Free Internet Radio?

Last week on The Gillmor Gang and this weekend on TWiT, the subject of the sorry state of the music business came up and in particular the notion of “Free Internet Radio.” Part of the discussion was triggered by a threat (plea?) by the founder of the Pandora music service to shut down. Pandora employs an ingenuous strategy based on something called the Music Genome Project, which breaks down recordings into some 400 individual characteristics, then uses these elements to predict what new music the listener might like based on what he or she found compelling in the original song.

Pandora uses this strategy to recommend new music, but it also attempts to skirt the draconian licensing and now price infrastructure of the music cartel, by only playing a proscribed number of songs by a single artist within a defined time. Gang and TWiT listener Mike Lerch quoted from the DMCA regulations to wit:

In any three-hour period, you should not intentionally program more than three songs (and not more than two songs in a row) from the same recording; you should not intentionally program more than four songs (and not more than three songs in a row) from the same recording artist or anthology/box set.

The net result is that if I input The Beatles as the representative music I’d like to hear, I get three or four Beatle songs followed by a not-so-Magical Mystery Tour of every Beatle clone that has come since the last notes faded on the rooftop in London almost 40 years ago. Leo Laporte and others on both shows (and many listeners, from the feedback I’ve gotten so far), are good with that tradeoff, finding new music at a compelling rate. Pandora’s complaint is that they’re being priced out of existence by the accelerating tax imposed by legislation that not surprisingly favors broadcast and even satellite services with plenty of lobbying muscle.

While I certainly sympathize with Pandora’s (and the Internet radio community’s) dilemma in general, a startup built on a business model designed to work within a system designed to frustrate the listener’s ability to hear what they want to leaves little sympathy from me when the squeeze is further tightened. There’s no big secret here: the cartel wants to keep prices high ans their archives shut to the Internet, and attempts to play ball with them to perpetuate that stand off are politically naive and counter productive. Rather than encourage the production of new music, the net effect is to sanctify the chasm artists, producers, and yes, companies have to cross to reach a Net-coherent new model.

As I suggested on the Gang, a better idea would be to adopt a strategy of hitting the cartel where it hurts, by establishing a Free Radio tip jar. Building on an idea Doc Searls has envisioned in his role at Harvard’s Berkman Law, create a fund to accept contributions from listeners of whatever source – brodcast, sattelite, Internet radio, BitTorrent, whatever – to recognize music. It’s similar to the public radio and television pitch drives, but instead targetted at the artists directly, not as a gift via the subscription. This fund would, when sufficiently large enough to have an impact, be donated directly to the artists for distribution at their discretion. That could include splitting it with the record company, or even the distribution chain including the very radio outlets that are choking the business. But here the artist decides.

If Pandora is serious about closing down, perhaps they should seed the tip jar with the next few months revenue and then get back in the very powerful business of being on the listener’s side, helping find new music instead of propping up the cartel by going along. As a registry of new music, they could use the behavioral signature of their listeners to chart popularity of this new music and give them a new Top Forty for the Tip Jar. And in the process, turn their slogan from a pitch to a call to arms – Free Internet Radio.