The celestial jukebox

Fred Wilson: “I will not buy music that I cannot remove the DRM from.”

I agree wholeheartedly, though the strategy I use is the one Fred dismisses in the first paragraph, namely burning the music to CD and ripping it back, sans DRM, to MP3 format. Yes, it’s a pain, but it beats having to jump through all the digital hoops at some indeterminate point in the future when all I want to do is queue up a song I’ve legitimately purchased and have probably forgotten where I bought the thing, let alone what magic pixie dust I need to decode it. Sure, the MP3 format has issues too, but at least I know my music will play anywhere. (Since I’m on the subject, I’m looking for some sort of a virtual CD burner, which the operating system thinks is a CD burner but which is actually a piece of software that converts the tracks it “burns” to MP3 format. Anyone know if such a beast exists? That would certainly do wonders to curtail my contribution to the world’s coaster supply.)

In practice, DRM isn’t as much as a problem for me as it seems to be for other people. Personally speaking, I don’t want to be in the music storage business—I’d much rather stream music on demand from some digital jukebox in the sky, which is why I’ve been a Rhapsody customer since 2003. (Greg Papadopoulos sums up my thinking pretty well exactly here: “I’ll bet that we will look back of this era of quasi-networking and wince, ‘How did we ever live that way?’ And the idea of wanting to carry all of your content with you will seem both old-fashioned and rather ridiculous.”) In my case, DRM is normally a non-issue—I simply route around it.

Rhapsody has come a long way since I first started using it in 2003: They added a Rhapsody To Go service, which more or less solves the “disconnected operation” problem (though I still tangle with DRM issues from time to time if I go for too many days untethered), and they finally embraced the web, though the current web offering leaves much to be desired—the Linux plugin still doesn’t support Firefox 1.5 nearly two months after its release, the web interface has huge gaps compared to the jukebox software (you can’t access your music library on the web, among other things?!), and they don’t seem to be taking advantage of the new web platform at all (where, oh where, are the RSS feeds of my favorites, recommendations, etc, so I can mash them up with other stuff?).

At the end of the day, I suspect the “economic boycott” James Governor calls for is the right way to fix the DRM problem. For my part, I’m voting with my wallet by supporting the model I want to win out in the end (that your music library will live on the web, not on your PC or in your pocket) and by buying music, in those rare cases when I do want to manage my own music library rather than letting someone else do it for me, from legitimate music services but opting out of the silos the platform providers are trying to build around me as a byproduct. Above all, I resist the temptation to climb into the big, beautiful lockbox Apple is building for us. As Clayton Christensen recently told BusinessWeek, I’m firmly convinced open standards will win out in the end:

Look at any industry — not just computers and MP3 players. You also see it in aircrafts and software, and medical devices, and over and over. During the early stages of an industry, when the functionality and reliability of a product isn’t yet adequate to meet customer’s needs, a proprietary solution is almost always the right solution — because it allows you to knit all the pieces together in an optimized way.

But once the technology matures and becomes good enough, industry standards emerge. That leads to the standardization of interfaces, which lets companies specialize on pieces of the overall system, and the product becomes modular. At that point, the competitive advantage of the early leader dissipates, and the ability to make money migrates to whoever controls the performance-defining subsystem.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but that day can’t arrive soon enough for me.

3 comments on “The celestial jukebox

  1. Andrew

    On windows at least, Nero allows you to use a virtual “Image burner” that writes to an image on your hard drive.

    Or you could always use a CD-RW :-)

  2. Scott

    After reading some of your posts on the topic of Music, I can’t help but wonder if you’re running Windows (or Wine) to get some of the software you’ve mentioned to work (i.e. iTunes,. Napster).

    Not that I think it matters really, it’s just that so many in the Linux community are so anti-microsoft that they wouldn’t think of touching any Windows software, period.

    Personally, I’m for software I like and that works. I dual boot Windows XP and Linux. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    With regard to the DRM mess, I’m not sure what the answer is. The boycott idea is quite popular, but then it also deprives one of their favorite music.

    Since I spend most of my time in Linux I’ve found the only practical thing to do is what I did 20 years ago. – I buy actual CDs. Then I can do as I please with my music (even an occassional DRM-encumbered CD if I want it badly enough. Besides the DRM on those only works if burning under Windows).

  3. Ian Murdock Post author

    Yes, I have a Windows machine in my office. Indeed, I’m partly motivated to remove the DRM so I can play my music collection on computers without the DRM software (i.e., non-Windows machines like my Linux machines, my TiVO, etc.).

    Mostly, though, it’s about predictability—knowing the music I’ve chosen to store locally will work anywhere—and about making an economic statement. As I said in the post, I’m trying to get away from having to manage my own music collection, so 99% of the music I listen to is streamed over the web. When I want to play music untethered, I have a portable device I think of as a sort of Rhapsody cache, i.e., I don’t use it for permanent storage of anything, just for temporary offline storage of the tracks I consider “favorites” at any given moment (and that changes over time).

    I refuse to buy CDs anymore, because that rewards an outdated business model. At least buying music from the legitimate online music stores rewards the direction I hope the music industry goes, but I don’t want to reward the platform providers for trying to lock me in in the process, which is why I remove the DRM before I store the track. All else being equal, I reward Rhapsody, because I think they have the right model.

    Personally, anytime I store a track locally I think of that as a stopgap. For example, the right solution for listening to my music collection on my TiVO is to have a TiVO interface that streams music from Rhapsody rather than from local storage. That doesn’t exist today, so I have to have a workaround. Rhapsody on Linux and Rhapsody on portable devices do exist today, though there is a lot of room for improvement in both cases.

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