Over the weekend I discovered an interesting site called Anywhere.FM. Obviously capitalizing on the success of Last.fm, judging by the name, these guys are offering the one feature still missing from Last.fm: storage space for a user’s music.
Last.fm offers copious streams for quite a good selection of music, but it never did have the gall to permit user uploads, surely for fear of litigation. Now that CBS has bought out Last.fm, that’s something that will surely never be added, as big companies are always more afraid of big companies than the little guys are. Plus, Last.fm stands to make a good chunk of change by maintaining control of what is streamed. If the user doesn’t get to choose what to hear, then Last.fm can sell airtime on the radio stream to record labels, who then foist their content upon the user.
I should mention that it is possible to create “playlists” Last.fm, but given that uploads are not permitted, playlists can only be built using songs which Last.fm have deemed popular enough to add to the database themselves. This means they paid royalties for them, of course, which is a cost passed onto the user in a variety of ways, whether through further restriction of content channels, copious overt advertisements, or nagging for subscription membership.
What Anywhere.FM is promising to do is jerk the reins from the hands of the labels and hand them to the users, something Last.fm seemed to be intent on doing back in its Audioscrobbler days. The question is of course whether they can remain below the radar long enough to build a substantial user base and thus dodge litigation by offering to sell data on users’ listening habits in order to hone targeted advertising.
Profit models are probably the least important thing when it comes to Web 2.0 ideas and venture capital. I’ve seen some big time money get tossed out to projects whose only possible revenue plan would have to be selling user data to advertising firms, or otherwise bundling the product with delivery of advertising content. After all, the Mozilla Foundation is receiving about $50,000,000 a year from Google, just for setting Google as the default search engine in Firefox. This chronic windfall might be leading to an early death for Thunderbird, but that’s the topic of another post.
So can Anywhere.FM live long enough to befriend the aging yet belligerent dinosaur record labels? It depends on so many things. To be sure, they have to avoid making a lot of money for a while yet. This Last.fm managed to do superbly well, as anyone who remembers the old days of the pokey Audioscrobbler servers can attest. But eventually, once it proves popular, someone somewhere is going to want to buy it, if only for the massive amounts of traffic, which can be sold to advertisers for a pretty penny.
I’m interested in how much can happen before the inevitable buyout takes place. Obviously there are going to be a lot of angry people once it’s widely known that Anywhere.FM is providing the means to stream globally for free. While it’s technically possible that the site could contract out to advertisers and forward cuts of the profits onto artists and labels, it absolutely will not happen, first because the site isn’t legally obligated to give money away like that, and second because the labels aren’t legally obligated to tolerate the streaming.
But I can’t quite accept that Anywhere.FM is bad for the music industry. I don’t believe that anything which vastly bolsters the popularity of a industry can harm that industry. I should further qualify that only the bolstering of “positive” popularity can do good to something, a distinction I find like that between fame and infamy.
There’s no question that whoever uploads music to this site is going to test out the “Share” feature by linking their friends to it. Music will be heard and neither the artist nor the label will receive compensation. I think that given the low cost–zero dollars coupled with only a bit of time and some bandwidth–consumption will climb substantially: as a result of this, people will listen to more music. How can that possibly be a bad thing?
The common argument is that artists can’t give away their work for free. They’d go broke! The stock rebuttal to that is that certain people would never pay for an album anyway, so it’s ultimately no loss to the band in terms of financial gain. The interesting dimension is that those who steal the album and wouldn’t have paid for it anyway might pass the music along to others who are willing to pay. Thus the initial infringement–zero financial loss, remember, though certainly a latent morality of strict justice might dictate that “no one rides for free”–is turned into profit in the end.
This might sound far-fetched to some, but it really doesn’t to me. Perhaps it’s absurd to suppose that the biggest consumers of music, adolescents, are going to buy CDs in this age of pervasive P2P, and quite frankly, I think that it is. The record labels waited too long to jump on board the digital bandwagon, and now they’re getting left behind. But so many opportunities remain! For instance, anyone who truly loves a band will do all that they can to see them in concert. They’ll buy merchandise, perhaps even merchandise that’s actually made by the band members, thus effectively giving them 100% of the profits. And in addition to CDs, concert tickets, and merch, there’s still the holy grail of popularity: internet traffic.
How much traffic a band earns is now such a solid indicator of success, even major labels are conceding its validity. As the acquisition of Last.fm illustrates, copious traffic is grounds enough for investment, and it’s no poignant insight that fans flock to where the media is.
So maybe this will work out for the better, and commercial music will evolve a bit. Or maybe Anywhere.FM will be stamped out like scores of other startups are every day, unable to pay to fight Goliath in court. But maybe we’ll find out soon, because when I found the site this weekend, it bragged about 5,342,227 tracks having been uploaded. As of this writing, it’s climbed to 5,362,101, and still ticking.
While we’re at it, why not check out my stream? It might not be there forever.