Rachel Stevens, Virgin Media launch - can their new service put her music career back on track?
Rachel Stevens, Virgin Media launch - can their new service put her music career back on track?

Virgin Media and Universal music have gotten a LOT of press today after announcing they are giving the shop away – unlimited, unprotected mp3 downloads for a paid subscription service. If you are a Virgin Media customer (it’s a broadband service, non UK-ers), you can pay for this yet unnamed service like a subscription and keep all you download. No word on what this will cost.

Headlines are good – they create great anticipation for a new service. But this story promises much and doesn’t deliver very much in the ways of ‘how?’. More importantly – this is nothing new.

Universal Music has planted it’s flag here before. In 2006 they became the first high profile label to sign with Spiral Frog, an ad-supported download service. That is – you listen to or watch ads and in return you can download stuff. (Old story from 2006)

Spiral Frog struggled from day one. It’s self belief was not supported by the labels and it failed to secure the other major labels or the indies. It failed to find the advertising money and was by all accounts clunky and difficult. I wish we could point you to the service and see it yourself but two years after front page headlines, Spiral Frog spiraled to it’s doom in March of this year.

Having a risky and ambitious idea is one thing. Having no plan to execute it is another. Spiral Frog is one example – another is Qtrax.

Qtrax made it’s big launch at the music industry conference Midem in 2008. It’s a wonderfully wacky idea – a p2p program that is ad supported. That p2p activity is tracked, and what gets traded, artists and labels get a cut of the pie. Days after the huge launch, it turns out that they were only talking to the labels about a deal, no agreements were in place. A year and a half later, Qtrax is no-one going nowhere.

These two services contrast starkly with Spotify. This Swedish service with is launched in the UK made no big song and dance. It was in beta-testing for months and months – well after the time it started getting hot exclusives. They quietly did deals with the majors and the indie labels, and are slowly launching around the world.

What we like best about Spotify is that they don’t see themselves as a game changer – something that is going to rock the market. They want to be part of people’s internet entertainment experience. They don’t sell tracks – but they will point you to a service that will sell it to you if you want. That’s not what Spotify is about. No social networking add-ons. It’s just a streaming site. And a bloody good one.

A similar service exists and does pretty well. emusic.com has been going for years and is the biggest subscription service in music. Various plans from 25 songs for £10 to 75 for £25 a month – emusic has struggled to get major label stuff, but has a firm footing on the indies. You can get the new Sonic Youth and Placebo albums from there. It would cost you £10 for both together. It’s one of the biggest players in the indie digital world.

We don’t need a game changer. We need sensible alternatives. Not wishy-washy claims, which is what this new Virgin/Universal deal amounts to right now. No names. No dates. No price. No word on how this works in terms of paying artists. What the ads look like. What artists will be on there.

We will go into our take how this Virgin/Universal deal might work, or might not work, later. Right now, the CMU website has the best analysis of the deal we can find – http://www.thecmuwebsite.com/daily/090616.html – and a great deal of quotes and views from across the board.

we could not resist that headline, no matter how long and cumbersome it is