Google added a retail storefront to its online digital music service on Thursday, offering some 8 million licensed tracks from EMI, Sony, Universal Music, and other labels. The store (via Google‚Äôs¬†Android Market)¬†also promises hundreds of free songs and exclusive content, with launch-day offers including exclusive music from the likes of Coldplay, the Rolling Stones, and Shakira.
Google Music, as it exists today, is unlikely to topple Apple‚Äôs iTunes in digital music retail: for one, it lacks catalog from as much as one quarter of the market, according to CNET. But sites such as TechCrunch maintain that Google Music¬†may yet become a contender for market share. The new store‚Äôs cloud-based features ‚ÄĒ such as the ability to share single plays of purchased tracks with friends that belong to the Google+ social network ‚ÄĒ also show potential to give Google Music an edge over its competitors, PC Magazine points out.
By Mel Lambert
The evolution and impact of file-based workflows formed the focus of the inaugural ‚ÄúBurbank Think Tank,‚ÄĚ presented by MESA and sponsored by Testronic Labs, held Thursday night at the Marriott Burbank Airport Hotel. Moderated by Carolyn Giardina from The Hollywood Reporter, the six-member panel of industry insiders brought a hands-on focus to the operational advantages of file-based operations. The event attracted close to 200 attendees from the Burbank entertainment, production and digital services community.
Directly addressing the challenge of transitioning from a tape- to a file-based workflow, panelist Thomas Moran, senior director of media & entertainment at Savvis Communications, acknowledged that file sizes can pose problems. But Moran said that file-based workflows hold ‚Äúseveral major advantages‚ÄĚ for the TV/film post-production community and digital supply chain: ‚ÄúIt is easier to make the media secure and prevent piracy; and the time to market is reduced.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúSince media can be accessed in parallel, a file-based workflow becomes easier,‚ÄĚ agreed John Crosier, SVP of digital architecture and delivery with Cinram. ‚ÄúBut delivery can be harder,‚ÄĚ because of increased storage and data-flow requirements.
Standardized file formats are widely considered a secret for success. Annie Chang, VP of post-production technology at Walt Disney Studios, outlined key aspects of the new Interoperable Master Format (IMF) project, which is being finalized by a consortium of film studios and post facilities, and hosted by The Entertainment Technology Center @ USC. ‚ÄúIMF combines a play list with essences‚ÄĚ ‚Äď audio, video, images, metadata and other material ‚Äď ‚Äúthat can be mixed and matched to generate a variety of master files via an Output Profile List that contain instructions for particular versions,‚ÄĚ says Chang, who chairs an IMF working group for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).
A working proposal for the open-standard specification to streamline the interchange and automated creation of downstream distribution packages will be published later this year. As Chang explained, IMF will store a single master set of file-based elements that can be assembled using multiple Composition Play Lists (‚ÄúRecipes‚ÄĚ), similar to that used in current Digital Cinema Packaging. The project promises lower costs, improved time-to-market and increased interoperability of existing production processes.
‚ÄúNow we can record one master and use metadata to deliver different versions,‚ÄĚ added Michael Zink, VP of technology strategy at Technicolor. ‚ÄúWe finally have a standard.‚ÄĚ
During the past year, Chang said, Disney has transitioned from 27 tape-based to 10 file formats, with a concomitant savings in mastering costs. The studio produces no standard-definition master, for example, instead using a high-definition master for such conversions. ‚ÄúBut a one-terabyte file can take a long time to transfer,‚ÄĚ Chang cautioned, ‚Äúwith increased distribution costs.‚ÄĚ
Securing The Cloud
While The Cloud might offer some storage options for the post community, Garrett Smith, VP of production technology at Paramount Pictures, acknowledged that there are multiple types of private and public cloud services. ‚ÄúI was at a meeting yesterday and it could have been an episode from Seinfeld…but without Jerry,‚ÄĚ he recalled with a laugh. ‚ÄúBut some types will work for production.‚ÄĚ
Security issues for assets stored in The Cloud also need to be addressed, Cinram‚Äôs Crosier noted. ‚ÄúSecurity is key for our clients, which is why we concentrate on internal cloud-based services.‚ÄĚ As Savvis Communications‚Äô Moran pointed out, ‚ÄúThe Cloud is not all about technology. Security is inherent ‚Äď we just need to find a way to make it work.‚ÄĚ Moran cited the storage of secure financial information on cloud-based servers. ‚ÄúBut The Cloud, as we now use it at an enterprise level, was not designed with security in mind. Because such companies do not have an IT core competency, they need to bring in experienced IT professionals.‚ÄĚ
As Brian Kenworthy, VP of digital distribution at Deluxe Digital Studios, said, ‚ÄúEducation is key. We need to collaborate with our clients,‚ÄĚ to outline the benefits and drawbacks of cloud-based workflows, where appropriate.
Mel Lambert is principal of Content-Creators.com, a Los Angeles-based consulting service.
In a preview of its June 6 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple says that it plans to unveil an ‚ÄúiCloud‚ÄĚ service next week, along with new generations of its computer and mobile device operating systems. There is word yet on iCloud will include at its launch date, which also remains TBA. The trade press has reported that the company has closed deals with three of the world‚Äôs four major record companies to offer a consumer service for cloud-based music streaming and storage.
Following a CNET report that Apple had completed deals with EMI Music and Warner Music Group for a soon-to-be-launched music storage and streaming service, Bloomberg reports today that the computer maker has signed a licensing agreement for the service with Sony Music as well. That would leave Universal Music Group as the last among major record companies to reach an agreement with Apple for the anticipated service, which could be previewed at Apple’s developers conference in early June.
Meanwhile, GigaOm reports on the speculation that Apple may incorporate ‚Äúscan and match‚ÄĚ technology into the service, eliminating the need for users to spend time uploading their music collections to a virtual locker (as the cloud services of Amazon and Google require). Apple acquired the technology ‚ÄĒ which scans a user‚Äôs hard drive and matches song files to those already stored on company servers ‚ÄĒ when it purchased the Lala streaming music service in 2009.
Apple has signed cloud-music licensing agreements with both EMI Music and Warner Music Group, and could complete similar deals with Sony Music and Universal Music Group as early as next week, according to a CNET report.
Citing ‚Äúmultiple music industry sources,‚ÄĚ CNET says that it appears increasingly likely that Apple will launch a cloud-based music storage and streaming service, with potential support from all of the world‚Äôs top four record companies. An announcement could come June 6, when Apple opens its annual worldwide developers conference; though CNET‚Äôs sources have cautioned that they have no knowledge of Apple‚Äôs product rollout plans.
Amazon‚Äôs launch of a cloud music service without record company support in March, and Google‚Äôs introduction of a similar service earlier this month (also without label licenses), may well have changed the tone of labels‚Äô long-rumored cloud licensing negotiations with Apple. More at TechCrunch.
A Google executive tells The New York Times that the launch of its cloud-based music storage and streaming service, sans support from record labels, is a negotiating tactic to win the Internet giant more ‚Äúsustainable‚ÄĚ licensing terms from music companies. But exactly how much leverage Google will gain with its Music Beta remains to be seen. An early hands-on review of the service gives it poor marks for functionality and ease of use (VentureBeat).
More highlights from the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas:
‚ÄĘ Microsoft Corp. announced today a ‚Äúpartner ecosystem‚ÄĚ to develop cloud distribution solutions for the media and entertainment sector, using the Windows Azure platform. A slate of companies have joined the Microsoft initiative, including Digital Rapids and Origin Digital for cloud-based content processing; Arvato Digital Services, DAVID Systems, Harris Broadcast Communications, Polycom Video Content Management, Sitecore, and TechPath for cloud-based content management; Aspera, iStreamPlanet, MPS Broadband, and Signiant for cloud-based content delivery; and BuyDRM and Cognizant for cloud-based content protection.
‚ÄĘ Meanwhile, ‚ÄúAvatar‚ÄĚ director James Cameron announced a new venture with the blockbuster film‚Äôs cameraman, Vince Pace, to design 3D camera systems, creative tools, and services for television producers. Unveiling the Cameron-Pace Group at NAB, the director told Reuters that he expects 3D productions to take hold on the small screen within five years. ‚Äú3D is just how all broadcast entertainment will be done. Sports, episodic drama, scripted and unscripted ‚ÄĒ we haven‚Äôt seen anything yet that doesn‚Äôt have a great degree of value added by being in 3D,‚ÄĚ he said.
With its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player, Amazon is betting that it can entice customers to upload their entire digital music collections to the company‚Äôs servers, in exchange for the ability to play songs on any computer or Android mobile device.
In launching the new services on Tuesday, Amazon is also looking to gain a jump on Apple and Google, both of which are reportedly mulling introductions of similar cloud-based offerings later this year.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre excited to offer you the ability to buy anywhere, play anywhere and keep your music in one place,‚ÄĚ Amazon‚Äôs chief executive, Jeff Bezos, says in a letter sent to account holders today (via The Wrap). Customers who purchase an MP3 album from Amazon will now receive a cloud-based copy of the music for streaming as well. Users of Cloud Drive can upload up to 5GB of MP3 or AAC files for free, gaining additional storage by purchasing music at Amazon‚Äôs MP3 store or by paying an annual subscription fee.
Customers can use the service to store photos, videos, or documents as well, according to Amazon.
Apple, in comparison, still urges iTunes customers to back up music that they purchase via iTunes onto physical discs.
Amazon rejects the notion that it needs to renegotiate its music licenses with labels to offer the new services. ‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt need a license to store music,‚ÄĚ Craig Pape, Amazon‚Äôs director of music, tells The New York Times. ‚ÄúThe functionality is the same as an external hard drive.‚ÄĚ
But as sources tell the Times, digital copyright laws may be more nuanced. The legality of the streaming service may also stand as a separate issue from Amazon‚Äôs purported¬†ability to store customers‚Äô music collections.
Some observers had been expecting Apple to announce Wednesday a refresh of the company‚Äôs cloud-based MobileMe service, complete with new digital music capabilities for its device users. But MobileMe received no mention at what proved to be Apple‚Äôs unveiling of a thinner, camera-enabled iPad. (Apple also announced a $100 price cut for its first-generation iPad models.)
PC World muses that a MobileMe upgrade may still be in the offing, perhaps arriving in tandem with Apple’s presumed fifth-generation iPhone this summer.
While it‚Äôs early days for consumer awareness of cloud-based entertainment services, fewer than 30% of U.S. broadband households currently view ‚Äúdigital lockers‚ÄĚ as an attractive alternative for music or video, according to a new study by Parks Associates.
The research firm points to device interoperability and fragmentation as among the market‚Äôs major inhibitors, but notes that industry efforts such as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem‚Äôs UltraViolet initiative and Disney‚Äôs Studio All Access aim to overcome these barriers.
The benefits of cloud services are popular with consumers, indicating significant market potential. For example, more than 50% of U.S. consumers consider multiroom access to music and video content and guaranteed replacement of lost or damaged media to be equally important features of a digital locker.
A separate study by TDG Research reveals one way in which a number of broadband households have accessed digital video in their living rooms: PC-to-TV connections.
One third of adult broadband users have used some form of PC-to-TV connection at least once a year, according to TDG (via paidContent). Nearly 17% of this group claim to use a PC-to-TV connection on a daily basis.
The base model of Apple‚Äôs new Macbook Air laptop ‚ÄĒ hailed by the company as the future of notebook computers ‚ÄĒ offers just 64 GB of storage. That doesn‚Äôt leave much space for entertainment media; the company‚Äôs iPod classic, in comparison, holds 160 GB worth of music, video, and photos.
All Things Digital connects the release of the storage-starved laptop with Apple‚Äôs imminent opening of a 500,000 square-foot data center in North Carolina ‚ÄĒ and concludes that Apple‚Äôs long-rumored, cloud-based consumer data storage service may be in the offing.
GigaOm has more on the new data center, relating reports from local North Carolina sources that Apple will open it ‚Äúany day now.‚ÄĚ
Under Google‚Äôs proposed music service, customers would be able to pay $25 for access to songs via Web and mobile apps, anonymous industry sources tell Billboard. The company also would sell music downloads a la carte. Execs say that the terms of the service are bound to change from what Google is pitching ‚ÄĒ and there still are no details on when (or in what territories) the service would launch.
Cloud-based music distribution ‚ÄĒ a service many in the tech press expected Apple to add to iTunes following its acquisition of Lala ‚ÄĒ appears to have been tabled at the company. As of yet, Apple has not struck the requisite licensing deals with major labels to unveil such a service, according to CNET. What‚Äôs more, the company is telling label executives that if it adds any cloud-based features to iTunes in the next few months, they will be ‚Äúmodest in scope.‚ÄĚ CNET speculates that Apple may be shifting its cloud focus to video distribution.
As many as eight million iTunes users in the U.S. register a strong interest in paying a $10 monthly fee for either streaming music or access to their personal music libraries on multiple devices, according to a survey from NPD Group.
That‚Äôs a relatively small proportion of iTunes‚Äô total customer base: NPD estimates that there are 50 million iTunes users in the U.S. But the audience for the new service could grow quickly after launch, as users ‚Äúupgrade to newer connected devices and actually experience the benefits of cloud-based music,‚ÄĚ says the research firm’s Russ Crupnick.
‚ÄúIf the consumers who indicated strong interest in a paid subscription actually adopted one of those services at $10 per month,‚ÄĚ Crupnick says, ‚Äúthe market opportunity is close to $1 billion in the first year, which is roughly two-thirds the revenue garnered by the current pay-per-download model.‚ÄĚ
NPD does not venture to speculate on what effect a cloud-based services might have on Apple‚Äôs traditional music download model ‚ÄĒ be it positive (spurring download sales), accretive, or cannibalistic.
A Forrester Research study suggests that while subscribers of cloud-based music services would be able to access songs from a variety of players, most listeners would stick with their one or two devices of choice.
The home computer remains the most popular device for digital music listening, used by 41.6% of the market, followed by MP3 players at 32.5%. But only 23% of users listen to music collections on both their PC and MP3 player, according to Forrester. Billboard has more stats from the survey.
Streaming music service Lala, acquired by Apple in December, told users this morning that it will shut down on May 31, issuing iTunes Store credit to those who have purchased 10-cent streaming ‚Äúweb songs‚ÄĚ on the site.
The news has tech blogs abuzz with speculation that the next move for Apple will be the introduction of an iTunes.com site, through which users will be able to access their digital media collections from any Web-enabled device. (MediaPost has a comprehensive roundup of the coverage.)
Blogs such as paidContent say that it‚Äôs high time for Apple to introduce a cloud-based media service, with the rise of Web-based streaming and consumer acceptance of subscription models. ‚ÄúiTunes‚Äô a la carte reliance looks archaic and one-dimensional, tooled for a market that‚Äôs plateaued,‚ÄĚ the blog asserts.
However, none of the techbiz pundits subject the profit potential of current streaming subscription models to too rigorous an analysis. The speculation seems to rest on the faith that if any company can build streaming entertainment into a bonafide business, it‚Äôs Apple.
But new streaming music licenses and back-end server capacity would need to be underwritten by some established product line. Netflix, for instance, is investing its savings from renegotiated DVD deals with studios into its streaming video offer. An analog between iTunes and music labels is not immediately apparent.
There is also the question of scale ‚ÄĒ just how large is the market opportunity for a virtual music locker room? Lala itself met with a certain measure of critical acclaim, but few iPod owners will even know to miss it.
Apple could render any speculation moot with an announcement at its Worldwide Developers Conference June 7. In any event, it seems better positioned to keep any plans for a streaming service under wraps than it was in keeping its next-gen iPhone out of the public view.
The door is wide open for Google to poach iTunes users with a cloud-based music service, argues Wired‚Äôs Eliot Van Buskirk. Among the ways that Google can rise to unseat the digital music incumbent: align itself with consumer electronics manufacturers to bring the service into living rooms, and continue leveraging its music search functionality. By Wired