Supporting Mobile Music For All The Wrong Reasons
By Mike Masnick, Tue Dec 07 20:45:00 GMT 2004

The music industry is excited about the possibilities for mobile music. The mobile industry is excited that the music industry seems to favor them. There's just one problem: both sides are embracing each other for all the wrong reasons.

The recording industry is a media business. It sells music placed on some kind of media -- whether it's vinyl records, cassettes or CDs. This is part of the reason it's had so much trouble adjusting to the Internet. There's no physical media to sell -- just bits. While the industry has had some minor successes with things like iTunes (driven more by the tech industry than the recording industry) most of its efforts have been focused on legal attacks on those who get around the system through file sharing. However, the old timers aren't about to give up on their search for the next place they can put (and sell) their music, hopefully bypassing the troublesome Internet altogether.

For many, that place appears to be mobile phones -- but for all the wrong reasons. It's almost fitting that the latest statements on the matter are coming from Edgar Bronfman Jr., chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group. Nearly five years ago, Bronfman, then head of Universal Music, was one of the first to scream out against file sharing on the Internet, claiming he was going to send an army of lawyers to stop it. While that's exactly what happened, Bronfman's speech was the first major statement along those lines. What is clear from his talk at the time is that the Internet is scary because big media companies didn't control it.

With that background, it's no surprise that Bronfman sounds much more excited about mobile phone-based music than iPod-based music. He even admits that the cellular platform is "piracy-resistant." What this means, is that the networks are closed, with walled gardens built high around the mobile media space. That is, the recording industry isn't so interested in embracing the mobile industry because of its benefits for music listeners everywhere -- but because it can keep things under control.

The problem is, of course, that they can't keep things under control. As mobile phones morph into smart phones, where the interface and the underlying network and content are increasingly similar to what people see every day on their computers, people are going to expect the same levels of functionality and freedom. Already, applications that have been built to become the "Napster of the mobile phone" -- and the ongoing competition for customers will eventually drive mobile operators to open up.

While the mobile operators and handset makers are all interested in joining the mobile music revolution, their incentive is to drive new subscriptions and more usage -- not to specifically become media moguls. Selling ringtones may bring in some extra cash for the time being, but the operators are in the business of providing a network and selling network usage -- not content on the network. While the two sides may seem aligned for the time being, as both have early opportunities to profit -- those who believe it will remain that way are deluding themselves about where the business is heading. Five years ago, broadband (wired) ISPs were big supporters of Napster, because it drove new subscribers to move to broadband. It's not a stretch to see mobile operators thinking along similar lines when pushing people to jump to 3G. Mobile music will be successful, but not because it's on a closed system. The success will come because it opens up new possibilities for how people can experience music, not because the recording industry has more control over it.