Monday, June 15, 2009

Virgin Media plots an all you can eat buffet. Sort of.

Virgin Media (the thing that used to be NTL & Telewest) hope that the attraction of an all-you-can-download music service is still there, as they announce plans for a new service.

When they say 'all you can eat', though, it's not quite that: their deal is with Universal, so it's more a bottomless serving from a limited section of the mainstream music industry rather than a true smorgasbord. And since most people don't know what label artists work sits under, the potential for disappointment as you discover that, oh, Pipes Of Peace wasn't released on a Universal-leaning label, is high.

And then there's the price:

The proposed monthly pricing structure of the new Virgin Media downloads service has not been revealed. But the company is thought to be looking at charging at a level roughly the cost of purchasing "a couple of albums a month". This would put a monthly subscription at about £15.

I will allow a slight pause to allow you to wipe off whatever you may have splattered across your monitors.

Fifteen quid? A month? £180 a year? Just for Universal's music?

Given that you're competing with a wider offering that costs nothing near two hundred quid, it's hard to see how this is meant to be attractive. There had been talk about hiding all-you-can-eat deals in the cost of normal broadband access, but if one record label thinks that access to its service is worth that sort of money, it's clear that consumers would notice quite sharply any such attempt.

Maybe a fiver a month, if all the majors were on board, and you might have a consumer offering.
"Virgin Media's agreement with Universal is a world first and lays the ground for a truly unique service when it launches later this year," said Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Group and a shareholder in Virgin Media. "It will give music fans all the MP3s they want for a small monthly fee whilst supporting the artists whose creativity is the lifeblood of music."

Branson may well think £180 a year is a "small" fee, but surely even he knows that "all" the mp3s people want may come from other labels? After all, while this deal gives access to V2, it doesn't have access to proper Virgin Records' back catalogue, which sits in the EMI vaults.

A Virgin offering which doesn't actually include Virgin product. Nice.

I wonder if anyone took Branson aside afterwards and pointed out that it's not entirely a world first, either, being as how it's just a stunted version of the one between Nokia and the majors?

Tied in with this is the pushing of a hugely watered-down 'three strikes' system:
In addition Universal Music and Virgin Media say they will work together to protect the music company's intellectual property to "drive a material reduction in the unauthorised distribution of [Universal's] repertoire across Virgin Media's network".

This will include raising awareness of online piracy, legal downloading alternatives and, as a last resort for "persistent offenders", a temporary suspension of internet access. Suspension of service could be for as little as five minutes.

"No customers will be permanently disconnected and the process will not depend on network monitoring or interception of customer traffic by Virgin Media," the company said.

Eh? While welcoming the reaffirmation that throwing people off the internet for having an unlicensed tune or two is just daft, what is the point of a five minute disconnection? Who is driving BPI policy this week - Supernanny Jo Frost?

"now... you're going to have to sit on the naughty step until you learn."

Five minutes? Isn't there every chance that the user might not even notice the suspension? Or - if it's five minutes of requested access - they could just start their machine up while they go and make a pot of coffee?

And how does Virgin intend to do this without monitoring or intercepting customer traffic? Will they just do it at the behest of the labels regardless of if there's any evidence or not? Are Virgin really saying they'll happily cut people off - for however long - without any idea if an offence has been committed?

And if you've paid fifteen quid for unlimited access to Universal's back catalogue, will you still get sat on the naughty step for downloading the same tracks elsewhere? It's all a bit half-arsed.


Anonymous said...

Besides wondering about the old "what's to stop me downloading their whole back catalogue in a month before cancelling my subscription" question (I guess it's very unlikely they'd literally offer "all you can download") I've started wondering why would I want to pay for mp3s at all? I know most people seem to joke and criticise "digital audiophiles" for talking about lossless files, saying that they can't tell the difference or whatever and this isn't me siding with either side of that argument but there are other issues I wonder about. When music file encoding first became popular, the mp3 format was a necessary evil. We compressed audio files purely because we had little space to use on that 512MB hard drive. Similarly when sharing these files over the internet became popular we used the compressed files because downloading a 600MB wav file of an album would've been daft and if you'd started in 1999 you'd probably still be at it now! However, these days we are already seeing reasonably affordable hard drives large enough to store lossless copies of 1000s of CDs and bandwidth speeds that make downloading larger files seem worthwhile. Portable players are also slowly getting larger (although admittedly over the last few years this seems to have become a frustrating secondary concern for manufacturers more interested in installing gimmicks). In ten years time all these things will presumably be far larger than we imagine now and I've begun to wonder what the point of compressing files would be. I mean why would I want a lesser quality file even if the difference is practically unnoticeable when there's no need for it. If I buy an mp3 file now from any of the online services, how's that going to sound by then? Why should I subscribe to a service where I'm buying something now that I truly believe will be obsolete in ten years time? At least when I buy a CD I can rip that to my computer in whatever format I want whenever I want (albeit illegally due to the stupidity of current copyright laws) but where is the guarantee that in the future I'll be able do anything with that downloaded file other than delete it? Why do I suspect that yet again I would have to buy it... again? At the moment I obviously use mp3s like everyone else (my 16gb portable player isn't exactly large enough for my whole cd collection and probably only plays mp3s plus I can't afford those "reasonably affordable" HDs I mentioned above!) but I'd like to have the option in the future for a little change. (I suppose a possible future option would be portable players that just connect to some kind of imaginary sci-fi streaming service along the lines of spotify with a far more comprehensive catalogue, encoded in some lossless format but even then my concern would be about how much of guarantee you have that the files are being suitably protected against degradation and other similar issues.)

(Ok so I ignored the whole vinyl issue and passed over the fact that I'm sure there's many CDs that are probably encoded pretty low plus I avoided delving into the question of why mp3 is the compressed format of choice despite the suggestion from some quarters that some formats like ogg are better but you get the idea)

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