Going Digital: A Sound Guide for Songwriters and Musicians
March 2007 (Creativebias)
A SOUND GUIDE FOR SONGWRITERS & MUSICIANS
With the launch of the official UK Download chart in September 2004, the British Music Industry took a significant step closer to making official the sales of music downloads. Paid-for downloads now count towards the official UK Top 40 and in April 2006 Gnarls Barkley entered record books as the first artist to reach number one on download sales alone. A new era is dawning for the majors as legal music download sales continue to rocket - not just in the UK, but worldwide. With any number of official download sites battling it out for global download dominance, the way is paved for smaller sites and labels to offer their wares to the worldwide internet community.
The idea of a future where music is bought and delivered without a physical carrying device has a certain inevitability about it. However, there is a long way to go before this becomes the norm. What about issues with Digital Rights Management, interoperability and of course illegal file sharing? And what about buyers’ options - subscription service or a la carte downloads and the rollout of broadband? These are just a few of the complications the recorded music and technology industries will have to work on before there is any chance of the CD becoming obsolete.
SOME JARGON & KEY WORDS THAT ARE ESSENTIAL TO UNDERSTANDING ONLINE AND DIGITAL MUSIC
Platforms – No, not a fashion statement from the seventies but services like iTunes, Napster and MSN Music that supply music online to you the customer.
P2P – Stands for Peer-to-Peer and describes the file sharing software employed by the likes of Kazaa and SoulSeek for the illegal sharing of files. More recently legal alternatives to these sites have been launched where, even though files are shared, the artist, label and publisher still get paid. These services have been pioneered by the likes of Playlouder MSP whilst previously illegal sites such as Grokster are in the process of making their P2P services legal.
Digital Rights Management or DRM – These are the schemes that copyright owners use to protect the copyright of the sound recording and song when in digital format. DRM applies to both audio CDs and digital music files. It allows the copyright owner to define what consumers can do with the music, preventing them from freely copying and distributing it. DRM is now so advanced it covers the description, identification, trading, protection, monitoring and tracking of all forms of rights usages. However, consumers have many issues with DRM as it often prevents them from playing legally purchased music on the devices they want. For example, a track legally downloaded to a laptop may not play when transferred to another computer or a personal mp3 player.
MP3 – a digital audio encoding and compressing format – or more simply, an audio file. Invented in Germany in 1988, the MP3 is the most versatile of all music files that are shared over the net. ‘MP3’ is often used as a generic term to describe all kinds of sound files, but in reality different platforms use different types of files. MP3 files have no DRM encoded within them, which is why MP3 is the most commonly used file and the one traded on illegal P2P networks. All legal platforms use different file types which incorporate some form of DRM. For example, the iTunes Store sells AAC files that are encoded specifically for use on iPods, whilst Napster’s protected content comes as WMA files. You can’t play a Napster WMA file on an iPod, or an AAC file on any non-Apple player. Only MP3 files transfer across all the different platforms and players.
Interoperability – in this context, it refers to media such as ringtones, games and music files that will work on any device. For example, across all makes of MP3 players the MP3 file is interoperable. It is difficult to see how interoperability and DRM can exist side by side, and it has certainly proved a headache for developers and consumers alike. Many suspect that before digital music delivery can become truly widespread, there will at some point need to be interoperability across all formats.
If you have access to the Internet and, ideally, a broadband connection you can easily buy and download music. Prices range from free promotional offers to around 99p per track, with the average price around 79p. Albums can be bought in what is referred to as a "bundle” for around £7.99. Most legitimate music services offer downloads. Generally you need a credit card to buy music online, but new ways are emerging all the time.
Napster offers a pre-paid download card which you can buy at stores like Dixons, and redeem for downloads or streams. You can also pay using online money handlers such as PayPal; or by using your mobile to pay by reverse SMS billing.
The overwhelming popularity of Apple’s iPod and iTunes Store has been a driving force for the development of many other legitimate online music sales. However, despite the launch of rival legal download services such as Napster, Rhapsody and eMusic, Apple still holds the lion’s share of the download market.
Have a look at:
· www.wippit.com – one of the UK’s longest standing download services
· www.virginmegastores.co.uk/icat/downloads - demonstrates the importance of branding, and the benefit of a timely response to market forces
· www.warchildmusic.com – a charity led site, where artists contribute unique recordings for sale by download, with the proceeds supporting children affected by war.
· For a comprehensive list of legitimate download stores visit www.pro-music.org/musiconline.htm
· Check out www.museekster.com/legalmusic.htm for a detailed comparison of several UK music download services.
Whilst the iPod is still the nation’s favourite personal music player, there are challenges to Apple’s dominance. These include Creative’s Zen, NOMAD and MuVo ranges; Microsoft’s Zune; and Sony’s PlayStation Portable. Read about the pros and cons of each brand’s products at
One of the most recognised brands in the market is Napster, with the cool ‘cat in headphones’ logo embedded into popular culture. Since being sued for illegal file sharing in 2001, Napster has re-invented itself as a legitimate download site. Napster differs from iTunes in that it only runs on PCs, and delivers WMA files. Although it does sell tracks singly at 99 pence, its core business is based around a monthly subscription fee of £9.95 for unlimited access to over a million songs. Many believe this system of streaming music will bypass physical music sales in the future.
People seem to prefer subscription streaming - allowing them to effectively rent their music - as it gives them more choice than buying CDs and owning some of the music they like. The problem with renting is once you don’t pay your subscription for a month, all the files stored on your PC or laptop disappear. Until recently even more problematic was the fact that even if you wanted to, you couldn’t put any of your purchased songs on an MP3 player. To solve this problem Microsoft have introduced Janus, a Digital Rights Management for portable media players. Windows Media Player 10 incorporates Janus, and for the first time allows even subscription music files to be transferred onto portable music players.
There are alternatives to the established mainstream download or subscription services which actually reward people for sharing music. The Seattle-based company Weedshare allows you to listen to tracks before you buy them. It also pays not only the owners of the sound recording and song but you, the customer, for passing it on to someone else. Another variation on this theme is Passalong Networks, which works alongside eBay and PayPal to achieve a similar goal. Playlouder MSP is a third: a music specific broadband internet service provider that has a ‘walled garden’ file sharing facility. Within the walled garden, all the parties involved in making the music and all the relevant royalty societies get a pro rata share of a pool of the monthly broadband income. More recently launched was the BT and Blueprint joint venture, Open Royalty Gateway (ORG). ORG is a digital management and distribution system, and has been employed by Robbie Williams to safeguard his Greatest Hits digital download store.
Another relatively new digital music service is digital radio. Most of us are familiar with stations such as Xfm, BBC 6music and 1Xtra, that can be accessed online as well as through a DAB digital radio. There are huge numbers of genre specific stations such as Accuradio and 123party.fm, but increasingly every platform and internet service provider has its own radio station. Most of these stations can only be heard on the internet. Internet radio is one of the best ways of hearing new music; songwriters and performers, or people who run Indie labels now have a very good chance of being paid royalties for their music being played.
Yahoo LAUNCHcast and Xfm are among the big names that broadcast new music and there are also internet stations such as www.newartistradio.com, http://m4radio.com and www.alexadigitalmusic.com that are dedicated to playing unsigned and indie musicians.
DAB radio also provides opportunities to download tracks as you listen. One way this works is through the radio itself: Wayne Hemingway’s ‘Bug’ DAB radio allows you to record radio broadcasts to a memory card which you can then play back. In 2004, GWR (one of the UK’s largest radio groups) struck a deal with OD2 to provide the downloadable music content for their service www.hearitbuyitburnit.com, allowing listeners and site members to purchase tracks as they hear them on the radio.
Somewhere in between radio and mobile phone technologies are music recognition services. Using a service like www.shazam.com enables people anywhere to find out the name of a song and the artist who has recorded it. When you hear a song you want to know about, you text a number to Shazam and then hold your phone up to the speaker. Shazam texts you back with the track information. Seen as something of a gimmick in its early days, this technology could now have the potential to modernise methods used to track royalties across the global market.
AND DON’T FORGET THE MOBILES
Everyone knows about ringtones and most of us have probably purchased at least one. Newer mobile phone handsets can play multimedia format (.mmf) realtones or truetones, which offer high quality music reproduction. The majority of handsets will now play MP3 files too, allowing any audio file to be used as a ringtone. Because these formats use actual sound recordings of songs, record companies are for the first time able to claim a proportion of the huge amounts of money available through ringtone revenue. All the major mobile service providers offer 3G connections, and some handsets have Wi-Fi capability, allowing them to connect to the internet wirelessly. Wi-Fi means users can buy and download music to a phone in the same way as they would to a computer; and 3G networks handle larger volumes of data, making downloading and sharing music through mobiles more affordable and available than ever before. 3G can be used to make live broadcasts of concerts to mobile users – Rooster were the first to do this in 2004. By next year it is estimated that 40 million combined music players and phones will have been sold, and phone related music sales in Europe alone will be around £4 billion.
SO HOW DO I SELL MY MUSIC ONLINE?
This all sounds great for music fans but what about songwriters, producers, musicians and independent labels? How do they sell their music on the net without a major deal? The good news is if you have a page on a social networking website such as MySpace, you can sell your products. Get the www.indiestore.com plugin, which adds an Indiestore Flash player to your MySpace home page. Visitors can play your tracks through the player and click to buy. If you have your own website, setting up an account with companies such as PayPal or Nochex takes the hassle out of receiving payments from customers, so you could offer samples, streams, downloads and CD copies of your songs direct to your fans. If you have money to spend, find a well-connected site like http://state51.com, who will design and build an on-line shop to your specifications, get your content ready for retail and help you attract fans.
There are many sites dedicated to showcasing and promoting the work of new, unsigned or independent artists. Good places to start would be www.notsounknown.co.uk and www.cdunsigned.com. If you have more time to look around, check these links below for more ways to make the internet work for you:
Sites such as www.theorchard.com, www.mp3.com and www.peoplesound.com are independent sites that consider individual bands and labels, and in many cases downloads count towards the official charts. Be warned though that you will have to sign a contract for their services and, as with any contract offer, you must get advice before signing!
Other options include joining a network like www.weedshare.com or www.passalong.com, as mentioned earlier, that rewards fans for sharing music they like. You could also consider jumping on the mobile bandwagon by making your tracks into ringtones using the services of http://unsigned.moyst.com. If you are good with software, search for and download free DIY ringtone programs from www.download.com.
If you don’t find exactly what you’re after on the internet, don’t give up! Ask questions, and keep looking around, because new products and services are appearing all the time. Keep abreast of the industry by reading current consumer magazines - NME, Drowned in Sound, I Like Music, Playlouder, and Pop Justice all have content-loaded websites. Don’t forget about industry digests like Music Week (sign up for their newsletter) and Record of the Day.
SO WHAT’S LEFT TO SAY?
Figures show that internet piracy has been in decline since 2003. A number of high-profile lawsuits brought against individual file sharers, as well as against platforms like Napster, has turned the tide against illegal music sharing. Coupled with this, as DRM is slowly becoming more reasonable, consumers are more enthusiastic about spending their money in big-name stores like iTunes and MSN Music. Despite these changes though, internet piracy is still a huge problem for the music industry.
It is important to keep piracy issues in perspective as you decide how to make the internet work for you. It goes without saying that 1 - your songs are precious; 2 - you would rather die than give someone the chance to rip them off; and 3 - you could use some extra cash! But, if your main aim is to get your name known and generate a fanbase, you might get more back long-term if you offer free downloads of your music at first. Signing up with a showcase site like some of the ones mentioned earlier can help protect you from piracy, so if you are offered a contract check the terms carefully to see what’s covered (and then get someone else to check too!). Whether you are selling tracks or giving them away, make sure you can prove that you own the copyright to both the song and the recording.
Legal online and mobile music markets are still relatively small despite the impressive-sounding figures, and illegal file sharers continue to swap millions of files each day. This kind of file sharing continually infringes the sound recording and publishing copyright of the record companies, the publishers and the artists signed to them. The argument that file sharing software in itself does not infringe copyright does not wash in the courtroom. Therefore the British Phonographic Institute has followed the example of the Record Industry Association of America and of other European countries in bringing lawsuits not just against the file sharing companies, but individuals described as ‘serial uploaders’ – people who make large numbers of songs from their personal collections available to be shared online. So if you are one of these types of music lovers, you have been warned!
Many have argued that there is something inherently wrong in suing your customers, and that people were bound to file share whilst there were no accessible legitimate alternatives. For a long time legitimate alternatives have been very thin on the ground, but now all that is changing.
Further Reading and Useful Links
Brad Hill (1998) Going Digital: Musician’s Guide to Technology. Wadsworth Press
Fisher, Jeffrey P. (2001) Profiting from Your Music and Sound Project Studio. Allworth Press
www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/chart - home to official charts of singles, albums, downloads and compilations, as well as genre-specific charts
www.chartsofringtones.com – mobile phone ringtone download charts
Articles and advice on earning a living from your music:
Overview of retail products and services:
www.pro-music.org/musiconline.htm - comprehensive list of legitimate download stores
www.museekster.com/legalmusic.htm - detailed comparison of several UK music download services. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mp3_player#Major_brands_of_digital_audio_players - pros and cons of the major brands’ audio players
© 2004 MMDA