Internet Music - the lowdown
Average joes and mundane janes from across the world were shocked last year when AOL merged/bought-out Time Warner. The culmination of the dot-com boom, an Internet provider for morons all but acquired one of the world's most powerful Media Empires. "Jesus," said many, "how the hell can AOL do that?" The answer is simple: AOL had crazy-valuable stock, and thirty million subscribers.
Meanwhile, we poor Canadians have but thirty million citizens - just to put it into perspective - so it becomes clear that, well, AOL must have a pretty damn good thing going for it.
What's interesting, however, is not AOL's 30 million subscribers, but rather Napster's 70 million subscribers. Yeah, that's right. Seventy. Million. More than twice the population of Canada.
Sure, anyone who's used Napster regularly knows that lots of people have multiple accounts, and nobody's really used it for months, but regardless, its statistics dwarf that of Internet behemoth AOL.
"Ok," says you, "but AOL charges money. Napster doesn't. It has no profits."
All that is going to change.
Over the next year, a total of 11 Napster-like services are set to debut, all of which will charge fees. Napster included. There are still, of course, unregulated alternatives - Gnutella and Hotline, for instance - but Sabrina the Soccer Mom isn't going to want to troll through porn and IP addresses in order to download the new Mandy Potinkin tracks. She wants it easy. And she'll pay $10/month for the privilege.
In the upcoming Music Service Wars, we've got two major players.
PressPlay (formerly known as Duet) is the all-eggs-in-one-basket undertaking by the world's two biggest record labels, Sony and Vivendi-Universal. They've got Yahoo! on board, including recent Yahoo acquisition LAUNCH (and its Net-radio system), as well as a recently bought-out 'music locker' site called MyPlay.
Their rival is MusicNet, the project spearheaded by the three other major labels (BMG, AOL-Time Warner, and EMI), as well as RealNetworks - the people responsible for that infernal RealPlayer. If you ask me, it's MusicNet that will prevail in this battle. Warner's got AOL, Netscape, Nullsoft (makers of WinAmp), and AOL Instant Messenger in its pocket, while BMG's quietly scooped up Napster, CDNOW, and mp3.com, and has strategic alliances with Lycos, Tripod and others. In fact, besides the important role that AOL can play in this whole game, BMG could almost stake it out on its own.
Each of these systems has a very stupid name, each will launch with a monthly fee, and each is counting on getting the other labels to license their music. If this is accomplished, both MusicNet and PressPlay will have all of the major label catalogues at their disposal, and it will get down to a battle over marketing and ease-of-use.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's still got some balls in the air with its MSN Music Service, and MTV (owned by Viacom) has a mini-empire with sites like mtv.com, VH1.com and Sonicnet. There are also some other indies, such as Canadian entry FLIPR, who has already signed a huge deal with Canadian/European publishers as well as some independents, and has the novel (or perhaps naive) plan to pay artists $0.04 every time someone downloads their song. Finally, Audiogalaxy's basically doing what Napster used to do. They're gonna get shut down so fast.
Regardless of who wins - or is bought out - in this battle for Internet Music Supremacy, however, one thing is certain: If you want to keep getting your illegal music for free, you're not going to be able to rely on mainstream sources. Once these new models launch, they will be advertised like mad, and what's more, the people behind these services own the mainstream sources. It's only by getting informed that you'll be able to skirt the $120/year contracts. If you're like me, and you spend more than $120 a year in CDs because of discoveries made over the Net, you're not going to want to dish out double that for the opportunity.
Or are you?