Monday, April 09, 2007

Music and the URL

A report in today's Financial Times claims that the market for music CDs is collapsing, and music industry revenues will fall for another two years before digital sales finally improve matters.

The industry has been through this format change cycle several times before; most recently with the move from LP to cassette tape, then from cassette to CD, now to the iPod and iTunes.

But the distribution model hasn't changed so much - consumers purchase the songs and store them in their collection for later playback (either physically or on their PC). This model is the root cause behind some familiar woes:

  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) and rampant file sharing
  • Inconvenience - endless synchronization issues between PCs and each personal device
  • Difficult format changes every decade
It's time for a change, because now we have the ultimate distribution model - the internet - which changes the rules.

I don't think that any music should be stored by consumers. Instead, it should be kept centrally and downloaded on demand whenever consumers want to listen. That way, consumers can not only purchase tracks - they can rent them, or subscribe to a library, or any combination of the three.

Imagine if every track had just one URL - e.g. - and every time you wanted to listen to it, you had to visit the URL. Your hi-fi, your phone, and your MP3 player would all be connected to the internet. To save re-downloading favourites, you could just request the HTTP head to confirm permissions and the latest version.

Using URLs neatly solves the problems above. The tracks can be accessed from any device, using the same online account. Consumers can't copy and share tracks, because they don't hold them. And format changes are just a matter of a simple internet download.

There are only two things in the way of this model, but they'll surely be attained within a few years.

  • Internet Access - every device has to be connected to the internet, at live music speeds. It will take several years before this happens; the iPhone will have Wi-Fi, but not 3G.
  • Trusted Cacheing - browsers have to prevent users from independently accessing cached files.
iPods may have revolutionised the music business, but they're also the last vestiges of the PC model - storing data on the C: drive.

It may take longer than two years, but eventually music will become a true internet business.

Only then will the music industry be able to profit from long overdue new business models.

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