Category - celestial jukebox

Whatever you want to hear, whenever you want to hear, wherever you are. If the bastards ever let us…

NPR’s Post Mortem on Lala.com

RIP Lala.com

As much as I loved using Lala.com since first learning of it about a year and half ago, I never had a sense of its actual popularity. It’s nowhere near as ubiquitous as iTunes; I sorta figured it was just me and about a half dozen friends who were using it. Which is why when I did tell somebody about it I would invariably finish the dissertation by telling them that “I just changed your life…” (Did I mention that modesty is one of my strong suits?)

Now, with the news that Lala’s new owner – some Silicon Valley upstart called “Apple” or some such fruit — will be shutting the site down at the end of the month, comes this post-mortem from NPR that starts right out by calling Lala a “popular music site that allows users to download or stream their favorite songs…”

But downloading or streaming my favorite songs is just a small facet of what Lala offered. This NPR report does an excellent job of describing just what a paradigm shift this ‘cloud based,’ listen-one-time-free service represents. It’s not just about listening to your favorite songs, it’s about finding NEW favorites. And then populating an accessible library of new favorites with ten times as many selections as previous models permit because the cost is one-tenth of those services.

Justin Kantor, music curator of a site called Le Poisson Rouge, nails the point precisely:

“I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Lala,” Kantor says. “I don’t know exactly what Apple is intending to do, but there’s no doubt about the fact that streaming music is the way of the future. I think eventually MP3s are going to be the same thing eight-tracks were.”

Are you listening, Mr. Apple?

Is This The First Commercial for the “Celestial Jukebox” ?

I saw this on my TeeVee last night:

The spot ran during Tuesday’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (which of course I was watching via TiVo two days later – that’s how I manage to be both ahead of the curve AND behind it at the same time…)

Unfortunately, it’s a really dumb ad. Maybe the copywriters need to find a new profession. At the very least, they seem to have only a dim view of what they’re actually advertising here, which in my humble opinion is a complete revolution in how music is distributed and “consumed” (I put that word in quotes because once it’s all stored in the cloud, the term will no longer be pertinent but we’ll probably keep using it anyway because old verbal habits die hard…)

Even though I could have skipped it like I do most commercials (lately I only stop to watch iPad and iPhone ‘there’s an app for that…” commercials), I stopped and watched this one.  The irony is that since Lala.com announced that it will be shutting down at the end of the month, I have been seriously contemplating subscribing to Rhapsody — which, as the ad does manage to demonstrate, is available on the iPhone (also available for Android).

Clearly, Rhapsody sees the future and recognizes the gaping hole in what is currently available. With ads like this they are making the effort necessary to fill that gap.  In the meantime, the tech pundits continue to speculate about when Spotify will be available in the US (Netherlands is supposed to get it later this month), MOG.com is gaining traction, and iEverybody is wondering if Steve Jobs will finally unveil Apple’s plans for iTunes-in-the-cloud at next month’s World Wide Developer’s Conference.

In the meantime, there is Rhaspody making the case for “All the music you want for just $10 a month.”  And there is surely some measurable fraction of the audience seeing these commercials who will give it a try – and another fraction who will stick with it.  And then the purveyors of music will no longer be selling tracks for a buck, they’ll have to settle for whatever fraction of $10 their content and delivery entitles them to.

I am curious about one thing in this ad, the part where the woman with the iPhone says “…so I’m downloading tons of stuff…”  I wonder if they’re misusing the term, because my understanding of Rhapsody is that it’s a streaming service.  I don’t think you actually get to “download”  your own copies of “stuff.”  But I do think you get to listen to all the stuff you want to (up to the limit of the Rhapsody library, which is something on the order of 8-million tracks, which is something like 45 years worth of continuous music…).

But the point is made, and it’s good that the young-and-hip Daily Show audience (does that include me?) is getting the message: “with Rhapsody you don’t pay per song, we can listen to all we want…” This may well be the first time that a large audience is hearing such a message, and it will certainly give them pause.

What remains to be seen is if the commercial is misusing the word “download.”  I may have to subscribe to Rhapsody to find out.

The Day The Music Died: Lala.com Is Shutting Down on 5/31

This morning I awoke to this news:

In what has already been a rather clumsy week for Apple, Inc., what with their draconian pursuit of the Gizmodo guy over the leaked iPhone prototype, now comes the news that Apple is shelving one of the most progressive music services on the Internets (which Apple acquired earlier this year).  I’m sure Michael Robertson must be relishing this particular development.

For those of you who are not familiar with Lala.com, just do a search of this website and you’ll see that I’ve been extolling its virtues for over a year as an important element in the inevitable drift toward the Celestial Jukebox — which I have defined simply as “whatever you want to hear, whenever you want to hear it, wherever you are, if the bastards ever let us.”

So score one for the bastards.  At least temporarily.

When Apple acquired Lala, there was of course absolutely no indication what the proud new parent company planned to do with its errant adopted child.  Lala’s business model — essentially ‘renting’ music instead of buying it for a fraction of the purchase price  — presents a direct challenge to iTunes  still dominant 99 cent purchase-only model.

So it is easy to rush to the conclusion that Apple has thrown Lala under the bus, particularly since this announcement comes during a week when Apple is being universally reviled as the the personification of the very Big Brother it challenged with its famous 1984 Mac ad.  And that may very well be their strategy here, to shelve Lala and continue selling music for 99c per track.  If that’s the case, it’s a strategy doomed ultimately to failure.

You also have to wonder what sort of coincidence is it that this shut-down announcement arrives on the same day that Apple announces the availability of the iPad 3G.  Coincidence?  Maybe not.

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters what Apple does with Lala.  If Steve  honestly believes that there is no future for streaming subscription services, if he truly believes that in the age of infinite storage and bandwidth people are still determined to “own” a tiny library of music when the technology offers the “access” to the ever expanding universe of all the music that has ever been recorded, then he really is off his meds.  Technology is destiny, and destiny in this case is the Celestial Jukebox.  This is just another case of the bastards standing in the way.

Or is it?

Steve Jobs has not driven Apple to the threshold of global domination by being stupid.  And throwing Lala under the bus is stupid.  So I have to believe there’s another shoe to drop.

I have absolutely nothing to substantiate this expectation.  I have after all discovered in the past year or so that I do have an inordinate capacity for self delusion and wishful thinking, and maybe this is just more of that.  But I still believe that sometime later this year Apple is going to announce that it has rolled the guts of Lala.com into iTunes, and that rather than suppressing the inevitable, Apple is going to embrace it, advance it in ways that we can not yet imagine, and once again transform the music business.

Here’s what I still believe: that sometime later this year – maybe in concert with the introduction of the next iPhone, or maybe when the new iPhone OS4 (with limited 3rd-party multitasking) rolls out for the iPad, Apple is going to introduce a cloud-storage program with a streaming subscription service. I think Steve Jobs is prescient enough to see that that model is the ultimate promise of all this technology.  I don’t think he’s foolish enough to think that he alone can stand in the path of the inevitable rush of technological progress, even if he does own iTunes.

So we wait for the other shoe to drop.  There is another chapter to this story.  Maybe it’s not the ending I want to see.  Maybe Steve keeps telling us we have to pay 99cents per track to gather digital music.  If he does, then he is just clearing a wider path for MOG, Rhapsody, or even Spotify (if it ever comes to this country) to push iTunes and its antiquated “unit purchase” model out of the market place.  Or maybe Steve will do it himself.

I mean, if indeed Lala is truly dead and never to be resurrected in another form, what will I and thousands of others do to replace it?  I for one have gotten pretty used to listening to stuff I’ve never heard before in its entirely for free, at least once.  If I can’t get that capability through an iTunes version of Lala, hell, I’ll just hold my nose and go subscribe to Rhapsody.  And you really think Steve Jobs is gonna let THAT happen?

But like I said, after three decades of PCs and Windows, I don’t now have a house full of Apple products because Steve Jobs is stupid.  So you all groan and gnash your teeth over today’s announcement of the closing of Lala, and I will share your disappointment and fear of the future.  But I don’t think this story is over by a long shot.

The Horns of a Digital Dilemma

Numbers that not even Lady Gaga can compile

A couple of items that appeared over the past few days clearly illustrate the looming challenge that faces anyone who is trying to forge a life as a performing musician in the rapidly arriving era of “cloud” stored music and digital delivery.

First, the Associated Press compiled this piece that examines the potential of subscriptions services from a “consumer’s” (in quotes because I hate that term when it is applied to digital music) perspective (along with a sidebar comparing three competing services):

There’s no more need to own songs before being able to listen to them at your convenience.

No more buying music to download onto computers and mobile devices — and certainly no more stacking CDs on shelves. Virtually the whole world of recorded music is at your fingertips at any time, for a subscription, over the Internet.

Services that make this scenario possible haven’t proven very popular yet. But new price cuts and advances in technology could finally drive the idea to the mainstream.

Well, gee, now, where have we seen that idea before??? Personally, I find it a tad amusing that the “mainstream media” is finally coming around to what has seemed obvious to me for more than a decade: namely, that all of this technology is leading to a time when all our record collections are remotely stored and delivered on demand through digital channels, mobile and stationary.  I guess the idea is finally becoming trendy now that it has been enveloped in easily grasped terminology, i.e. “the cloud” business.

The AP article does a good job of assessing both the upside of a subscription service and some of the reasons why such services have yet to catch on:

Justin Darcy, a 32-year-old sales director at a resort company in San Francisco, says he consumes so much music it would cost him $10,000 a year if he didn’t have a Rhapsody plan. He calls it ”one of the greatest values in consumer goods I’ve ever come across.”

Given the obvious benefit of being able to listen to millions of songs as if they were in your personal stash, why haven’t services like these gotten more use?

Partly because of poor marketing, previously clunky execution and the fact that people are more familiar with compact discs and downloading songs from Apple Inc.’s iTunes music store. People who spend less than $120 a year on music also wouldn’t see the subscription plans as such a great deal.

But the AP article does a rather poor job of exploring the dark underside of this musical Nirvana where $10k of product consumption is suddenly reduced to a $10/mo subscription: namely, what do such economics portend for those who provide the content that the clouds will deliver?

For a frightening hint at the answer into that question, I now direct your attention to the other piece I found over the weekend.  Consider this chart, which calculates the actual  revenue generated by existing “cloud-based” services.  The bottom line appears to be: in order to earn the equivalent of even a minimum wage from Spotify (often cited by music pundits as the best example of a subscription service but still not available in the U.S.), your songs would have to be requested and delivered considerably more than 4-million times every month.  I don’t think even Lady Gaga is posting those kinds of numbers.

And, it’s ironic to read one comment (in the Sullivan post) on this chart by Techdirt’s Dennis Yang:

…it’s very interesting to note that in the new, digital era, artists actually make more off of their album sales in iTunes than they did in the old, physical world. And selling albums digitally through cdbaby, without a label, stands to bring in much, much more money for the artist — and frees them from the headache of distributing a physical product.

…which somehow manages to completely miss the point.  Yes, artists and bands earn more from their product sales if they skip the conventional channels  and go “direct to fan” via iTunes or CDBaby.  But when storage and delivery makes its final, ultimate move to “the cloud,” even those economics are going to evaporate.  How much artists make from “album sales” is going to become largely irrelevant because there aren’t going to be be any more “album sales.”

You think it’s tough now?  Just hold your gonads for a few more years…

Cloud storage eliminates entirely the imperative for listeners (let’s call them that instead of “consumers, OK?), to “own” their own libraries, so all the economics of “distribution” go straight to hell.  Yes, it’s a great deal for “consumers.”  Who can argue with “whatever you want to hear, whenever you want to hear it, wherever you are”?  (Yes, I know there  are lots of people who argue with that premise now.  They say stupid things like “…I have to OWN my music!”  Well, no, you don’t, but don’t get me started…).  But that is going to change.  And when it does, the “value” in delivering recorded music to listeners is going become something approaching zero, as the chart seems to make pretty damn clear.

Yes the last refuge for “album sales” is going to be at gigs — the “souvenir factor,” somebody has called it.  But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests that even that revenue source is starting to dry up.  So how will performing artists sustain their creative enterprise in the era of “cloud” based digital delivery?

As I’m typing, an answer begins to occur to me.   I see better now the future-leaning-logic in my distaste for the word “consumer” where music and arts appreciation is concerned.   That’s a word that derives from the whole product-manufacturing industrial mentality that has lingered into the 21st Century.  It really is time we toss that term onto some ash-heap and burn it.

Consumers buy products. But clearly, as “atoms become bits”  the value in “products” is steamrolling toward zero.

Therefore, the sustainable future, I believe, is going to depend on altering the relationship between artists and audience.  So long as artists continue to think of their audience as “fans,” those fans will be expected to “consume” their “products.”  And once the Celestial Jukebox is fully realized, they are just not going to do that any more.

So stop thinking of your audience as “fans” and start thinking of them as your “patrons.”  Pretend we’re back in the Renaissance, and everybody in your audience is a Medici — there to fortify their status in the world by patronizing the arts.   Then find tools to empower your “patrons” to build their own circles around their interest in your art.  Build relationships, because, clearly, there ain’t much future in building products.

And then get your power tools out and start hand-cranking.

48 Hours with iPad: It’s Still The Chair, Stupid

The UPS guy said he felt like Santa Claus

(but it’s no Celestial Jukebox.  Read on…)

Today I am an iPad.  Well, actually, Saturday I was an iPad.  And by and large I’d have to say I’m pretty pleased with it.  It does just what I expected it to do – i.e. replace my Kindle and iPhone as info-sources.  It’s a LOT easier to use than the iPhone as a reading device, and it does a LOT more than the Kindle ever could.  And if that was all I had to say about it, that would be enough.

Now that Saturday’s “iPad nerdgasm” has passed, and everybody who wants one finally has one, the Interwebs are rife with reviews and commentary.  There’s really no need for me to go on at any more length than those who have already chimed in about the basic upsides and downsides of what is, truly, a new category of device.  If you want a comprehensive overview of the whole experience, you can do no better than Jason Snell’s rundown over at MacWold.com.

The new "default position" for using a "computer"

When the iPad was first announced, I anticipated its arrival with a blog post entitled “It’s The Chair, Stupid” — in which I surmised that the breakthrough implied by this new device was not in its hardware, nor its software, but in the way it would be used:  by sitting in a chair, as Steve Jobs is doing in the photo that accompanies this and the prior post.

I am somewhat familiar with this posture. I  had a tablet computer before this one, for about two years from 2005 to 2007 (the year I gave up on PCs and switched entirely to the Mac platform, one of the single best decisions I have ever made).  That model had a swivel screen that flopped back over the keyboard so that you could hold it like a book or write on it with a stylus.  It sorta worked, but was just not very convenient.  It was still too big, and while reading on it was semi-satisfactory, I invariably had to flip the screen back around and use the keyboard in order to do anything with it.  That early-iteration Tablet PC went the way of eBay when I got my first MacBook in the summer of 2007.

The iPad is an infinitely superior expression of the tablet concept.  Once it arrived on Saturday I put my laptop away and everything I needed to do online I could do with the new device.  The keyboard is not outstanding, but it’s adequate.  I was, for example, able to make a reservation from a hotel’s website with little difficulty.  I read all my e-mails and replied to those that I needed to.  And when I sat back Sunday afternoon for my coffee with Frank and Maureen, the whole experience — navigating around the browser, navigating pages with my finger, shrinking and enlarging with a pinch — was a revelation.  It was, in a word… “fun.”

Is the iPad a “game changer”?  Opinions vary. I think it makes a difference in how I can do things, whether that qualifies as a game changer or not is entirely debatable.  But I think the key insight is gleaned from this observation in Jason Snell’s MacWorld piece:

There’s just something about surfing the Web using Safari on the iPad. It feels different, somehow. Apple’s marketing pitch says “it’s like holding the Internet in your hands,” and while that’s a little bit cheesy, it’s not far off. There’s just something different about holding that Web page in your hands, rather than seeing it on a desktop or laptop PC, or on a tiny iPhone screen. Tapping on links doesn’t feel the same as clicking on them with a mouse. It’s a good feeling.

My point, exactly.  Nice to see that somebody who actually gets paid to say such things agrees with me.

Back in the day, you would sit in your comfy chair with a book, a magazine, or a newspaper — and that was it.  You had a single source at your disposal.  The breakthrough that the iPad represents is: now you sit like you would have with a book, magazine, or newspaper, and you have the whole fucking world at your disposal.  Yes, you had that with your laptop, but that’s still a “lean forward” experience, dominated by the presence of the keyboard; and yes, you have that with an iPhone, but absorbing content from a 2-inch screen can get pretty tedious after not very long.

So yes, boys and girls, this is something different, and something new.  And I like it.  A lot.

That said, I hasten to add:  the iPad in its current incarnation does absolutely nothing to advance the realization of the Celestial Jukebox.   You can’t use Lala.com with it because all the players in Lala are based on Flash and the iPad famously (infamously?) does not support Flash.  You have to assume that is going to change, hopefully sooner rather than later, now that Apple owns Lala.com.  But there is no evidence of that acquisition in the iTunes that comes with the iPad.

I cannot even access the music library on my desktop computer from iTunes on the iPad (as I can with iTunes on my MacBook using the “home sharing” feature). So until I start loading my 16GB with locally-stored music, the iPad is really not much of a music player at all. I don’t think it will even play Pandora (also Flash-based.  Maybe Apple should acquire Pandora, too — before Google does…).

And the absence of any kind of third-party app multi-tasking likewise continues to be an impediment for using the iPad as a “jukebox.”  Until multitasking is available, there is no way to use a program like Rogue Amoeba’s “Airfoil” to flip the audio signal from the iPad to your stereo (it does work well with Bluetooth headphones, but that’s not how I typically listen to music).

But I think all that is going to change with time.  Apple is typically slow to unveil all of the potential of a new device.  I mean, how long did it take them to integrate “copy/paste” into the iPhone?  I think that’s what’s going to happen here.  I don’t know when — nobody does — but I fully expect that sometime later this year there will be an entirely new version of iTunes that supports storing your music “in the cloud.”  And already there is rampant speculation that the next iteration of the iPhone OS will enable some form of third-party app multi-tasking.  If/when those things happen, the functionality of the iPad will also improve by a full order of magnitude.

In the meantime, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got.  I expect to start canceling magazine subscriptions any day now…

Another Crack in the “Product” Wall

I remember the first time I heard somebody — the manager of a band called “Goose Creek Symphony — refer to a box of CDs as “product.”  The use of the terms struck me as oddly discordant.  Cereal is a “product.”  Soap is a “product.”  Toilet paper is a “product.”  I never thought — and still can’t think — of music as a “product.

The promise of the digital era is that music can no longer be thought of in those terms.  It’s not entirely clear yet what in terms it can be thought of; maybe it’s “process,” as in “the process of engagement between performer and audience.” And here’s Techdirt reporting on one emerging scenario re: how that process sustains a creative enterprise:

More And More Musicians Embracing Free Music With Subscriptions For Support

mrharrysan sends over the news of musician John Wood who is experimenting with giving away free music, while setting up a subscription to support him, as he creates a new album every month. It’s not just a new album, but a pretty cool website called Learning Music Monthly which includes some cool artwork as well (and, hey, the music’s pretty good too).

Wood isn’t yet making a living from this effort (though, I imagine an Associated Press article won’t hurt), but it’s cool to see another artist build on some of the ideas we’ve seen from others — like Jonathan Coulton’s song-a-week project, or Olafur Arnalds song-a-day for a week project — and then build a subscription offer on top of it, similar to what Matthew Ebel has done with his subscription offering. Basically, what we’re seeing is a lot of very creative people experimenting — not by all doing the same thing, but by trying different things, sometimes inspired by others, sometimes arrived at independently, but all doing something cool.

In many ways, all of this business model experimentation is similar to the kind of experimentation these musicians do in the music itself. That is, they take ideas they have themselves, combine it with ideas inspired from others, and come out with something wholly unique and creative, which best matches with their own community. It’s improvisational business modeling.

Improvisational business modeling.  Sounds like a model to me.

Is the iTunes+Lala.com Merger Destined for the iPad?

Last week CNET.com offered some thoughts about how the iPad will work as a music player.  I think they're on the right track with this item: 

IPad_music_small_270x190 

Cloud-based music service. Even if the iPad had wireless sync, the most affordable model has only 16GB of storage. This isn't enough for most music lovers' digital collections, especially if they're going to use the iPad for other functions like electronic books and photos. So how about taking that Lala acquisition and using it? Instead of having to load music onto the iPad itself, I could sync it from my computer to Lala's online music locker service, then stream it over the Web directly to my device. Bye-bye, storage limits. Best of all, every time I update my music collection, it's updated everywhere simultaneously. This is such a no-brainer I'd be stunned if Apple doesn't make it available shortly after the iPad launches.

via news.cnet.com

This seems pretty obvious to me. I wonder what sort of a fast-track the Lala team is on to incorporate its functions into the iPad version of iTunes.

One disadvantage of the impending iPad compared to, say, an actual MacBook is the absence of third-party multi-tasking. On the MacBook, that capability is essential for the "browser is my iPod" scenario because it requires Rogue Amoeba's Airfoil software to flip the audio signal from my browser to an Airport Express (or Apple TV) and then to my stereo.

Without multi-tasking, that scenario is not going to work with the iPad. But I can still use iTunes to connect to my Airport Express or Apple TV, since iTunes has audio export to other devices built right in. So what's missing is the ability to access my music collection from the iPad without needing to store the whole 60GB collection on the device itself.

I'm sure Apple knows this, and that's why the company acquired Lala.com. My entire music collection is already in Lala's cloud. I suspect it is only a matter of time before it shows up in my iPad's cloud as well.

iPad: It’s The Chair, Stupid

OK, I guess it’s time to admit that I’m running too many blogs, and I need to figure out some way to consolidate them.  It dawns on me I haven’t had much to say here about the iPad, when it suddenly further dawns on me that that’s because I’ve been posting my iPad observations over at 49chevy.com.  Like this one:

via graphics8.nytimes.com

Everything they say about the new iPad is right, and everything they say about it is wrong. Mostly, I think they miss the point. The breakthrough with the iPad is not the gizmo itself, or the way it will deliver “iBooks.” It’s the way we will sit with it.

Until yesterday, there were three ways that people interface with a video device. The first was the original – television – sitting back on a chair or sofa with the screen in the distance. The second was the computer, sitting at desk, leaning forward with a keyboard, or in your lap. The third was with a smartphone – staring at your hand.

Now there is finally a way to access all the media of the web – text, audio, video, games – while seated comfortably in a sofa or chair, the way we sit with a book or a magazine, from a screen larger than a deck of cards.

The device itself is certainly not perfect, but it is a powerful first iteration of the way people are going to use digital devices in the future.

And only the future will reveal how content will evolve to suit the new technology. It always does.

Will Google’s New Music Service Affect Your Business? Surprise: It Might.

Kate O’Neil Gets It:

Kateo What I think is even more interesting, from the standpoint of a
meta-marketer, is the way this further positions Google as the champion
of user experience. Structured semantic search results are going to
continue to emerge, and they will put relevant answers in the path of the searcher, not just options for a possible destination.

If your business has historically provided stock quotes, then you
already experienced this when Google (and other engines) put stock
quotes at the top of search results for a ticker symbol.

If you’re a music content provider, you’re about to experience this.

If your business hasn’t been affected yet, it probably will soon.

Amen, sister.

Spotify Fans Weigh in on “Google’s sorry music widget”

Logo_400_90 Spotify is big in the UK — where, I guess, you can actually get it. So it’s not surprising that a British source would make unflattering comments about not only the pending new “Google Music” service, but Lala.com as well:

Hyped overnight as a Google ‘Music Service’, what we see instead is set to be the most underwhelming launch in a long history of label-backed music flops. It’s barely a ‘service’ – merely a sorry widget that yokes a DRM-crippled version of LaLa’s already unpopular streaming offering with unsold Adwords inventory.

Instead of a text ad, a search for a music related keyword will show a widget. This allows you to listen to the song, according to Business Week – but only once. After that you pay to hear the stream at 10c a play. (You can also buy the song.)

Don’t all rush at once.

Ah, apparently they haven’t done their research there. You don’t pay “10c a play” to hear the song again. With lala.com you pay 10c for the track and then you can listen to it as much as you want, forever and for always.

Now granted, that’s not quite as encompassing a model as a flat monthly fee for all your ears can eat, but it certainly makes a buck go farther than shelling out 99c to download the track when the fact is all we really want to do is LISTEN to it.