Monday, January 22, 2007

Midem: Universal start to think what the future holds

Ah, the lure of Cannes, out of season: the music industry gathers, free from the prying eyes of the public, to run up expense accounts bills they'll spend the rest of the year pretending they can no longer afford, what with all those pirates. Yes, it's Midem time again - suits on yachts, pulling their clothes closer round their necks as they sniff the changing winds of their industries.

At the curtain-raising Midemnet event, Universal Record's eLabs head Larry Kenswil suggested that the old ways of the music industry should be considered part of the past:

"We can't think of it as counting unit sales anymore," said Kenswil. "We have to license ... and think like the publishers."

Of course, the eLabs isn't the whole of Universal, which is unlikely to be abandoning its part in the RIAA lawsuits-and-DRM subindustry any time soon. Talking of which, earlier, Mitch Bainwol of the RIAA, and his celluloid-stinking chum Fritz Attaway of the equally litigious MPAA squared up to the Consumer Electronics Association's Gary Shapiro.

Amusingly, Bainwol tried to suggest that DRM does us all a favour - "served a legitimate pro-consumer role", he said by "creating new models." In other words, by giving consumers the chance to buy the same music again and again and again in non-interoperable formats. Yes, that's really lucky for us. It's in the same way a car crash is a wonderful pro-consumer event, allowing the purchase of a new, shiny automobile.

Meanwhile, further evidence of just how DRM will make all of our lives better comes from Pete Guttman at the University of Auckland: the new version of Windows will degrade video playback if the "owner" of the content (you might think that if you've bought a blu-ray DVD, you own it... but, no, you don't) so decides. In effect, it could mean that legitimate content will play as poorly as a pirated copy because you're not using the cables the studios feel you should.

Back at MIDEM, there are signs that the record industry is starting to realise too late that its DRM fetish cannot hold: John Kennedy of the IFPI even acknowledged as much, while making it clear that the majors aren't actually going to turn their ship around yet:

"Each of the majors is wrestling with the advantages and the disadvantages of going with MP3s without any restrictions at all," said John Kennedy, head of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, at a press briefing on Sunday. "But I think this is an experimental year."

Yes, do some more experimenting. Don't take any decisions too quickly; it's not like you've already wasted the best past of a decade in starting to think about these things.

EMI, then, is trying some un-DRMed stuff. But only in China. Virgin Megastores and FNAC are going to sell mp3s - but only in France, and only then from indies. Yahoo Music is going to experiment with limited open downloads - but it experimented all last year, too.

Of course, as soon as someone draws the conclusions from these experiments which our panel (of children the age of four) could already deliver - people like to be able to move the music they've paid for around the devices they have paid for - Amazon are ready to roll with their download store, promising non-DRM files for everyone, for a small fee.

What that means for iTunes is anyone's guess. For now, Steve Jobs must be hoping that the record industry decide to keep extending their experiments the way they love to extend copyright terms.

It's also unlikely that Universal will continue to be taking a dollar off the price of every Zune sold in a DRM free future - if there's a world of interoperability, why would Microsoft care about threats by one label to not make its catalogue available through the Zunestore?

Talking of the unloved Zune player, Microsoft have chosen Midem to hint that it's about to launch more varieties of its player - and apparently there are plans to offer "filling stations" in store to allow people who've bought a Zune to slap on some tracks at the same time. When we were in the US over Christmas, most stores seemed reluctant to provide shelf space for Zunes at all (they could have been using that space for stuff that sells, like novelty iPod covers, or iPod adapters, or iPod-enabled monkeys with speakers in - no, honestly) so which stores are going to want to find even more space to offer a service like that isn't clear.

Further loosening the Zune's chances, it's also been revealed that the people of Europe won't have a chance to shun them until just before Christmas this year. We imagine they're lining up a "have last year's disapponting thing" campaign. Or at least an advert featuring Woolie and Worth, the Woolworth puppets, trying to persuade Westlife to buy one.

[Thanks to Michael Moran for the Register link]