Flat-rate music for all

Like many people, I have watched the ‘progress’ of the music market with keen interest over the years and, in my opinion, there is only one sensible outcome likely.

The changes within the music industry over the years have been quite startling. Vinyl records and CD’s are giving way to the MP3 file, and the old distribution model of shops selling records and CD’s is being replaced by internet downloading of these MP3 files.

The problem for the record industry is that many people are not buying music any longer. When kids have learned how easy it is to get any music they want for free, why would they think about paying money for it at a shop? However, if nobody gets paid for making music, eventually there might be no more music. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has gone to extreme lengths to prosecute people it finds pirating music online. This bad publicity has not done them any favours though, and may even have caused the piracy to escalate. Something needs to change.

The production of music CD’s costs money and uses resources, requires shipping to the shop where it will be sold, which burns fuel. If we replace this distribution and sales mechanism with simply allowing people to download the music, we have automatically eliminated these unnecessary steps and have polluted the environment less. The internet is the perfect distribution mechanism for music, and you can immediately obtain any music you wish 24/7, unlike buying music at a traditional shop.

In order to make music work on any device, protection needs to be removed — i.e. DRM needs to be removed (Digital Rights Management).

Also, the music creators need to be remunerated for the whole thing to work. And things need to be made as easy as possible so that it works without too much overhead.

Also, people want to own music, as they aren’t that happy with the concept of renting music from subscription-based services.

According to this article, the average American spends around $24 annually on music, i.e. $2 a month.

So, it is my opinion that the final solution involving the sale and distribution of music will involve:

  • your internet service provider will give a small sum each month to some ‘media creators fund’ from your monthly subscription
  • you will then have unlimited access to unprotected music and movie media which you will be able to play on many devices without restrictions
  • the money within the ‘media creators fund’ can then be distributed to the relevant parties involved

The exact mechanism for distribution of this fund would have to be worked out in detail, but I believe the simplicity of a system like this would enable it to work efficiently, with no need for policing it, as piracy disappears immediately, assuming all ISP’s participate. For example they could distribute the funds according to what was downloaded the most, or in some other way. If some ISP’s didn’t participate then provision of a unique, personal ‘media access key’ could be considered, which needs to be provided when downloading.

So the million dollar question becomes cost. How much money should people pay each month? My feeling is that a figure of around $5 a month would be about right, and for that you would be able to download music or films without any restrictions.

I was interested to read this week that Rick Rubin was talking about something like this — see here. However, I think he is asking people to pay too much when he quotes a figure of around $20 a month. Many people would not be able to afford this on top of their ISP bill.

For years, I have believed that a flate-rate charging system for media downloads would be the only workable solution to ending piracy, having seen the futile suing and hand-wringing of the RIAA, as they completely fail to see the possibilities of the new era of music distribution, and instead, try desperately to hang on to their old business model of selling albums via shops at ridiculous pricing levels.

Once a system like the one above would be available, you would see things like Apple’s iTunes Music Store disappear overnight, as you have to pay a lot for each track (i.e. not a flat-rate eat-as-much-as-you-like model) and some tracks are protected with a proprietary DRM system that only works on Apple’s iPod players.

I look forward to seeing what will happen, but I know what I’d be betting on happening, if I were a betting man.

Update 30/12/2007

It seems Warner has finally seen sense too and removed protection from their online music downloads. Now all they need to do is move to a flat-rate model, but that might need them to think a bit longer ;-)

OK, let’s help these people a bit:

  1. encode your music in a high quality format — at least as good as current CD quality
  2. use lossless compression so we don’t lose audio quality
  3. avoid using any attempt at protection, like DRM, so the music can play on many devices
  4. make the music available for all (as proposed above)
  5. sort out a mechanism to ensure the music companies make a reasonable profit whilst ensuring the artists get fairly paid

Once the music companies have figured all that out, we might have a happier situation for all. But I won’t expect this to change any time too soon, although things seem to be going in this direction all the time, so we’ll see :)

Of course, companies in the media-selling business can always choose to continue with some of their restrictive practices, as it provides us all with plenty of free entertainment, like these stories, just for starters:

Update 07/01/2008

Well, today it seems like the last of the four biggest music companies has finally seen sense and agreed to sell music without DRM protection. Whoopee Sony, well done! You get the prize for being the least forward-thinking music company of the four! See this story for more details: Sony drops locks on music albums. Now these companies just need to move on to the next phase — barrier-free online distribution using the model advocated by this article. Go, go, go!

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