Music is free, as long as it sells other stuff
Message to the Recording Industry Association of America regarding the prospects of free ad-supported music downloads: Told you so. Told you so. Told-you-told-you-told-you so.
I'm not usually this smug, but rarely am I this close to being right.
Years ago, when RIAA lawyers began bankrupting 12-year-old girls for sharing music online to stem the tide of Internet piracy, I asserted their efforts were in vain. The Digital Age had already set in motion a new, inevitable economic reality: Things that can be transported through the Internet will be free, and used to sell everything else that can't.
More specifically, on Aug. 10, 2003, this Digital Slob wrote: "Imagine Britney Spears unveils her much-feared next song. Downloaders, start your engines.
"But this time, before the freebie, you must click through a pop-up ad for Sprite Remix. Sprite pays the label based on how many 'hits' its ad gets ... with plenty left for Britney and all her puppeteers. You get a free song, and 50 cents off soda. Sprite gets a big product launch ... and Britney's deal with the devil is still all squared away. Everyone is happy -- unclean, but happy."
Of course, a lot has changed in five years. Sprite Remix, and Britney's career, were both discontinued in 2005. But a few new Web sites that offer free, ad-supported, legal music are catching up with my Utopian mp3 vision.
Some still insist, however, that it is undignified for musicians to live ad-supported lives, such as U2-supported U2 manager Paul McGuinness, as reported last week by arstechnica.com.
Hmm. Pulitzer Prize winners are ad-supported. Zoloft is ad-supported. Even "Sesame Street" gets underwriting from the letter Q and the number 4.
But McGuinness' main assertion is that the Net owes the music industry finder's fees for driving traffic to the Web. Using this myopic perspective, I know a skateboarding bulldog who should have a bigger mansion than Paul McCartney.
For online music lovers who want to go legit without keying in their credit card, here are two free ad-supported music sites:
SpiralFrog.com: This site has more than a million songs and about 4,000 music videos for download, and makes its money on banner ads, but there are other strings. Users must complete a survey every 60 days to keep their tunes, and the songs do not work on iPods, Zunes or Macintosh computers. This site, as well as the similar QTrax.com, has signed a deal with at least one major label to offer songs from artists such as Coldplay, Duran Duran and David Bowie.
Pandora.com: Perhaps the most mature of the free sites, Pandora serves as a kind of intuitive streaming radio, giving listeners very educated guesses about what songs they will want to hear. If a listener says he likes a song or artist, the site will create a "station" filled with similar songs, based on 400 musical characteristics. When I typed "AC/DC," I got that band's "For Those About to Rock," then "Rock and Roll," by Led Zeppelin, "Another One Bites the Dust," by Queen, and so on.
Clearly, the free music wagon train is on the move. With any luck, music lovers might never pay full price for soda again.