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Monday, May 05, 2008

No Russian Roulette

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK
(Special thanks to Nik Taylor)

There are some serious music heavyweights based in Russia

Less than five years ago, music consumers in Turkey - and the tourists - were buying their music from music shops in their high street on CD format and listening to them on music players. Now, the average music lover is more likely to download their music in a digital format online from the comfort of their home, without needing to take a step out of their front door.

Globally legal downloads has come a long way in a short time. For example, it would take more than 26,000 years to listen to every song that has been downloaded from iTunes. Apple's musical behemoth, which celebrated its fifth birthday last week, has sold four billion downloads since its launch – a remarkable achievement. While Turkey's own digital platform TTNetMüzik, opened to much fanfare with Turkish artist Tarkan in tow in January, has accumulated over two million sales in its first two months. The success of such platforms are undeniable - not only to generate revenue, but to curb piracy, an issue close to the heart of the artist whose name has internationally become synonymous with Turkish music.

Yet, technology and innovation means that directions are always changing, and what we use today can soon be obsolete tomorrow. So it makes sense that manufacturers of music need to invest heavily in a range of emerging technologies and trends to stay on top of change.

Showing the Way

Digital downloadsDigital downloads and their providers are constantly being challenged by new competitors that emerge. We7, a site that enables users to download music for free, has added the back catalogue from Sony BMG to its service. Users can download tunes from the likes of Leona Lewis and Take That at no cost, so long as they don't mind an advert being attached to the start of each song - similar to Turkey's legal video platform hitklip. It's a brave new model and surely has potential to take music and video downloading in a different direction.

UPDATE: Video site hitklip closed, MÜ-YAP opens YouTube Channel >>

But the real innovators to music downloads are not in the UK. They're not even in the US. Showing the real way ahead is a place that is no stranger to Tarkan's charm; the serious music heavyweights are based in Russia.

No Russian Roulette

It started with AllofMP3. This Russian site set out to do the same job as iTunes, only better. Its music files were available at a fraction of the cost of those on Western sites. Customers could choose the format and bit rate at which they downloaded. It also had a huge back catalogue of music. But perhaps most importantly – all of its files were free of DRM.

Digital rights management (DRM) is the coding that restricts what a user can do with the music files they have downloaded. On iTunes, it means you can only load your songs onto iPods and only play them on up to five computers. On subscription sites, it's used so your songs are only accessible for as long as you continue to pay subscription fees.

The argument behind such measures is that unprotected music files would quickly be circulated illegally on torrent sites. People would then no longer pay up for music, because it would all be available for free.

The success of AllofMP3 blew that argument away. Here was a site that proved people were happy to pay for non-DRM music provided by a quality website, and that they would continue to shop there. Not only that, but they would actually buy more music than they were doing before. AllofMP3 was an enormous success story. By 2006, it was second only to iTunes in terms of number of downloads.

Downloading from AllofMP3 is no longer an option. Its legality was constantly questioned, (though it was never proven to be breaking the law). Various claims were made that money being paid to the site was kept entirely by its Russian owners, with no royalties being paid to artists. Its owners retorted by saying they paid 15% of all profits to the Russian Multimedia and Internet Society (Roms) from where the labels could claim their royalties - but that none had done so.

Whatever its legal standing, AllofMP3 was an almighty thorn in the side of the recording industry. Increasing pressure was applied to have it shut down, and it is now virtually impossible to access any of AllofMP3's sites from Europe or USA.

Tarkan and TTNetMüzik need to learn lessons from the Russian way of making money. Consumers want the cheap choice: songs that average a few pence each, high quality and DRM free. TTNetMüzik may have the price right, but they need to open up wider access to their catalogues, with greater listening freedom. This is the way forward.

Learn the Love from Russia

Russian music sites - which probably host the largest catalogue of Tarkan's music outside of Turkey - continue to attract significant custom, and the Western music industry continues to apply pressure to have them shut down. It hopes that by doing so people will go back to sites such as iTunes, where Tarkan's songs are available on a regional basis. What is perhaps more likely is the complete opposite; disgruntled consumers will opt for the only other DRM-free, truly content-heavy option available – illegal filesharing sites.

The music industry is completely missing the point. Companies such as AllofMP3 should be an inspiration for how music is sold on the internet. In the UK we are currently being asked to spend the same amount of money on a digital download of an album as for its physical CD. With all the savings made in production, transportation and materials, that cannot be right.

In addition, the download is often of lower bit rate quality and crippled by DRM. Online music should be a cheap, simple impulse buy. Sites such as AllofMP3 twigged onto this many years ago and provided what the consumer wanted. It's about time Western sites followed suit.

The consumer - more so than the music industry - has realised that it's hard to keep up with the latest gadgets and Internet platforms, for today's technology is tomorrow's junk pile.

So it's not surprising, with fast emerging technologies moving on apace to replace the old, that's there's only one thing for sure - technology doesn't hang about or wait for you to catch up. The best will always be one step ahead.

Tarkan - and the Turkish music industry - should take note, going the way of Russian music sites is no Russian roulette.

The views in this article are those of the author alone.
Read more Mark Mayhey articles on Tarkan >>

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