Qtrax: More than just a PR disaster

Maybe a nail in the coffin for the advertising-supported music download business model.

From The Times yesterday:

A website which promised to give music lovers the world’s first legal file-sharing service was forced into a humiliating climbdown today after it emerged that the company had not secured the backing of the record industry.

Qtrax, a New York firm, unveiled its service with a glitzy £500,000 launch in Cannes at the weekend, hiring stars including James Blunt, LL Cool J.

Today it emerged that none of the four major labels had done deals with the site, putting a large dent in the promised catalogue of 25 million songs and prompting allegations that the site’s founders had misled fans.

EMI, Warner, Sony BMG and Universal all confirmed that they had not agreed deals with Qtrax which would allow fans to download their music for free in return for being exposed to advertising on the site. Warner and Universal said that they were in negotiations with the site.

I wonder what the future really holds for ad-supported services like Qtrax or any of the many others out there.

Look at what’s happening when companies like Amazon launched a service in the US last year that lets you purchase and download music in the open MP3 file format as opposed to a restrictive DRM-enabled format like WMA that is the format of choice for the ad-supported services.

There’s also iTunes, the market leader by far. But music files are encoded in a proprietary file format, just as with the DRM-enabled WMA file format, which restricts what you can do with the music you purchase and download.

If you want your music to be mobile, the only choice with iTunes for most people is an iPod.

"Play anywhere DRM-free music downloads" is Amazon’s message about the music you can acquire from artists signed to the four major labels – the same ones Qtrax didn’t quite conclude deals with, apparently – plus thousands of independent labels and artists.

You can play that music on any device that plays MP3s.

Now Amazon is planning to launch internationally during 2008, once they’ve signed new deals with the various labels. So no word yet on when that will be.

Still, your choices are quite clear:

  • Legally purchase music you can download from a trusted supplier (Amazon), and play that music on any device you want, as many times as you want and whenever you want.

or

  • Go to a website, watch ads while music files legally download to your PC via a slow download manager, free of charge but which has some bothersome restrictions on what devices you can play that music on, how many times and when. Plus, you typically have to log in to the service’s website every 30 days or so or your music will stop being playable.

Another way to put those choices: You want free legal music? Fine, but put up with the restrictions.

I’m sure there is a market for ad-supported free music. I just don’t think it’s one that has a sustainable future.