Tag Archives: eMusic

Software, Slowly, Gets Better

Is it just me, or are software developers beginning to get their users? For a long time I’ve felt the only real innovation in software has been in online applications, Web 2.0 non-apps—simple services that exist in your browser—but now it seems that ordinary apps are getting better too.

Evernote, I feel, is one that’s really leading the charge. They’ve taken the feedback that us users have been giving them and have added, incremental release by incremental release, some really cool features. For example: now you can save searches in the Windows version. Reminds me of the old Enfish Tracker Pro, whose departure I still mourn. In fact, Evernote isn’t far off becoming a real database instead of a dumping ground for things you’ll read one day. Maybe.

Skype, too, have pulled their socks up. I hated 4.0  beta, not least for its big bumbling footprint. But the new version is better—a lot better. The main improvement is the option to make it look like your old Skype. But it has some nice new touches, including a chronology scroller that might interest Evernote’s legal department (Skype on the left, Evernote on the right):

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Move the bar on the right and you can move easily through old chats. Legal niceties aside, I think this kind of innovation is great to see, and almost restores my faith in designers realising that we don’t just use software in the here and now, but also as repositories of past heres and nows, if you know what I mean.

In short, our decision to commit to software is largely based on how much we will be able to get out of it. Not just in terms of hours saved in what we do now, but in what past information we’ll be able to get out of it. We have been using computers long enough now to have built up a huge repository of interactions and memos, and we want, nay we insist, to be able to get that stuff back. Quickly and easily. And, increasingly, to be able to move it to other places should we wish.

Google understands this relatively well. A chat in GTalk, for example, can be readily accessed via Gmail. And, now, we can also see and search our other data held within Google’s silos, right within Gmail, via some widgets from Google’s Gmail Labs. Here are two widgets that let you view your calendar:

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and here’s one to see your documents within Google Docs:

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Note the window at the top for searching through your document titles. This means one less step to access your data.

All these things have some basic concepts in common:

As I’ve mentioned, it’s about being able to get what you’ve put in out. Skype have listened to their customers and realised it’s less about the interface and more about the information the interface gives access to. If they were smart they’d find an easy way to send old chats to your email account or at least make it easy to search all your chats from one box. (I’m told that, or something like it, is coming in the ‘Gold’ version of  Skype 4.0 next year. Until now only group chats—three or more people can be saved to your contact list.)

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Secondly, software should, where possible, work with other people’s software. Emusic’s new download manager (above), for example, does something that has been missing ever since the service launched. Previously, if you wanted to include MP3 files you’d bought from the service in iTunes, you’d need to either drag them across into iTunes or re-introduce the folder into iTunes. The new version of the downloader tool now synchronizes automatically with iTunes, meaning you don’t need to do anything. Thank God for that.

There are tons of other things that software needs to do that it presently doesn’t. I could start listing them but I need to go to bed. But maybe in this downturn developers could take a note from some of these examples, and use the time to look more carefully at what users need, at how they use your software, and explore new and better ways for them to use it for what they do, not what you think they should do.

The Death of DRM, the Rise of Patrons

Forget being a big old mass music consumer. Become a Patron of the Arts.

The IHT’s Victoria Shannon chronicles the last few gasps of life in Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music, saying that “With the falloff in CD sales persisting and even digital revenue growth now faltering in the face of rampant music sharing by consumers, the major record labels appear to be closer than ever to releasing music on the Internet with no copying restrictions.” This has the inevitability of death about it (this morning I tried again to rip my DRM-crippled Coldplay CD of X&Y, unsuccessfully) which makes me wonder: What will follow?

Most thoughts seem to be on the free music, supported by advertising, and largely distributed as promotion for expensive live concerts:

Jacques Attali, the French economist … who forecast in his newest book that all recorded music would be free in the next several decades — consumers will instead pay for live performances, he predicted — said the business model of digital music should reflect the old radio model: free online music supported by advertising.

“A lot of people will still make money out of it,” he said during an interview at Midem.

I think this shows a lack of imagination and understanding of how music has fractured. My sense is that while Britney Spears will continue to exist in the Celebrity for Celebrity’s Sake World, music has already spread via MySpace etc into much smaller, more diverse niches. I’m not saying anything sparkingly new here, but given that most articles about the majors and DRM and online file sharing focus on the big numbers, I would have thought a much more interesting model to look at is that on places like eMusic, of which I’ve been a subscriber since 2002.

What happens for me is this: I find an artist I like by searching through what neighbors are selecting for me, like this balloon on my login page:

And then I’ll follow my nose until I find something I like. Or I’ll listen to Last.fm until I hear something I really like and then see if it’s up on eMusic. This is all pretty obvious, and I’m sure lots of people do this, and probably more, already. But what I think this leads to is a kind of artistic patronage where we consumers see it in our interests to support those musicians we love.

In my case, for example, if I really like the stuff of one artist I’ll try to contact them and tell them so: No one so far has refused to write back and hasn’t sounded appreciative to hear from a fan. Examples of this are Thom Brennan and Tim Story, whose music I find a suitable accompaniment to anything, from jogging to taking night bus rides to Chiangmai in the rain. I’m summoning up the courage to contact my long time hero, David Sylvian, who doesn’t have a direct email address.

Of course, nowadays one can view their MySpace page, or join an email newletter, and build links up there. But my point is this: My relationship with these musicians is much more along traditional lines of someone who will support their artistic output through financial support — buying their music in their hope that it will help them produce more.

Surely the Internet has taught us one very useful lesson in the past year: That it’s well-suited to help us find what we want, even if can’t define well what it is. First step was Google, which helped us find what we wanted if we knew some keywords about it. Next step: a less specific wander, a browse in the old sense, that helps us stumble upon that which we know we’ll want when we find it.

Update: More DRM Woes For Online Music

 Further to my previous post about DRM, or digital rights management, here’s a story from IDG News Service about software that may allow Windows-using customers of Apple Computer Inc.’s iTunes Music Store to break the DRM technology that protects files downloaded from that service.
 
That the guy who posted it — or hosted it — is Jon Lech Johansen, also known as “DVD Jon” is interesting. Johansen was arrested in Norway in 1999 after he created software to crack the copy protection on DVDs, according to IDG. He was acquitted on the grounds he was entitled to access information on a DVD that he had purchased, and was therefore entitled to use his program to break the code.
 
This is, as IDG points out, at least the second time since its release on October 16 that restrictions in iTunes for Windows have been circumvented by developers. Bill Zeller’s MyTunes application allows Windows users to download music from an iTunes shared playlist over a network.
 
IDG quotes an analyst saying this kind of thing won’t necessarily be widely used, due to the low cost of online music. But he does point out that it raises costs for the likes of Apple. So why don’t people go the route of Emusic, whose MP3 files are unencumbered by DRM, meaning you can use them anywhere, anytime, and make any number of backups? I use Emusic because the music now belongs to me, physically and absolutely.

News: Emusic Scales Back

 Emusic.com, the pioneer among online music sites, has been sold, and, more importantly, is scaling back its service. It’s still the only service offering downloads in the standard MP3 format, still has the best selection of independent labels, but is now owned by Dimensional Associates LLC, a private equity group, but has limited its main subscriber base, paying $10 a month, to no more than 40 downloads a month.
 
Now, those wanting more — up to 300 tracks per month (approximately 25 albums) — will have to pay a monthly charge of $50. Sad, but inevitable. And it’s still cheaper than most online music services.

Mail: More on Pirates

 More mail about online piracy and the music industry. I wrote earlier:  
 
I agree with you about people being upset, but I’m not so sure about the recording off the radio bit. Digital versions don’t have DJs interrupting before the end of the song, and they’re perfect copies, and can be copied perfectly and distributed easily. I can give you my whole music collection on a CD or two. That makes it a different ballgame…
 
Here’s Lynn Dimick again:
 
That’s true. The question I have is this: Is music swapping costing the industry money? Now, on the surface anytime you have a product being given away for free it is going to take away from sales. But, if the product is being given to a consumer who cannot or will not buy it, even if it cost $1 then there is no lost sale. My suspicion is that the music industry is producing music that is appealing to those who have less money and less inclination to spend than before. Even if music sharing were not available they would not be buying CDs.
 
 I am 43. I have well over 200 CDs in my collection that I have bought. But I haven’t bought a CD in the past 3 years. Why? Because they (the music industry) are not producing a product that I listen to. The demographics that I belong to (white male 40+) has more money than any other age group, especially the teenagers that seem to be doing all of the sharing.
 
I heard on the news this morning that Bruce Springsteen had a concert last night at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. 55,000 people came to see the show. He has 9 more dates there. Most of those attending are going to be my age and not teenagers. Who has the money and who is being ignored by the music industry?
 
Thanks for that. Thoughts, anyone? A friend recently forwarded me a piece from The Guardian on this very topic. My view is that the music world has splintered so effectively, hastened by the advent of the Net, that it makes it so much harder nowadays to find the music we want. There’s some very appealing stuff out there — my favourite of the moment is Lemongrass, for example — but you’re not going to find them in a CD shop. In a way this diversity is good but us busy folks (I’m no spring chicken either) don’t have the time or energy to look too hard for this kind of thing. I’ve found a sanctuary of sorts in Emusic where at least one can experiment legally without blowing a hole in the housekeeping.

Column: Under the Wire

UNDER THE WIRE

The Latest Software and Hardware Upgrades, Plug-Ins and Add-Ons

from the 5 June 2003 of edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review , (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

History Scanned

The past is being digitized — fast. The ProQuest Historical Newspapers program has just finished scanning more than a century of copies of The Washington Post to its existing database. The database includes each page from every issue, in PDF files, from 1877-1987. The program has already done The New York Times (1851-1999), The Wall Street Journal (1889-1985) and The Christian Science Monitor (1908-1990).

Cellphone with Character

Somewhat belatedly, Nokia is getting into the handwriting phone thing, aiming itself squarely at the huge Chinese market. On May 20, it unveiled the 6108, created in the firm’s product-design centre in Beijing. The keypad flips open to reveal a small area on which Chinese words can be handwritten with a stylus. A character-recognition engine will convert the scrawls into text, which can then be sent as a message. The phone will be available in the third quarter.

Security Compromised

A new survey reckons “security breaches across the Asia-Pacific region have reached epidemic levels.” In a report released last week, Evans Data Corp. said that 75% of developers reported at least one security breach — basically any kind of successful attack on their computer systems — in the past year. China is worst off, from 59% of developers reporting at least one security breach last year to 84% this year. It doesn’t help that most of the software is compromised: Tech consultant Gartner has recommended its clients drop Passport, the Microsoft service that allows users to store all their passwords, account details and other valuable stuff on-line, saying Passport identities could be easily compromised. This follows a flaw revealed earlier this month by Microsoft after an independent researcher in Pakistan noticed he could get access to any of the more than 200 million Passport accounts used to authenticate e-mail, e-commerce and other transactions. Microsoft says it has resolved the problem and does not know of any accounts that were breached. Gartner’s not impressed: “Microsoft failed to thoroughly test Passport’s security architecture, and this flaw — uncovered more than six months after Microsoft added the vulnerable feature to the system — raises serious doubts about the reliability of every Passport identity issued to date.”

Son of Napster

Apple’s apparent success with iTunes seems to have prodded some action in the on-line music market. Roxio, maker of CD recording software among other things, said last week it would buy PressPlay from Universal Music and Sony Music Entertainment for about $40 million in cash and rename the whole caboodle Napster, which it earlier bought for $5.3 million. Pressplay offers radio stations and unlimited tethered downloads for $9.95 a month in addition to song downloads that allow for CD burning. My tuppennies? None of this will work unless companies put no restrictions on the files downloaded. Emusic does it that way and it’s why a lot of people keep coming back.

Column: the problem with online music

Loose Wire: On-Line Music’s Jarring Notes

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 14 November 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Big media’s flirtation with the Internet may be over soon after it began. At least that’s how it looks to a bunch of music enthusiasts who have been subscribing to an on-line service called EMusic (www.EMusic.com), which allows users to download songs in the compressed MP3 format for a flat monthly subscription fee (a princely $10 for most). The four-year-old service was going fine — about 65,000 users, 230,000 tracks available, revenues rising 30% in the first half of the year — until late October when several subscribers were told their accounts had been terminated, due, EMusic said, to “unusually excessive download activity.” In a nutshell, they got bumped because they downloaded more music than EMusic reckoned was fair. One or two have since been reinstated, but most haven’t, leaving a very sour taste in the mouth of EMusic’s once loyal fans.

 
This is all sad, and in my view unnecessary. EMusic has done a wonderful job in bridging the gap between the illegal world of Napster file-sharing and the old world of buying expensive CDs in a shop. But it has shot itself in the foot and raised fears that the entertainment giants behind such sites are no more committed now to distributing music over the Internet than they were pre-Napster.
 
For those of you not in the know, here’s some history: A few years back pimply youths discover MP3, a computer-file format which allows them to convert a CD into a size small enough to send over the Internet. Other youths discover ways to share such files with other users, suddenly making shops and the CD somewhat redundant. Lawyers swoop and Napster, despite being bought out by one of the big media giants, is now a redundant “work in progress” (www.napster.com).
 
Into the gap, among others, leapt EMusic (which started out as GoodNoise), with a sizeable stable of music for easy download. Deciding wisely not to tamper with the MP3 format via security features that may prevent users from doing what they want with the music they buy, the service quickly grew. Last year it was bought by Universal Music Group and later folded into the new Vivendi Universal Net USA Group, Inc., along with other music-oriented sites like www.rollingstone.com and www.MP3.com. So far, so good. EMusic has proved to be an excellent source of interesting, if not mainstream, music from classical to hip hop. In the past month I’ve become a big fan too, dipping into some great ambient and electronic stuff I otherwise would never have found, finally ditching those Dolly Parton records I’ve been listening to for years.
 
However this recent move casts a heavy cloud over the service. EMusic appears caught between the scepticism of its owners and the natural desire of users to make the most of their subscription. Ahead lurk some difficult decisions: Reuters last month quoted sources in Universal as saying a verdict would soon be made on what music Web sites would be sold off and which would be kept, probably as part of some integrated Web site.
 
So what to do? I can quite understand that EMusic wants to protect its assets. EMusic public-relations chief Steve Curry says EMusic must pay royalties to both the music publisher/songwriter — via a flat-rate fee per track downloaded — and to the record label/performer — from what’s left in the pot after EMusic takes its cut. In short, he says, the business model will only work if it doesn’t spend too much on paying the former, leaving none for the latter. If one person downloads a lot of tracks, most of the money will be paid in flat-rate royalties. “That is why we’re very concerned about monitoring and preventing large-scale abuse of our service — to make sure members are keeping it to ‘personal use and enjoyment,’ not ‘I wonder how many tens of thousands of MP3s I can possibly download in a month.'”
 
Fair enough, but EMusic’s own press releases hardly discourage such practice. The most recent states that “EMusic is a revolutionary new music discovery service that allows fans to download as much MP3 music as they desire for as little as $9.99 a month.”
 
What’s unnecessary about this is that every subscriber to EMusic knows they could find the music free on file-sharing services like Grokster (www.grokster.com) and Kazaa (www.kazaa.com). But they choose to obey the law and cough up. To me this is proof positive that most Internet folk are reasonable and law-abiding and want the artists they listen to to get some money for their work. And most would probably be happy to cough up more if it meant EMusic survived.
 
If EMusic survives it’s going to be down to whether its owners reckon it’s going to make money in the long run. If it does make money it’s going to be because its fans continue to sing its praises to others, in turn feeding more subscriptions, and, most importantly, the readiness of artists and labels to contribute their catalogues to the EMusic library. None of this is going to happen if EMusic treats its users like potential shoplifters.
 
EMusic, change your subscription model (there are some excellent suggestions on the newsgroup at http://groups.yahoo.com/ group/emusic-discussion) so that heavy and light users are catered for, but don’t drive away the very people who have helped proselytize your service. Otherwise they’ll slink back to illegal file sharing and I’ll have to root around in the dumpster for my old Dolly Parton records.

Column: MP3 burning

Loose Wire — Burning for An Eternal Flame

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 17 October 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Those of you who spent your lovesick adolescence painstakingly making compilation tapes for your paramour, wasting hours hunched over a record deck deciding on a perfect segue to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin exhaling their way through Je t’aime . . . Moi non plus, I’m happy to report that technological advances now make the process a less exacting experience. It’s nothing particularly revolutionary, but recent improvements in software and hardware have made compilation CDs something you can create at home, quickly and easily. Here’s how.
 
What you need are a CD writer, some music and some software. For Windows users I’d recommend Cakewalk’s new Pyro 2003 ($25 for a download version from www.cakewalk.com/ pyro), but you might also try Ahead’s Nero (about $40 from www.nero.com) or Roxio’s EasyCD Creator (about $90 from www.roxio.com).
 
First, the music. If you’re using CDs, programs like Pyro will convert them to a format that can be stored on a PC. These are either MP3 files or rival Windows Media Audio (WMA) files — a compressed format that loses a little of the original sound quality — or a wave file, which retains all the original range of sound, but makes for a whopping great file. Want to use your LPs, or a cassette? Pyro will handle those too, basically by having you plug the relevant machine — turntable, or tape player — into your PC, and playing the track so the PC can record it. Pyro can also remove any clicks, pops or other sound quirks that were either on the original, or which appeared during the transfer to PC.
 
Pyro does all this quite intuitively, which is why I’d recommend it over other more feature-heavy, but less user-friendly, programs. That’s not to say Pyro isn’t powerful; Cakewalk made their name in music-recording software for pros and Pyro is a spin-off from that technology, so you’re in good hands. Once the tracks are in a format that Pyro can deal with, you can view them graphically as waveforms, like the jagged signals on heart-monitoring equipment. This is great for arranging the order of songs, and sorting out how you want them to follow on from one another.
 
Once again, Pyro makes this very easy: Click and drag a horizontal line over the waveform to set the volume of each song, and drag the ends of the same line to alter fades in and out. Drag the song’s waveform to alter the gap between each song, or overlap them for that wild party feel. In my day you could only do this with two turntables, fiddly cassettes, a mixer and a lot of patience, and if you got it wrong the first time there wasn’t much you could do about it except curse Serge Gainsbourg.
 
Once you’re happy with sound levels, segues and the overall brilliance of your compilation, it’s time to burn it to CD. This is also pretty straightforward, though I ran into some minor problems, probably as a result of my CD burner more than Pyro. Pyro could have done better on the error message, which ventured little more than something like ‘You’ve got a problem, dude.’
 
On balance, though, this is an excellent way to make CDs and it’s not as time consuming as it sounds. If halfway through you decide to add a song from elsewhere, Pyro handles it without any kerfuffle. If I had any complaints, I’d like to see better contextual help, which though innovative is too patchy to be helpful.
 
Programs like Pyro also make sense for the growing number of folk downloading music off the Internet, whether it’s from the dark and illegal world of post-Napster file sharing, or the uncertain, but legal, world of on-line music subscription. If you haven’t tried the latter, I’d recommend Emusic (www.emusic.com), which, for a monthly fee of just $10, allows you to download an unlimited number of MP3s from its sizeable library. You won’t find everything you’re looking for, but it’s a great way to check out new stuff, or come across some forgotten favourites. This isn’t for hi-fi perfectionists, but it’s a worthy successor to the grab-bag tapes of old.
 
Finally, suggestions please for what song should follow Je T’aime. I’m considering Eric Carmen’s original of All By Myself, but I’m open to suggestions.