Friday, 16 January 2015

Digital Music

Years ago consuming music was easy. You bought a record and played it. The cassette tape came along and teens recorded the radio to save money but basically bought records because of the quality. When the world began to go digital it was pretty clear that you could make an exact copy of your favourite music and pass that around. Quality got better and if people copied their music with the same enthusiasm as cassettes then one record could be copied 100s of millions of times.

In the 1990s Napster was born. Basically people figured out how to share their music on an industrial scale. It was the record company's worst nightmare. If you believe their story it was all pretty innocent stuff. Napster didn't even think about the music business. All they wanted was to share their music. A documentary called Downloaded by filmmaker Alex Winter explored the Napster phenomena in detail. Suffice to say that it's influence, whether intended or not, has affected the business model of the music industry for the last decade or more.

The reaction from the music industry was defence in depth with DRM (Digital Rights Management). CDs had 'copy protection' and digital files had 'signatures' and 'licenses' that prevented them being played on all but approved devices. The pirates pretty quickly broke the encryption and unencrypted MP3 files of music circulated. If you paid for your music you increasingly battled layers of security preventing you from copying your purchased music between the devices you personally owned. The honest paying consumer was unable to easily use their music collection.

Portable music players could now play digital music but to move the music from a pc to a device required a bit of technical knowledge. Often copying wasn't enough. You would have to register devices and copy secure files or convert formats. Sony's players used one format and Microsoft another. The DRM MP3 format was discouraged by the music industry because it could not be secured and it could easily be copied.

So people often downloaded files from illegal sources just to be able to easily move music between devices. If you had the technical knowledge to deal with DRM you probably got annoyed enough just to go to illegal sites to download.

Microsoft were one of the most compliant and 'legal' companies. They fully co-operated with every bizarre copy protection method put to them by the music industry. The result was disastrous. They came up with the Playsforsure certification. Although it was meant to assure customers that any device would be compatible with Windows PCs in practice it meant the opposite. Few devices worked with each other and consumers became hopelessly confused. Microsoft then launched Zune. This was their own player that was incompatible with their own Playsforsure.

Apple's Steve Jobs took a different view. He wanted a player and online music store that was easier to use than piracy and DRM that consumers won't even notice. This became the iPod and iTunes. Needless to say an easy to use service did better.

As music industry revenues slid downwards due to lower sales services like Spotify changed consumption again. Consumers could stream unlimited music over the Internet to always connected devices. Even having a music collection was no longer necessary.

I am currently a subscriber to Xbox Music. This is Microsoft's latest attempt to be relevant in consumer music. They have got better. They still have music licenses and DRM. The price of the music is expensive compared to just buying a CD. However the interface is pretty good and it's available across a range of multiple devices.

However in the usual Microsoft way they just had to make their music service less cool and less attractive than Apple's dominant iTunes or upstart Spotify and its' rivals.

The first problem is they branded it 'Xbox Music'. This made many consumers who might have bought in think it was only for the Xbox gaming consoles. They then made it more confusing by only allowing Xbox users to have access if they had a separate music subscription.

The service became really exclusive when it was launched as part of Windows 8 and Windowsphone. Since there was no desktop client the company's most popular operating systems, Windows XP and Windows 7, could not run the music software.

If a company could have designed a product to fail Xbox Music would have been pretty close.

In the following years the original very buggy Windowsphone software improved. Clients were made available on IOS and Android. A web interface arrived. It got better. Of course the famous expression is that you only get one chance to make a first impression.

The service is still missing an online locker service – which is a bit crazy given their cloud aspirations. Music matching still leads users into spasms of frustration as albums are mangled in to multiple duplicate references or are just plain wrong. Xbox Music subscribers fill the online wishlists with product improvement suggestions.

All these services are now showing that there is a lot more music around but consumers are mostly heading towards free/ad-supported or subscription models of listening. The software needs to be of high quality because users are prepared to switch. Artists need to adjust to the new model and set their income expectations accordingly.