The future of music

Nokia seems to have set the cat among the pigeons this week, with the promise of a music subscription service that lets users keep their music when they leave. But beyond the soothing words and hints of revolution, the Finnish company has been pretty cagey – and now it seems with good reason.

The premise of the “Comes with Music” intitative is fairly simple. The user buys a Nokia device and gets bundled with it a year’s subscription to a music service, giving them unlimited downloads and a licence to play the songs on their PC as well as their phone. The music is DRM’d so it can’t be copied casually but at the end of the year, if you choose to terminate your subscription, you get to keep the tunes.

Sounds good so far, but then the holes start showing. It seems Nokia intends to squeeze a revenue stream out of ‘value add licences’, such as charging a nominal fee to burn a CD, which sounds a bit like charging you for a right you already have. Then there’s the small matter of Nokia’s choice of Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM, which is so notoriously device/platform incompatible even Microsoft doesn’t support it on Zune.

The other issue is that it seems in order to renew your subscription for another year, so you can keep downloading music, you have to buy another device. This is because the contract is between Nokia and music label Universal, and that contract is tied to the device rather than a user. It’s a model that Apple would be proud of, not only do the users have their music tied to a single device but they have to upgrade that device every year.

In terms of music it’s a bit like dancing to the Cure – one step forward, two steps back.

However, it does seem that the music labels are coming around to tackling the ugly reality of illegal file sharing in a way other than carpet bombs packed with legal summons. Already this year we’ve had EMI go down the no DRM route, while other major labels such as Universal are still insistent on the ‘music rental’ route as the way forward.

But whichever of these routes you go down, there’s still a signifcant difference between what is meant by free and what is meant by free.

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