Friday 21 January 2011

"On air, on sale" is a good start. Now let's give fans everything else they want from online music, says Joe Taylor.

David Joseph of Universal and Ged Doherty of Sony made a brave and progressive move this week by confirming that their companies will release tracks to retail as soon as they go to radio.

To declare my own interest, I suggested to the Music Managers Forum that they campaign on this issue, which they did alongside the Featured Artists Coalition, the Musicians Union, iTunes and others. It's not over yet - Warner and EMI plan to continue using pre-release windows on a case-by-case basis so we can expect to see some of their releases entering the chart high after pre-release exposure, which will make it harder for media to interpret which are the real hits in the new look chart.

But this week's announcement is a big step in the right direction. It will be good for licensed download stores, bad for pirate sites, bad for people who release soundalike versions of pre-release tracks on iTunes, and not great for YouTube, which is currently the main port of call to hear pre-release music online. More importantly, it will be good for fans, who were rightly the focus of the Sony and Universal announcements.

Let's hope "on air, on sale" signals a new approach to online music, driven by giving fans what they want. Surely this is the key to growing the recorded music business - not suing fans or shutting down popular services.

Next, let's comb the internet for every significant type of music consumption out there - then let's license those services, and come up with new ideas for how to make money out of them. Or for the likes of The Pirate Bay that are truly dedicated to piracy, let's license someone else to launch a similar but better service (as Virgin Media have tried and failed to do).

Some examples:

A YouTube video is now the top Google result for most songs. There are millions of tracks that are on YouTube but not on iTunes or any other store. There are loads of ways of getting an mp3 of the audio from a YouTube video but no way of paying for it legitimately - why not?

How about a website with all label copy, artwork and label-owned photography on there? Viewing the information should be free, but prints could be available to order and images could be available to license, Getty Images-style. With some torrents, there's a printer-friendly file included which enables you to print the perfectly sized CD sleeve - that could be a commercial service.

There are forums and newsgroups dedicated to downloads of instrumentals, a capellas and stems for remixing. We should be selling these things - preferably on a website where fans could upload remixes they've made and make a share of any revenue that resulted from their remix.

How about an mp3 legitimisation service which would scan your computer for mp3s and, for a small fee, enable you to upgrade them to legitimate, properly tagged files?

Every leading artist's website should sell discographies of that artist - i.e. their complete catalogue as high quality mp3s with artwork including rarities for a decent price, available in one click. Why? Because you can get this on The Pirate Bay, but you can't get it legitimately for any artist I know of.

How about a website where fans could upload recordings of gigs they've made for others to buy?

I was at a meeting where a musical hero of mine, the artist and indie label boss Ben Watt, spoke out about cyberlockers, meaning services that allow files/albums to be downloaded by any number of users from one weblink. He was despairing because one of these companies was offering fans money to upload copyrighted content in the knowledge that this content would drive traffic, advertising sales and premium subscriptions. But surely this is exciting - it shows that cyberlockers are a viable business model and an opportunity for the industry. Why aren't any of them licensed?

Why isn't the record industry allowing fans to make available all the tracks they haven't got round to putting on iTunes, and giving them a share of the profits from resulting sales? It's easy to set up a blog giving away free music without a license, but what if a fan wanted a license to sell music off their blog? No chance. So let's make it as easy to sell music online as it is to give it away, much like buying stock for a record store - i.e. as long as you pay the copyright owners for each sale, you can sell the music. Let's have as many one click "buy" buttons on the internet as there are free streams or downloads.

How would all these services be licensed? In some cases, it would be tricky - and that's the problem. We need to rethink licensing with the aim of enabling new services rather than making life difficult for them. Our current licensing practices have scared off investors and there are very few successful online music services, while services that succeed in one country can't get a license in another (Pandora in the UK, Spotify in the US). The music industry has put huge amounts of energy and resources into anti-piracy measures. Now let's put the same effort into facilitating new services.

Licensing music should be so easy that there's no excuse for any online service to operate without a license - then the industry would really have success in going after the few remaining pirate outfits. They would no longer be launching political parties - instead they would be viewed as the moral equivalent of market traders selling shoddy CDs with colour photocopied sleeves. But, to paraphrase David Joseph, this is not primarily about preventing piracy - it's about giving fans what they want.