Wednesday, October 10, 2007

AIM Tunes - Good for AOL, Bad for Artists

I am the last one to advocate utilizing protectionist technologies (DRM sucks) or reining in innovation (bit torrent is cool) for fear of demonetizing recorded music. However, my anti-control, free-technology loyalties wane when the initiative is spearheaded by a major conglomerate. Fundamentally, my belief is that ingenuity and creativity are the king of queen of progress, while profit motive is the jester.

It is with this perspective that I give a big, "What?!?!" to AIM Tunes. As Paul Reskinoff observes, people have always been able to share files using IM clients. In my eyes, that's no big deal. It's a one-for-one and basically makes it easier for users to share music with their friends, in much the same way (albeit a bit more conveniently) we used to do with making tapes and burning CDs. Plus, there are a million-and-one other ways to use the file sharing capabilities of IM. It's a fundamentally good utility.

What's concerning about AIM Tunes is that it's designed specifically for streaming music from another person's computer. While it remains true to the idea of a one-to-one relationship between people, it blows away the notion of that one person gaining access to one or a limited number of files. AIM Tunes allows a user to stream their friends' entire collection at any time, so long as they are both connected, which also means it eliminates the, "hey, have you heard the new Bees record?" sort of promotion that goes with the old school model.

Perhaps most importantly for AOL is the legal questions surrounding AIM Tunes. Interactive streaming requires a special license and even if AOL gets permission from all of the majors for all of their artists, it will be impossible to guarantee that AOL has licensed every single song in every individual's music collection (A.M. Flavor or Green Genes, for example, are certainly not among the licensors). Therefore, AIM Tunes necessarily will infringe on the rights of those bands.

The other big problem is, how do the rights holders (more importantly, the bands) get paid? If they do have licenses with the majors - and I certainly hope they at least took this measure of precaution - then does AOL have a system in place to account for each track streamed? Does it know the artist/song? Reskinoff makes mention of Amazon's tie-in to offer purchases of streamed music, so there must be some fingerprinting going on, though I can see how any technology used to do so could be highly unreliable.

Even if AOL is paying a royalty per stream and accounting to labels on such a basis, will content owners also get a pro rata share of advertising income?

My thought is that bands and songwriters are going to get the very short end of this stick:

(1) AOL may or may not have licensed content from the majors but even if it has, there is no way to account for every single artist whose music is in a digital file on an AIM user's computer;

(2) Even if AOL is licensing content, it is most likely not paying per stream as the accounting would be a nightmare and inherently unreliable since AOL does not control the source files, thus meaning that artists will not get paid a dime since the labels cannot say how much of the license fee it earns is attributable to each artist and each song and thus, does not trigger the royalty requirement in virtually every recording contract (if income cannot be attributed to a single work, the label doesn't have to pay);

(3) It is highly doubtful that AOL is sharing in ad revenue, and even if it is, this income will also go 100% to the label and none to the artist, since once again the royalty provision will not be triggered.

My problem isn't so much with the technology, as I am not convinced that just because someone can stream music from their friend's computer, they won't go buy the record. What troubles me is that this technology has been unveiled by a major conglomerate who is going to profit handsomely from other people's music. Even if AOL acts as nobly as it can under the circumstances, artists are sure to get short-changed.