Archive for May, 2007

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Sanity’s music store delayed

May 31, 2007

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The debut of Microsoft and Sanity’s digital music store – announced at the end of January and one of the centrepieces of the Australian Windows Vista launch event – has been inexplicably delayed until at least mid-June.

The service was originally scheduled to go live in April; a monthly subscription costing “less than a couple of CDs” would give users access to a catalogue of over a million songs and “up to 300 new tracks per month”.

A spokeswoman for Sanity said: “we’re probably launching mid-June now.” She declined to comment on what caused the delay.

Microsoft, despite being a partner in developing the store, refused to comment on the delay, claiming it was “a Sanity announcement”.

Microsoft has spoken freely about its intent to launch an Apple iTunes Music Store rival since September last year, claiming it would be ready upon Vista’s Australian debut.

The fact that the store has evidently been in development for some time suggests the delay may be intentional, possibly so the launch coincides with the Australian debut of Microsoft’s Zune music player.

The Zune was launched in the United States late last year but has yet to make its way to Australia. David McLean, the regional director of Microsoft Australia’s entertainment and devices division, has confirmed the Zune will come to Australia but a specific date has not been revealed.

A Microsoft-backed online store, coupled with the Zune, would help break Apple’s iPod-iTunes market stranglehold. The iTunes Music Store has sold over two billion songs and the iPod owns 75 per cent of the digital music player market.

In a statement distributed at the Windows Vista launch event on January 30, Microsoft said: “The Sanity service will give Australian Windows Vista customers access to more than 1 million tracks to download via Windows Media Player 11 and will offer both subscription and purchase options when it goes live in April 2007.”

Tracks purchased from the store could be played on music players using Microsoft’s digital rights management technology – such as those produced by Toshiba, Samsung, Creative, iRiver and SanDisk – but they would not be compatible with the iPod.

Similarly, songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store can only be played on iPods unless they are manually converted to an open format using third-party software.

But unlike iTunes where users pay per song or album, the Sanity/Microsoft store’s subscription model means you will only be able to play a song as long as your subscription is current.

A pay-per-song model could also be offered, but further details are not yet available and specific pricing has not been announced.

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Beatnik announces new digital music format

May 30, 2007

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U.S. software company Beatnik has announced a new music download system that it says compresses songs up to 10 times more than the MP3 format, allowing for faster downloads. Beatnik bills the service as able to deliver music services to mass-market, lower end phones over 2.5G networks.

“By enabling over-the-air full-track delivery to low cost phones we are more than doubling the addressable market for music services,” said Jeremy Copp, chief sales officer at Beatnik, in a statement. “Until now only high-end smartphones and 3G networks could support full-track over-the-air music downloads which immediately disconnected the mass-market consumer from the content. Network operators and music content aggregators can now for the first time realize the potential of the mobile music market by delivering to the mass-market consumers most likely to purchase songs.”

With the Beatnik Mobile Music Player, users are promised to experience the same high quality digital music playback as on high-end digital players. The company promises its “highly efficient” file format will increase storage space on phones, and enable much faster download speeds.

Beatnik founder, Thomas Dolby Robertson, said in a company statement, “The mobile music market has shown it has massive potential. Now the race is on to turn every consumer mobile phone into a personal music player. But people demand a high quality listening experience, an easy-to-use and intuitive user interface and immediate access to the widest range of music product. The Beatnik Mobile Music Player delivers these characteristics, along with a set of services that will ensure the rapid growth of full track music delivery to mobile phones.”

The company says it is in talks with operators, handset manufacturers and content providers about adopting the system and expects to announce a partnership in a month.

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Plunge in CD sales shakes up big labels

May 29, 2007

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Terra Firma Capital Partners, a private equity investor whose diverse holdings include a European waste-conversion business, is paying more than £2.4 billion to buy EMI, in a deal that awaits shareholder approval.

EMI’s results, released on 21st May, show revenue down 15%. Operating margin collapsed from 9.7% to only 3.3%. Underlying profit before tax went into free-fall from £159 million to £63 million.

EMI cut its revenue and profit forecasts twice this year. The company, which released albums by Robbie Williams and Norah Jones in the second half, reported an “unprecedented level of market decline” and “an exceptionally high level of product returns” when it cut its forecasts in February.

Slumping revenue previously has driven EMI Chief Executive Officer Eric Nicoli to seek a combination with Warner Music as a way to reduce costs.

Warner and EMI dropped efforts to merge in 2000 after regulators opposed the plan. EMI’s attempt to buy Bertelsmann AG’s BMG unit in 2001 was also stymied by regulators. EMI again failed to combine with Warner in 2003, when a group led by Bronfman won the bidding for Time Warner Inc.’s music unit.

The need to diversify to survive so as not to rely directly on CD sales or downloads is increasing. The biggest one is music publishing, which represents songwriters (who may or may not also be performers) and earns money when their songs are used in TV commercials, video games or other media. Universal Music Group, already the biggest label, became the world’s biggest music publisher after closing its purchase of BMG Music, publisher of songs by artists like Keane, for more than £1 billion.

The owners of all four of the major record companies also recently have chewed over deals to diversify into merchandise sales, concert tickets, advertising and other fields that are not part of their traditional business.

Despite all efforts, CD sales have plunged more than 20 percent this year, far outweighing any gains made by digital sales at iTunes and similar services. Aram Sinnreich, a media industry consultant at Radar Research in Los Angeles, said the CD format, introduced in the United States 24 years ago, is in its death throes. “Everyone in the industry thinks of this Christmas as the last big holiday season for CD sales,” Mr. Sinnreich said, “and then everything goes kaput.”

It’s been four years since the last big shuffle in ownership of the major record labels. But now, the sales plunge is dimming hopes for a recovery any time soon and that’s when this new game of corporate musical chairs began. By the time it’s over, we can be facing a whole new industry hierarchy.

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra goes digital

May 28, 2007

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has taken its first giant steps into the digital domain. Hard on the heels of launching the orchestra’s new in-house CD label, CSO Resound, it has announced a partnership with digital distributor IODA that will make CSO Resound recordings available for download via iTunes, Yahoo! Music, Rhapsody, Napster, Verizon, Sprint, and other online retailers.

The CSO’s outreach initiative follows similar initiatives from the San Francisco Symphony and other US orchestras but extends even further. Following a six-year hiatus, the orchestra has resumed its radio broadcasts, and the weekly BP Chicago Symphony Orchestra Radio Broadcasts are now available on the air or Internet via the WFMT radio network and its subscription-based website. The orchestra has also begun to make its Beyond the Score series, replete with multimedia content designed to help people better understand masterworks of classical music.

The implications are vast for audiophiles and music lovers, many of whom are thankfully one and the same. The Chicago was the orchestra of Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim, whose CSO recordings of the works of Strauss, Mahler, Bartók, Respighi, and other core composers are the stuff of sonic and interpretive legend. It is the orchestra that a number of other great present-day conductors, including Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez, have chosen for many of their key recording projects. And with the launch of CSO Resound and the initiation of 21st-century–style outreach, the organization has finally wrested control of its recording destiny from the hands of major-label marketers.

CSO Resound’s first live release—Mahler’s Symphony 3, with mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (who sang this part on Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of the work with the San Francisco Symphony), the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and the Chicago Children’s Chorus—celebrates the beginning of Bernard Haitink’s tenure as Music Director of the orchestra. The performance was recorded in October 2006, shortly after the famed Mahler conductor began his first full season with the CSO.

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The battle over music piracy

May 25, 2007

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Time.com, in partnership with CNN, has published an interesting article about the cultural aspects of music piracy. Lev Grossman has taken the recent news of Amazon.com entering the MP3 market and raised some fair questions about why it might be a success in Time’s Technoculture section.



Learning to love your inner pirate

When Amazon.com announced its plan to open a digital music store to sell MP3s, you had to really work to get excited about it. It’s hard to think of a press release that would be less surprising. At this rate, my 3-year-old daughter will be opening a digital music store pretty soon. And Amazon’s selling MP3s? It’s a digital music store. What else would it sell?

But Amazon’s move was actually a strategic salvo in the great secret war of the $60 billion music industry, the fight over Digital Rights Management, usually known by the spine-tinglingly thrilling abbreviation DRM. What’s DRM? An invisible layer of software that bodyguards a computer file and limits what you can and can’t do with it. Buy a song from Apple’s iTunes Media Store, for example, and you can copy the file to five computers but no more. That’s because the song comes with Apple’s DRM software, FairPlay, baked in, and FairPlay has its own ideas about what is and isn’t fair. Most people don’t even notice DRM–who puts their music on five different computers anyway?–but there’s something annoyingly unfair about FairPlay even in the abstract. You paid for the music. Who is Apple to tell you where you can and can’t stick it?

Nobody will admit to actually liking DRM. Consumers feel retailers are treating them like potential copyright criminals. Retailers say they use DRM only because the labels make them. The labels blame us, the customers, for being such filthy music pirates. And around we go. Steve Jobs even swore that he would de-DRM every track on iTunes if only the labels would let him. (Jobs did broker a deal with one label, EMI, to sell DRM-free music, with higher audio quality. But it’ll cost ya: DRM-free tracks will go for $1.29 vs. the standard 99¢.) Amazon is saying it’s prepared to go skinny-dipping in the digital music pool: the company will sell all-nude, plain-vanilla MP3 files stripped of any DRM.

This won’t make Amazon the iTunes killer. There’s no way Amazon will match the silky-smooth user experience of the iTunes store–I mean, interface design and hardware integration are what Apple does–or the depth of its song selection. DRM-free music is a nice perk, and the freedom-loving anti-copyright geekerati will be all over it, but there are more important things in life. And Amazon doesn’t need to kill iTunes anyway. Amazon’s music store will be a handy tool for setting up package deals and promotional giveaways and such, but that’s all it has to be: a loss leader, not a world beater.

But all this does bring into stark relief a basic question that haunts the music industry: Can consumers be trusted to control their own music without pirating the record labels and the artists they produce right into the ground? The answer is yes. People have been buying and selling music for years without DRM, in a form you may have heard of called the compact disc. CDs have never had DRM attached. Off the record, most executives–on the technology side at least–will tell you that DRM is a dinosaur that’s waiting for the asteroid to hit. It’s just a matter of when the music industry will stop assuming its customers are all criminals.

To be clear: most of us really are criminals. Almost everybody owns a little stolen music. But a little piracy can be a good thing. Sure, O.K., I ripped the audio of the Shins’ Phantom Limb off a YouTube video. But on the strength of that minor copyright atrocity, I legally bought two complete Shins albums and shelled out for a Shins concert. The legit market feeds off the black market. Music execs just need to figure out how to live with that. (And count themselves lucky. When it comes to movies, consumers actually do act like hardened criminals. The real pirate war is being fought in Hollywood.)

In the end, the real consequences of DRM may have nothing to do with piracy. One side effect of Apple’s FairPlay software is that music purchased on iTunes plays only on Apple products–i.e., on iPods. The result is that DRM helps perpetuate Apple’s quasi-monopoly in the portable digital-music-player market, which ironically has a slightly Microsoftesque air about it. (The European Union is looking into an antitrust suit.) If–meaning when–Apple drops DRM for good, the playing field on the hardware side will get a whole lot more level and the iPod will have a whole lot more serious competition. Zunes, Sansas and other exotic digital fauna will all be able to play songs from iTunes. Turnabout, as the saying goes, is fair play.

in: Time

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Coketunes down while digital up

May 24, 2007

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Music download site Coketunes has announced their shut down earlier this summer.

Coketunes, which started in late 2005 – when it was New Zealand’s biggest legal music download site – will wind up on August 10, at a time when digital music is about to make a big impact on the nation’s singles and album charts.

The news comes as the Recording Industry Association launches a new-look sales chart based on counter sales, radio airplay and, for the first time, digital music downloads.

Coca-Cola says the demise of Coketunes has nothing to do with competition from other websites and the hotting up of the digital music market since the Apple iTunes store opened in November.

Coca-Cola communications manager Alison Sykora says the website had served its purpose and it was time to focus on new ideas.

“When we came up with the concept it was to provide something that wasn’t available in terms of having a mass online music store with most of the major record labels on board,” Sykora says. “It’s basically a case of the job having been done. It did what we wanted by providing what our consumers wanted at the time.”

She says one of the main objectives of Coketunes was to channel the profits from the website back into a music fund to help promote emerging New Zealand artists.

Only two received grants- singer Ladi6 got $15,000 for her debut album and the Madison Press received $12,000 worth of music equipment.

The new music charts start next week and the Recording Industry Association expects the singles chart to take on a very different look given that digital music sales will be taken into account.

It will also be a more accurate reflection of what New Zealanders are listening to compared with the old system which was based mostly on radio airplay.

Changes in the album charts will be less obvious because the actual album – not a digital version – is still the dominant format.

The digital sales data will be collected from sites that include digiRAMA, Vodafone, Telecom, Textunes, Amplifier, RipIt and iTunes.

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Personal radio stations in every room of the house

May 23, 2007

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Sonos, Inc., the leading developer of wireless multi-room music systems for the digital home, has announced a new release of Sonos System Software v2.2 that will bring Pandora to the award-winning Sonos Digital Music System. Pandora, the developer of the ground-breaking personalized radio service, and Sonos have collaborated to provide music lovers with an exciting new way to discover music from the palm of their hand, and enjoy that music all over the house. The free software upgrade is available to all registered Sonos customers via Sonos’ wireless handheld Controller.

With Pandora and the wireless Sonos Controller in hand, users can create and play up to 100 radio stations based on their favorite songs or artists. Using Pandora’s Music Genome Project, Pandora’s highly-trained musicians analyze songs, one at a time, using close to 400 musical traits including melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics, and more to automatically build a station with songs that share interesting musical similarities. Users can take hold of the Controller and rate the music they hear to further refine the station’s playlist on the fly.

The Sonos Digital Music System allows music lovers to create and play Pandora radio stations all over the home without ever installing an application or turning on a computer. It is possible to play the same Pandora radio station in each room, perfectly synchronized; or, play different stations in different rooms to fit the mood. In fact, Sonos can simultaneously stream 32 different Pandora radio stations to 32 different rooms.

“Pandora has melded the human judgment of music experts with the best of computer science to create a new, breakthrough experience in radio,” said John MacFarlane, CEO of Sonos. “Combined with Sonos, Pandora gives you the feeling that there is someone magically guiding your music listening throughout your home.”

“Our mission is to work with exceptional companies like Sonos to expand the reach of Pandora and our Music Genome Project,” said Tim Westergren, Founder of Pandora. “With Sonos, we continue to unite the Pandora experience with groundbreaking devices that truly reinvent the way music lovers interact with music in the home. This partnership illustrates what radio looks like in a connected world — anytime, anywhere.”