Songs in the key of money

Software manufacturers are already plotting to stop us playing music on our mobiles. Charles Arthur reports
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Last week I found myself in the basement of a London hotel, listening to some people talk about selling music to be downloaded to mobile phones. That's not ringtones - a rather separate beast - but part or entire tracks that you would be able to listen to on the machine you presently use to have conversations in voice or text form.

Last week I found myself in the basement of a London hotel, listening to some people talk about selling music to be downloaded to mobile phones. That's not ringtones - a rather separate beast - but part or entire tracks that you would be able to listen to on the machine you presently use to have conversations in voice or text form.

Now, arguably, music on mobiles is already here. If you look hard enough you'll find people who are already using their phones as portable music players. Among them is Robert Scoble, a blogger at Microsoft, who has been preening over his Audiovox (Window-powered) smartphone, to which he has added 512 megabytes of flash memory - enough to store about 120 music tracks, in normal form.

Phones with storage like Scoble's are going to be commonplace in about five years' time (remember: phones with inbuilt cameras were radical departures in 1999; adding storage is comparatively easy). That will mean phones able to hold a small library of songs, photos, videos and any other multimedia by the end of this decade.

The question is, how will we use them? The purpose of the meeting was to get some time with some of the people who write software to let people listen to music on their phones, represented by RealNetworks (makers of the RealPlayer), Beatnik (which writes audio software for mobile and other devices), and Coding Technologies, which develops software for encoding music to play on phones and other devices.

It turned into a sort of marketing love-in about the possibilities of technology which, to my perhaps jaded sensibilities, completely ignored the importance in our culture of music, and free access to different kinds of music.

All kinds of technology scenarios to "control" music on the phone were imagined: songs which can only play a certain number of times, or which you can pass on to another person's phone, who would then have to pay to listen to it or who could listen to it a couple of times before it stopped playing. Imagine, said the specialists: virally spread music, or phones that find songs a bit like what you're listening to. "As long as there's a friction-free way for users to be able to get hold of a one- or two-pound track, you don't have to surround it with protection like Fort Knox, as you would for a £10 album," suggested one.

Apple, which dominates the online music scene, sees the potential for this, having announced in July that it will produce a version of its iTunes jukebox program that will work with next-generation Motorola mobile phones.

Yet there was something profoundly depressing about the meeting, despite all the possibilities being thrown up. Perhaps partly it was because we were meeting the morning after the announcement of the DJ John Peel's death. Beyond all the plaudits about his broadcasting style, what mattered about Peel was his ability to surprise his listeners with music they would never have sought out, or even imagined they might like; and also his ferocious quest for music that lay beyond the force-feeding beloved of record companies. What I heard that morning sounded like the antithesis of Peel's ability to surprise you. You'd only hear the music you were allowed to.

But everyone - even record company bosses - has a bit of Peel's attitude, a desire for the new and unusual, in them. What was depressing about the meeting, though, was the implicit assumption that the owners of mobile phones could not and should not be trusted with music tracks, especially stuff you could buy over the net or in shops. That's where DRM would come in: preventing you from, say, passing on (by MMS or its descendant) that fabulous new track you just heard to someone else who had a similar phone.

Yet it is restrictions such as this which are likely to choke any uptake of music on mobiles. There's not much sign yet that people are keen to take it up. In the summer, T-Mobile launched a service it calls "Ear Phones", which lets users of particular mobile phones download 90-second track extracts to their phones. Among the artists first to offer a song on it was Amy Winehouse, who released her second single in the format.

Somehow, though, I can't see how a 90-second taster is enough to do more than frustrate the listener; just as the track gets under way, it ends. Personally, I've never been satisfied by the 30-second tasters on Apple's iTunes Music Store; they don't tell you enough about a track to form an opinion, only to tell you if you've heard it before (and even that isn't certain in a longer song). Chopping up music into twitching pieces might seem sensible to company execs, terrified that the youth market will begin sharing it among themselves, but it's not a way to persuade people to buy into the concept.

And indeed, take-up is slow. T-Mobile is guarded about how many people have actually troubled to download music via the Ear Phones service; nor could a spokeswoman say how many, or what percentage, of people with Ear Phones-capable mobiles have downloaded more than one track (which would be a good indicator of whether they like it).

My expectation is that people will use their future phones, the ones with huge amounts of storage, more democratically than the phone and record company bosses anticipate. Robert Scoble can put what he wants on to his phone's 512MB of flash memory, and play it back as much as he likes. Why should the future be more locked down?

Just as with other digital-music players, we will demand the ability to choose how and how often we listen to our content - whether it's music, spoken word, or something we've created ourselves. After all, text messages flourished not because the phone makers focused hard on them, but precisely because they ignored them. As long as they leave the huge storage on upcoming phones alone, they'll see sparkling results. But to try to determine how we listen to what we choose - well, that's the surest way to kill the golden goose of music.

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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