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The future of music is in services, not products

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Time breathlessly reported this morning that U2 is working with Apple on a “secret” project that “might just save the music industry.” While there are precious few details in the piece (as Om Malik noted in a tweet), frontman Bono described it as a digital music format that will feature interactive, audiovisual content wrapped in DRM enabling fans to “play with the lyrics and get behind the songs,” presumably anywhere, from any device. The offering, which is roughly 18 months from launching, is aimed at helping high-profile names (such as U2) as well as lesser-known artists struggling to make a living in the online era.

Programmer and writer Marco Arment responded with this thoughtful, well-written piece that questions Bono’s claims point by point. Music fans are (finally) turning to streaming services rather than buying albums and songs, and it’s highly unlikely that interactive, multimedia content can reverse that trend. Also, producing that kind of content is expensive, which only makes the business model that much more dubious. Lastly, consumers long ago made it clear that they despise music encased in anti-piracy software, which is why there’s so little DRM-wrapped music on the market today.

Interestingly, the offering Bono describes in the Time piece is clearly at odds with an imagined streaming service that was outlined last year by music industry veteran Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Beats Electronics, which Apple acquired in May. Iovine — who is described by Time as a former U2 producer and friend of the band — discussed a streaming service that gleans as much information as possible from each listener to provide curated, customized “channels” for each user. The goal, Iovine implied, is to give music fans what they want to hear when they want to hear it (even if they don’t necessarily know it), minimizing or even eliminating the need for search. I don’t know what Apple has up its sleeve in the way of music, and the company may be planning to bring a range of offerings to market. But the services described by Bono and Iovine are very different. And Iovine’s vision is much closer to the future of music than Bono’s.