Tag Archives | Digital Music

The Original Walkman vs. the iPod Touch

On Wednesday, a legendary gadget turns thirty–Sony’s Walkman, which put high-quality music into our pockets for the first time. Back when I was at PC World, we named the original model, the TPS-L2, as the greatest gadget of all time; the iPod was #2. The Walkman name lives on via new phones and digital audio players; if the iPod name is still in use in 2031, thirty years after the debut of Apple’s first music player, I’ll be impressed.

I was reminded of the anniversary by a fun BBC story by a 13-year-old who tried replacing his iPod with a Walkman (he wasn’t impressed). And I was moved to create a T-Grid comparing 1979’s TPS-L2 to today’s most highly-evolved iPod, the iPod Touch. Like the Beeb’s teenaged tester, I wouldn’t give up my iPod (which happens to be an iPhone) for a Walkman. But I’m not so sure that the TPS-L2 wasn’t equally as impressive (and fashionable) in its day, in its own way…

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Michael Jackson Takes Over Amazon and iTunes

Michael JacksonReasonable people can disagree about just what Michael Jackson’s legacy is, and whether or not he was the biggest pop star of all time. But this much seems pretty much undeniable: He’s the biggest pop star to have died in the Web age. And so the Web is reflecting things about the reaction to his passing that give us more knowledge than we had when Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, and John Lennon left us.

Amazon.com and Apple’s iTunes Store, for instance, both tell us their top sellers on a continuous basis, and as I write this, both are awash in Michael Jackson and Jackson Five items. More details after the jump.

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One Virgin Music Store Dies. And Another Opens.

Sad CDThe timing must be coincidental, but file these two news stories under signs of the times: The last two Virgin Megastores in the U.S. finally closed yesterday–a development which wasn’t entirely due to the slow death of physical media, but was surely be remembered as a significant moment in the ongoing digitization of entertainment. And today, Virgin Media–a UK ISP, phone carrier, and TV provider that’s another arm of the far-flung, loosely-joined Virgin empire–is announcing what may be the first above-board music service that lets you pay a flat fee not only to stream all the music you like but also to download it in MP3 form and keep it, even if you cancel the service. The company has signed up Universal as a music provider, and says it’s working on getting other major music companies on board. It’s going to be available later this year in the UK. But in theory, anyhow, it’s the format of music service we’d all choose, given the opportunity.

What’s the catch? Well, the press release on the new service says this:

The new service reflects the shared commitment of Virgin Media and Universal Music to keep step with growing demand for online music in an increasingly digital world. In parallel, the two companies will be working together to protect Universal Music’s intellectual property and drive a material reduction in the unauthorized distribution of its repertoire across Virgin Media’s network.

This will involve implementing a range of different strategies to educate file sharers about online piracy and to raise awareness of legal alternatives. They include, as a last resort for persistent offenders, a temporary suspension of internet access. No customers will be permanently disconnected and the process will not depend on network monitoring or interception of customer traffic by Virgin Media.

Not explained: How Virgin can identify you as a file swapper and suspend your service if it isn’t watching your online activity in some fashion. I don’t have any sympathy for the plight of music thieves whose activities may be foiled by technological means. But I wouldn’t want to give Virgin Media my money as a customer without a clear idea of exactly how it’s identifying file sharers and interfering with their activities. Absent a clear explanation of what’s going on, there’s an Orwellian tinge to the idea. Call it Big Virgin is Watching You.


So, Is Napster Worth Anything? Sure!

NapsterYesterday, Harry wrote about Napster’s new price plan of $5 a month for unlimited online streaming and five MP3 downloads. I was intrigued, so I signed up.

The service isn’t new, but the updated price calls for a fresh evaluation. Consider this a mini review after an afternoon of tinkering.

Rock On:

  • Software or Cloud: The Web version of Napster is almost as fully-featured as the software, with a sleek pop-out window that acts as the player. The software lets you integrate your existing MP3 library and adds some much-needed right-click functionality.
  • The Interface: Napster’s interface looks a lot like iTunes, and that’s a good thing. On the left are your navigation headings along with any playlists you create, while the library and artist information resides in the middle. There are also radio stations and an “Automix” feature that throws together familiar and new music based on your tastes.
  • MP3 Downloads: Every month, you can download five songs. Along with the unlimited streaming, you’re getting far more value than you would from five iTunes tracks.


  • 30 Second Tracks: Leave it to some record labels to dip only a toe into the 21st century. Some labels aren’t cool with offering full tracks, which isn’t cool with me.
  • $5 Per Month? While Napster cheerily announced the price point in its press release, it conveniently didn’t say that this a limited time offer. The real price is $7 per month, to be reinstated at an unknown date. By spilling the beans yesterday, before the new site and disclaimer were available, we had no reason to assume the price would someday go up when covering the news. That’s underhanded.
  • No Online Access to Downloaded Music: I imagine this would be technically daunting, but I wish the browser version of Napster would let you play local MP3s. It should at least sync up with your library and add streaming versions of songs you already own.
  • Minor Gripes: No party shuffle, no importing playlists from iTunes, limited format support (.WMA and .MP3 only) and local MP3s won’t link up to the artist’s online section.

The Verdict: Even if my list of greivances outweighs the positives in number, I’m pretty happy with my investment. Sure, Napster has its share of nuisances tht prevent me from dropping WinAmp and iTunes altogether, and I’m worried that some day the subscription price will creep upwards. But as a tool for listening to and discovering lots of music? You could do a lot worse for five bucks a month.


Is Napster Worth Five Bucks? Is it Worth Anything?

NapsterI’ve blogged before about subscription-based music services, an idea that the tech industry has poured millions into, and which rationally makes sense–but which has never caught on with teeming masses of consumers. Today, Napster–which is part of Best Buy these days–is trying again, with a new plan that offers unlimited streaming and five MP3 downloads a month–for $5. It’s not quite a return to the original Napster’s “pricing plan”–all the MP3s you could steal for $0 a month–but it’s a vast quantity of music for very little money.

Naspter’s closest competitor, Rhapsody, charges $12.99 a month for a similar streaming plan that doesn’t include the MP3 downloads; there’s a good chance, presmably, that it will be forced to match Napster’s price. (Both companies still charge a relatively-hefty $14.99 a month for plans that let you download unlimited music to an audio player or phone.) Apple, meanwhile, will likely continue to offer only pay-per-song downloads–and will continue to utterly dominate digital music.

I don’t know the economics behind Napster’s new pricing model, but perhaps Best Buy hopes that all those $5 subscribers will be more likely to do their buying of DRM-free downloads from Napster than from another online merchant. Or perhaps it’s just thinking about the day (coming soon!) when all those CD sections in Best Buy stores go away, and thinking that it’s worthwhile to maintain some relationship with music fans, profit or no profit.

Five bucks a month isn’t free, but it’s close enough that it pretty much removes the cost factor from the question of whether subscription music has any appeal to the masses or not. If you aren’t willing to plunk down $5, you most likely won’t be more interested at $4, $3, $2, or a buck. It’ll be fascinating to see if the new pricing makes a difference–as a lover of competition and low prices, I hope it does, but I make no predictions.

Me, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’m still as likely to buy a CD as to download tracks. (Okay, not that embarrassed, but the time is coming when purchasing CDs will be as much of a nerdy affectation as collecting vinyl is today. I once subscribed to Napster but let my service lapse years ago; maybe now’s a good time to give it another chance.


Microsoft Tries to Make Subscription Music Sound Sexy. Or at Least Smart.

I feel really sorry for the companies, such as Real (with its Rhapsody service), Best Buy (with Napster), and Microsoft (with Zune Pass) that sell subscription music services. Rationally, subscription music makes perfect sense: You pay one monthly rate and get access to the service’s entire library. You can gorge all you want, and if you download an album that turns out not to tickle your fancy, you’ve only wasted a little time.

But none of these services have caught on with the American public on an emotional level–certainly not enough to make them into viable threats to the dominance of Apple’s iPod and iTunes. Apple’s sold billions of songs through iTunes, even though the price of a single album can be the same as other services’ monthly all-you-can-eat flat fee. Every time a consumer downloads a song, it’s a vote in favor of owning music rather than renting it.

Every once in awhile, an Apple competitor tries to make subscriptions sound sexy–or at least smart–via advertising. The latest example is this new Microsoft ad for Zune Pass:

Of course, as Ars Technica notes, Wes Moss–who’s a real guy–does blithely ignore the crucial distinction between digital music’s subscription and buy-to-own variants. Stop paying Microsoft your $14.99 a month, and all your music goes away, but the 99 cents you blow on an iTunes track makes it yours to keep. On the other hand, Moss also doesn’t mention a notable virtue of Zune Pass: the monthly fee lets you keep ten songs. So at least he’s glossing over important facts in a balanced fashion.

An odder thing about the ad: While it shows an iPod, It doesn’t even mention the Zune explicitly. Unless you’re paying reasonably close attention to the digital music wars, it might be unclear to you that what Microsoft is suggesting is that you go out and buy a hardware device called a Zune. I’m not sure if this is intentional on the company’s part–it may be sick of people making fun of its poor little audio player–or what.

Despite everything, Microsoft has a point here: Anyone who’s considering buying a music player should at least consider whether buying one that supports subscriptions is a smarter move than springing for an iPod. (I suspect I’m in the same camp as a lotta folks, though–I’d switch from buying music to subscribing it in a heartbeat…if you could do so and still own an iPod or iPhone.)

I have my doubts, though, whether Microsoft’s subscription salesmanship will find much more success than that of this old Napster ad, which makes the same point in a radically different fashion, stylewise:


People's Music Store Gets A Big Label Boost

peoplesmusicAs a concept, I like the People’s Music Store. It allows users to set up their own digital storefronts, in which they recommend music to other visitors through reviews, news and widgets on other Web sites. Aside from gaining cred as music buffs, these citizen salespeople earn store credit worth 10 percent of every sale.

It’s a solid system for word-of-mouth music downloads, and it’s certainly more personal than a recommendation algorithm, but two major problems are holding back the People’s Music Store from greatness. The lack of content, chief among these issues, is on the way to being solved, with Universal signing on to provide 300,000 tunes for download. The Killers, Abba and Amy Winehouse are among the newly-available artists.

The label will be the first major to climb aboard, and wisely so. Labels should jump on any sales opportunity they can, especially those that actively encourage more and more sales. “We are excited to have the Universal Music catalog on People’s Music Store because it shows that forward-thinking labels are willing to try new ways of connecting artists with fans,” said founder Ged Day, who also created the DRM-free indie boutique Bleep.com.

Now, about that other problem: Much of the content at the People’s Music Store is walled off for US consumers, including the new tracks from Universal. From reading earlier articles about the site, I see that consumers outside the US have run into similar problems with existing songs.

I know international licensing is complicated, but consumers should at least be able to filter out the stores and bands that are inaccessable to them. Really though, record labels should find a way to make their content available to everyone.

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iTunes Price Hikes Treating the Industry Just Fine

ituneslogoIf you thought the recording industry would suffer for pushing higher prices on iTunes and other download services, you’d be wrong.

Billboard reports weaker sales for iTunes tracks whose price changed from 99 cents to $1.29 a week ago, but overall revenues for the Top 100 still rose by roughly 10 percent.

iTunes adopted a “variable pricing” structure on April 7 as part of a new agreement with record labels. While most tracks still cost 99 cents, some popular songs became 30 cents more expensive, while a selection of random classics were priced at 69 cents. Forget about storming off to another service; Amazon, Napster, Lala, Rhapsody and Wal-Mart. The deal also marked the end of Digital Rights Management on iTunes tracks.

Looking at some of the $1.29 tracks whose sales were holding steady in the weeks before variable pricing, you can get a pretty clear picture of the effects. Sales of “Beautiful” by Akon dropped from 57,941 last week to 52,760 this week. That means the song generated an additional $10,699 at the new price level. The less-popular “Stanky Legg” (what?) by GS Boyz slipped by 2,994 in sales but still earned an extra $2943.54.

Missing from Billboard’s report are statistics on the songs whose price decreased. Along with the costlier tracks, iTunes launched two compilations — Rock and Classic R&B — at 69 cents per song. I have a feeling revenue increased for those songs, simply because they were lifted from obscurity and offered on sale.

All of this makes me wonder whether the recording industry will try to push prices even higher in the future. Thus far, the “voting with your wallet” concept hasn’t worked, so what’s the threshold at which consumers will resist? $1.50 per song? How about $2?


1Word for April 1st, 2009

Technololgizer's 1Word[NOTE: Response to Technologizer’s 5Words has been terrific, but many readers have told us that they think even five-word descriptions of stories are too wordy and wasteful. So as of today, we’re relaunching the feature as 1Word. Terse enough for ya? If not, we’d be happy to go to monosyllabic words. 0Words would be doable, too. Just let us know.]














So How Do You Get Your Entertainment These Days?

Technologizer's Digital Media CentralWhen it comes to media–digital or otherwise–you’ve got options. Lots and lots of them, from formats that have been around for decades to new services that may or may not amount to much over the long haul. At prices that range from nothing to kinda pricey. It’s an embarrassment of riches, so here’s a quick T-Poll to see how the Technologizer community’s getting entertainment (and news, and information) right now.

I haven’t taken the survey myself yet, but when I do, my answer will be, basically, “all of the above with a few exceptions, such as Blu-Ray, and in several other forms, too…”