Category Archives: Music

On Music: DRM (or the lack thereof)

Well, looks like a letter from Steve Jobs is worth a a million consumers’ requests. In a landmark announcement today EMI and Apple have agreed to sell non-DRMed music through the iTunes store. This is literally a game-changing, paradigm-shifting, earth-shattering decision. Some details here and here.

In my last post on Music, I had said that I “hope that India might set a different yet successful example” by selling non DRM’ed music online. But now since it is too late to set an example, at least it can follow suit?

I had this post half written – I am so glad that I am rewriting about the DRM debate in the past tense.

Instead of delving into the topic myself, let me just point out some useful links. You can read the Wikipedia entry on DRM here , Nick Carr observes here how DRM is much less about copyright protection and much more a business strategy – also points out some early EMI attempts to sell DRM free music. Bravo EMI! Mike Arrington directs us to a story where a Music Tax was being recommended as an alternative to DRM. Ha! Though this might not be all that outrageous. In Korea subscription music is a successful business model.

A campaign in the 1980s against Home Taping as it amounted to copyright infringement here. Spoofs on the campaign logo should make for good T-Shirt material.
The original logo.

A Contentsutra article that says digital music in India has surpassed physical music sales. Digital music here refers to mobile music like ringtones which amount for a whopping 88% if the industry’s revenues. I find that VERY hard to digest.

My (Pondi’s Book of Business Ideas) solution to this issue was to have a flexible conditional DRM. The prime purpose of DRM is to stop illegal sharing. However, sharing is the most potent form of word-of-mouth marketing for the music business and by preventing sharing moderately popular and upcoming artists would lose a lot of their audience. Thus my solution was that when a song was new and not selling as much – it should be sold DRM free, and as it rises up the popularity charts, a DRM can be applied. Anyway, I am assuming that ab to na raha baans so no need to bajao the bansuri (Eggxactly)

Some articles on alternative music models trying to find a middle ground between copy protection, consumer rights and commerce are here, here and here. Amie’s Street was the most interesting among these where they sold DRM-free music for free! (Actually, as a song rose the popularity charts its price increased based on consumers recommendations – “RECs”)

I think music should always be Accessible (a music store can be found on every nook and corner in India and online music will be available wherever there is Internet access), Platform-independent (the CDs and cassettes I used to buy worked on all CD players/Cassette players. Digital music has the chance of taking that a step further – playable on music players, CD players and mobile phones) and Shareable (Music is so much more fun when you share it with your friends. I miss the mixed tape bonding days of my younger years. Living on borrowed music till you could save enough to buy the original CD full with album artwork and more.)

Also a round-up on what exists in India right now, at least what I could find.

Online Music Store(s)

Soundbuzz(Site does not open in Firefox.): Windows Media DRMed music. Hindi songs from Rs. 9 upwards. If you an Airtel broadband customer, you can buy music by logging into your Airtel account and it would be billed to you at the end of the month.

Social Networking Services

Saffron Connect (A site trying to be everything to everyone) Audio (Streaming music as well as downloads posted by members)

Music Downloads within a specific Genre

RSJ Online (Some real good stuff here)

Streaming Music

Split Magazine (Indian Rock and Independent Music)

Radioverve (Indian Rock and Independent Music)

MusicIndiaOnline (Bollywood, Indipop and Regional)

DesiHits (US based, Punju, Bollywood and Desi). Have VC backing as well.


On Music : Online Music Stores in India

It’s been a while since I have really blogged (test posts from blogging softwares obviously do not count). So, getting started again with something which I really live on. Music. Though less philosophical and more functional – I am going to do a series of posts on a bunch of stuff around music. The first one about online music stores in India – or rather the lack of them.

Q. So, don’t you wish there was an online music store in India? (Before you say Soundbuzz, or before you think I am an illiterate fool who hasn’t even heard the phrase peer-2-peer or used some such software, read on).

I agree most of us have our fill (for free!) using BitTorrent or even plain old Google, I think the the lack of a good online music store, is a rather embarrassing gap in the e-commerce industry in India. Infact, I think the e-commerce industry is something can be really fueled and driven by an online music store. Why is this so? Let’s investigate this a bit.

Consumers would ask: Why pay for digital music when you can get it for free?

To begin with, sample this and this. First page results lead you to downloadable mp3’s hosted on or other sites like Plus I seriously believe that Indians are among the most guiltless when it comes to piracy (Or as Russell Peters would say : we are cheap). Of course, enforcement is also an issue here, but that needs to examined within a larger context – so later.

I am no saint either because I haven’t spent a penny on music for the last few years (except for buying the occasional song or two on and a few audio cassettes to play in my car).

But I really hate it when I can’t find a song online. I hate it when I get viruses acting like valid search results on on Limewire. I hate it when find no torrents, or worse still no seeds for a torrent file. I hate it when I have spent an hour looking for a song and still havent found it. I would pay to get that song online. And believe me this is not that one occasional song, it could be a whole catalogue of old music, which never has enough ‘peers’ compared to newer music.

Providers would ask: Where will I find paying customers?

First off, don’t count college students (or just out of college junta) who are probably the least likely to buy music, especially when the alternative is free.

But consider all these people. People who perceive using BitTorrent or even Limewire/Kazaa as geeky. People who don’t find these geeky but a waste of time – to avoid which they are willing to pay money. People who have bought swanky new iPods/Walkman Phones/or other mp3 players, but don’t have the first clue about how to get music on them (a subset of the first). People who actually buy CD’s. People who think downloading free music is piracy (a possible rarity).

I think all of the above are target customers for an online music store. And, most importantly, before you go on about online piracy – at least provide the consumer an alternative in the first place, because right now there is next to nothing. Obviously when there is no online music store, everyone will resort to downloading free music of illegal p2p networks.

Question no one has answered yet: What is a viable alternative?

This is where I count out Soundbuzz. Soundbuzz, while it does have a good catalogue of songs at reasonable prices – it suffers from that one big thing which plagues the online music industry in the US, and has been a hot topic of debate – DRM.

To put it simply, DRM is copy-protection technology which prevents the music being played on unauthorised computers, prevents conversion to other formats, limits burning on to CDs beyond a specific number and prevents it from being played on incompatible portable music devices.

In the case of Soundbuzz, it sells files in DRM’d .wma format which renders it unplayable on the most popular music players in India right now. So unplayable on my iPOD, Sony Walkman phones and my RAZR V3i. It only played on a friend’s Creative MuVo NX – and that too only if I transferred it using Windows Media Player (otherwise you can transfer songs on to the MuVo using Windows Explorer). Even Yashraj Films sells music in the same format. Also, in the US, inspite of DRM, at least there are enough stores to cater to all possible devices.

Compare all this with the ease with which you could play audio cassettes in any cassette player, CDs in any CD player and MP3s in practically every device.

So which brings us back to our first question with the additional condition – how do strike a balance between the interests of the concerned parties. Providers want to prevent music from from being pirated, yet that should not stifle the choice that the consumer has. That’s going to be the content of my next post – evaluation of the issue of Digital Rights Management in greater detail – and the hope that India might set a different yet successful example. (Chhota muh badi baat?)

Old Whine on New Bloggle

(I am allowed the use of imaginary words as and when befitting. See blog URL)

Remember how I pledged to get my drafts out faster than I can write new ones? Well that hasn’t happened as yet, but I keep trying. Atleast I am blogging more regularly (T~30 days) than I did (T~300 days). So another strategy is to blog multiple items together as against blog each one separately. I have picked 2 for this one which were still lying around in my Blogger account – completely unrelated, the only denominator is that unka number pehle aa gaya, and I had something written down already.

1. The Problem with Sony

Sometime back I attended a Group Discussion at an ad firm to help support a pitch they were making to Sony, for their forthcoming MP3 player launch in India. Obviously, a lot of comparisons were made between the iPod and a Sony MP3 player. The thing is I had nothing good to say about Sony MP3 players. First off there were too many of them – several undifferentiated, tacky, yet expensive models, preventing any one from becoming big. Second, what I hated most was how late they were in endorsing mp3, meanwhile continuing to stuff down prorietary ATRAC3 down our throats. As a result, the hallowed Walkman is now dead (except perhaps the brand being reinvented with Sony Ericsson mobile phones.)

Then I thought, did something go wrong with Sony? I mean the Walkman, the PS, the PS2, most things Sony have been great products to use and irresistible to own. When did they start going wrong and why?

And I realised that they had taken their copy protection, anti piracy antics a bit too far. One of the key strategies which Sony adopts to achieve this is by create proprietary formats around their products. While this makes a lot of economic sense to them, several these eventually gets phased out, but nor before customers have spent a lot of money on the trusted Sony brand.
There is the MD, rendered obsolete by the death of line-in recording of audio. There is the UMD, especially UMD movies, only playable on the PSP – which has no TV Out, plus it is a closed format so that no one can put their movie collection on their PSP (alternative being an obscenely expensive 2gb Mem Stick Duo). (Aside: I recently learnt that now you can buy ready to plug and play PSP ISOs from Palika on a 2 gb mem stick for 2.5k – as long as you have firmware 2.71)

Now stepping back for a few bird’s eye view thoughts. You’d say this debate on proprietary formats is a much larger one, and Sony alone can’t be blamed. Why – even the iPOD uses a proprietary AAC format. Well, agreed that it does, but it never prevented you from playing MP3s, from day one. Infact it even allows you to burn a CD from the AACs, and then who is stopping you from converting it back to MP3? In the whole piracy debate (which by the way is a long one, so I shall not get into it in this post), I think Apple is one company which has struck the right balance. It has built in a set of filters which would deter most, while vella people looking for a workaround – like me – can do what they want, which they would have done or tried anyway with any other format. Plus, it addresses important gaps – so, for example, the iPOD video has a TV Out. Stopping Piracy does not mean strangling usability. And in my view, it is very often the Sony experience which can become limiting. I shall leave it at that right now.

2. Smoking – Risk Death for the Life
As I said, two completely unrelated posts :). Smoking. At one point in time, one of my favorite topics. It used to be a pet hate. I have lived through an annoyed dad , embarassed but relenting friends (Me: Yaar, meri gaadi main smoke mat karo), amused women (Me: You smoke? I think it is disgusting!), shocked/angry strangers (Me: This is a public place sir, can you please not smoke?), the works.
Not so much anymore. I am still a non-smoker but over the years I have come to accept it, thanks to most of my friends being smokers. I can now survive living in a passive smoking cloud. I have had a pseudo-cool-smoker phase when after I had had exactly one puff of ganja in Goa, I came up with the very pretentious “I only smoke marijuana!”, which I used to say as if it was the most original thing in the world :)). I have also had some of my demented mental states where I have smoked a whole cigarette or two.

Anyway, this is not about smoking or why I hate it, its me ruminating upon smoking as a social phenomena. So the top-x format again (whenever you are struggling to write coherent prose/ running short of time, it is your best way out):
1. A person and his/her cigarette is a self contained system. Ever been to a coffee shop or restaurant all by yourself? Personally, I get conscious and resort to reading a book/playing with my cellphone/acting like I am expecting someone to seem occupied. Now picture the another person but with a smoke. They never seem out of place, on the other hand they seem rather distuinguished and content.
2. Smoking is a very effective means of social bonding. ‘Got a light?/Got a smoke?’ This is probably one of the most commonplace bonding call s between smokers. And, as far as I have seen it works really well.

Also, (I can’t remember much of it now) Malcolm Gladwell has done some good analysis of the Smoking phenomena in his book ‘The Tipping Point’. (Aside: By the way, Malcolm Gladwell seems a lot less impressive after you have read Freakonomics – both books have parts where they analyse why crime fell in New York in the Nineties, and boy how wrong Gladwell is – typical case of confusing correlation with causation).

Pondi’s Book of Business Ideas: Idea 2 –

In my extended family and my friends circle, I have the dubious distinction of being the ‘Bhaand’. So besides being expected to dance away at every potential moment (which honestly, is something I quite enjoy), another something which my bhaailog expect from me is to have the right music for a party. Unfortunately, practically all of my music collection these days is a combination of Alt Rock and Hindi Film music, and at any rate not enough of the fare you would need to have a dance party. So, second in the PBBI series is a idea which I thought of when last contacted by my cousin brother for arranging the music for his house party.

Product Name
: (The domain name by the way is unavailable, owned by someone in Mumbai)

Jab Bhi, Kuchh Bhi

Description: Q: Which is the one thing that house parties always seem to not have enough of, or of the right kind? A: Music. would be your Broadband DJ – a music streaming site specifically catering to people organising a house party, but in no mood and with no money to hire a real DJ.

Product Logo: Maybe the O can look like a drum, and the j like a martini glass. (Too banal?)

Details: The way it would work is this. Bajao’s servers host all the latest and greatest dance tracks on it’s servers. You have a party, you logon to, create a playlist with the tracks you want played, and have the music stream over your broadband connection during the party – making it a rocking success and you a perfect host. The Bajao technology also enables numerous DJing effects like crossfading, scratch, mixing etc. Integral to would be a social networking element where people not only can create and share playlists but also share stuff like cocktail recipes, food ideas and the like. Additionally it could have special playlists created and the music recorded by celebrity DJs bringing the Elevate experience to your own house.

Show me the money: a) Since there would an obvious cost of music acquisition, and possibly major copyright issues (will get to that later), one way to make money could be to charge a small fee for each hour of music played. This would seem justified because to get that music otherwise you either paid money to get it from the store (you’d say but I own what I buy from the store – will get to that as well) , or spent a fair amount of time acquiring it from your friends. b) Another obvious route (though, from what I hear, unproven as yet in India) would be online advertising – it will not compromise user experience, because of kind the service that if offers, allows it. c) One can buy a custom CD/Tracks from an online music store from his playlist. There could be a revenue share element between Bajao and the online store/custom CD maker. (You would say then why would I use Bajao again, if I already have the music? It might work, because you don’t have a party everyday, plus dance music is quite shortlived – there isn’t really a concept of ‘classics’ the way it it with other music styles.)

Pros: a) Since a party is a one-time affair, ownership is not necessary an issue. I am fine dancing to Jamelia’s Superstar at a party but I may not necessarily want to own it. It is inefficient for me to go and buy it. If I have a broadband connection and Bajao – bingo! I have it when I want it the way I want it b) Social Networking features – which party organiser would not want premade and well rated playlists with cocktail recipes to boot?

Cons/Bottlenecks: a) The obvious one firstBandwidth – which seems to practically non existent in India, and bandwidth is VERY important. I can’t stream music over 64kbps, because the bad quality would sound even worse on a high volume deck. Also, imagine the track stopping in between because of insufficient buffering – complete disaster. b) Copyright issues – as is always the case with music, plus the rhetoric around the whole issue has subconsciously affected all of us. It could jeopardise the custom CD part of the business. But the core service IS like radio so it should be feasible in some manner (though Internet radio, at least in the US, is governed by different laws than terrestrial radio, as a result of which they have to pay higher royalties compared to normal terrestrial radio) c) Does it address a broad enough market or is it a mere subset? Internet radio companies might see it as an addon for example.

Competition: Satellite radio companies could be a big ones, and they have no Bandwidth issues. Although it lacks the interactivity of the web as of today. (Worldspace by the way does not count – as it plays the same music over and over again, at least on all channels I hear). It’s quite possible that such a service exists, but I havent googled this idea as yet (a cardinal sin) – updates as and when.

Damn, I don’t have a quote to go for this one. Nevermind, shall add later.

iTunes 7 is gorgeous

I just can’t stop playing with the cover flow view. It is incredible.

I had been holding out on iTunes, sticking to my tried and tested Winamp all this while. But with iTunes 7, there is no question. Guess I am a bit of an oddball that I find album art an important component of my music. Once they allowed album art with ID3v2, I spent a fair bit of time trying to tag my albums with art. I tried Helium Music Manager, even the earlier iTunes, but it was just too much work.

With iTunes 7 you can a) download original artwork from iTunes itself (as long as you have atleast the Artist and Album name in place, and an iTunes account) , which is sexy. b) You can flip through your albums as if I was browsing through my cassette cabinet – which basically makes all that album art really worth it – and it makes browsing the iTunes library way more convenient – I could never quite get used to the Browse feature.

Apple is great that way. It is a company which believes in giving power to the people – and it does it brilliantly – it has struck a fine balance between what people want, what lawmakers and content creators want and what the economics at Apple dictate. Some things which come to mind,

1) Each generation of iPOD is an innovation in itself. It is not an incremental change but a quantum change. Yet they price their products same as the earlier generation, and even cheaper sometimes. This probably makes iPOD among the classiest and the most affordable MP3 players around.

2) I think the way they store music on the iPOD is also great. It is not easily inaccessible, so it can’t be downloaded the way you would do it from say a USB drive, but accessible nevertheless. Thus deterring most people from any illegal transfers, while letting the fighters tweak their way in.

3) They are innovative beyond redemption, and Jobs is brilliant at identifying gaps in the value chain. In a cluttered MP3 player market, they introduced the iPOD which now has more than 70% market share of mp3 players. Why did it succeed? It succeeded because of iTunes – it gave regular people a way to actually put music on to the player, taking the mp3 player from the geek domain to mainstream. Similarly the new iTV bridges the gap between taking online video to your television.

All I can say is Jai Steve Jobs. Jai Apple.