It was a bigger deal a few years ago: stick a popular music CD in your computer and you'd be greeted by a Flash application containing some music videos and maybe some desktop wallpapers. To some, it was a bonus to having a CD.
Mostly though, the applications were a giant pain in the seating equipment, forcing music fans everywhere to learn what the hell 'disable auto-run' meant. Now, imagine that, only with all your songs contained in the same application as well. From what we understand, this is the crux of a new proposal from the think-tanks at the world's largest four record labels.
Known internally as 'CMX', it will be a music-distribution format -- essentially a single download containing all album tracks, the artwork, liner notes, some music videos and whatever else they've got lying around the office -- that the labels hope will rekindle the love of buying entire albums, rather than picking the four good songs from whatever A-lister's latest release.
The perks of established artists
As a stand-alone product, CMX could suffer a tragic fate reserved solely for products launched on the back of these very A-listers. In fact, the Times even outs U2 as a possible beneficiary of the new medium, whose next album could spearhead a CMX 'soft launch'.
Good job, because it'll need the money U2 has behind them to enlist the developer, designer, coder and distributor elite to produce and peddle the unusual, paid-for downloads fans are going to be encouraged to want. But that's only one part of the potential problem.
The perks of the value-adding technique
Another clot in the CMX bloodstream could be agonising: "Where are my MP3s?" and related concerns. It'll be the top item on any sales site's FAQ list, right after "What is CMX?" and "Why don't you just release a DVD?"
So let's put it in black and white right now: if you don't get standalone, DRM-free MP3s as part of your CMX download, it is absolutely, entirely and completely doomed.
Offer a CMX download for free if a customer buys all the album tracks, and then perhaps you're on to something. But woe betide you if you charge extra -- your customer already paid extra by buying the whole album, and in your collective position chaps, that's really something.
The perks of knowing your audience
"Think about the importance of the gift market for albums," a spokesperson for the Entertainment Retailers Association told the Times. "Online it's stripped down to the bare music, and there's a lot more to an album than that."
There's a word missing in his or her statement. Can you guess what it is?
It's 'physical', and it should've come right before 'album'. "There's a lot more to a physical album than that." But online, there are different advantages: instant (and satisfying) ownage of an album, and quality embedded artwork to look at on your MP3 player or iPhone. It may seem superficial, but it's what matters to the people who are paying for downloads. Other paying customers do buy a physical CD.
What might happen
Claims that the record labels are 'dinosaurs' who 'just don't get it' and 'deserve to fail' are daft in some respects. They're an old business trying to stay afloat. The problem -- and the reason we love to hate them -- is that they've been going about it arse-backwards for years. And it's finally coming back to cripple them, like a man suddenly finding himself undergoing heart surgery after decades of enjoying nothing but gravy-soaked pies and champagne.
This is what will probably happen: CMX will launch with a few massive acts behind it, and the downloads will look stunning, but choice will be limited to your most A-list of A-listers. You'll pay more, and they won't work on an iPod. Apple will do its own proprietary version that will, and that's a story for another day (or now, if you're impatient).
The whole thing will fall flat on its face, because only hardcore fans will pay. Everyone else will ignore this thing that doesn't work on their iPod, won't play on their Walkman and can't be burned to a CD for listening in the car.
What should happen
CMX will be an open format with its own standards, and any label or band can produce a CMX version of an album. They'll be offered by sites such as Amazon MP3, 7digital and Play.com when, and only when, you buy a full album download. That way, the labels get their album sales, the fans get their MP3s and music-video-ringtone-package-thing as a bonus.
But really, this is only a bandage over a still-bleeding axe wound: the biggest flaw with full album downloads is that, by and large, they cost the same as a physical CD, so why bother? Just lowering the cost will do far more for sales than bundling these bonuses for the hardcore fans.
Anyway, your thoughts are extremely welcome and will find a cosy home in the comments section below. CMX -- or whatever it launches as -- will quietly arrive later this year, almost certainly costing more than a CD album from Amazon.