Networks or Services – Who is Music’s Better Partner?

When I formed the idea for a new business bundling broadband with music, in 2003, my thinking was guided by two simple principles. The first was that customers already saw music and broadband as a natural bundle. And the second was that making ISP networks able to manage and account for music services was a difficult but achievable stretch, and once completed would be a much stronger partnership and more effective competitor for unlicensed music than would over-the-top services.

November 2012 saw Google tightly integrating its storage locker service to its email product, so that up to 10GB of files can be quickly and simply shared with friends, family, and colleagues, as email attachments. One simple and obvious use would be an email revival of the tape trees that <irony> nearly saw off the recorded music business in the 1980s </irony>. So what the right hand giveth with the very innovative and exciting new music service in Google Play, the left hand might not exactly take away, but it certainly helps music fans level the music distribution playing field a bit.

The commentary on Google’s move is about competition between services, how Dropbox and Box might struggle against such convenient integration, and how email is a natural sharing medium. It illustrates how fierce that competition is, and how much churn there is as one service displaces another. This is also true in music, both licensed and unlicensed.

But let’s imagine for a while that we can move the business end of music copyright out of the services market and onto the networks. For an ISP, music is currently just data. Charging for it as music, and using the ability to build library management and playlists, and offer a coherent delivery path to consumer electronics, all this would add up to a considerable win. For services of course, authorised music is just a more expensive form of unauthorised music. Licences buy the right to innovate around the identity of the consumer and a knowledge of what they listen to, but the benefit seems not to be there for many businesses, or at least not significant enough to go through the licensing pain and cost.

My 2003 startup – Playlouder MSP – now operates a white label service enabling networks to offer music tightly integrated into their customer management and billing systems. Record companies have not yet been bold enough to offer true network licences, preferring the comfort of a managed service environment. Meantime competition rages over the attention and data that network users create, without really discovering the services they might actually directly pay for. ISPs and other network owners are music’s ideal partner in the quest to turn data back into music, while services push back by selling music by the GigaByte.

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