Urge? Microsoft’s Zune?
But more important is the vision of the future the Last.fm service forces open, only peeked at to-date. It’s a vision of massively viral music discovery, word-of-mouth recommendations, full-song streaming of playlists. All monetized, and with a path toward additional sales.
Sure it would be nice to get more than three plays for a given song, but that won’t happen until the advertising rates increase to cover the licensing costs.
Most importantly, it brings another deep-pocketed player to the digital music space. When was the last time anybody mentioned a music-related innovation from iTunes? Today the innovation is coming from Amazon, CBS, and a host of smaller upstarts scrambling for a slice of the pie.
Forget about winners or losers. It’s about elevating and expanding the digital music space.
Lance Ulanoff over at PC Magazine thinks the road away from DRM is fraught with ruin:
“Giving up control of content and giving it away free are not rational ideas in a market economy, yet everyone’s cheering. Has the world gone mad?”
No, Lance, they’ve gotten smart. The music industry for years has sold CDs without DRM and now are just selling digital files without DRM. Just because something is sold without DRM doesn’t mean that the product is given away for no charge.
He feels labels bent to consumer pressure to drop DRM, and because of the move “music lovers are dancing in the streets” over the result. No, they’re not. Most people aren’t even aware of what DRM is. Don’t mistake the snarky comments of a few tech bloggers as the view of an entire population.
Dropping DRM is about interoperability. It’s about enabling more retailers to sell digital files in a way that’s compatible with the iPod — the world’s favorite device. It’s about moving on to what’s really important — monetizing all the digital music activity taking place online today rather than trying to force that activity into an industry-friendly funnel.
But Ulanoff really misses the mark when he laments subscription services as “devaluing” music. Subscription services are for people who view music as a service, not a product. Yet, it becomes a commodity, which to some translates to devaluing. But only to the blockbuster hits that have benefited from the lopsided system of old.
The new music future will be far more democratic and give all artists an equal shot at attention and profit. Few models enable that better than subscription services.
As for subscribers “losing” all their music when they stop paying “flying in the face of everything we know about a functioning economy” — well, I’m not sure what economy he’s talking about. Stop paying your cable bill and your TV stops working. Stop paying your PC Magazine subscription and no more glossy magazine in your mailbox every month.
I’m almost loathe to bring this up, as it’s likely Ulanoff just wanted to toss out something controversial in hopes of driving traffic to his blog. But it’s just that he’s not alone.