CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter – Friday 14 Oct 2011

By | Published on Friday 14 October 2011

This week, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal claimed that Google is finally preparing to launch its long awaited download store.

Now, I can remember – sometime in the dim and distant past – when talk of some sort of gTunes service entering the digital music market was exciting. After all, we all used to say, if anyone can take on Apple’s iTunes, surely its Google, what will all that existing traffic those guys enjoy, and all the user data they’re holding onto from years of searches and Gmailing.

But my enthusiasm about the prospect of a Google download service has long since waned. For starters, if Amazon couldn’t beat Apple in the download space, do we really think Google can?

And then there’s the fact that, everytime Google’s iTunes-killer has been previously rumoured, the web giant has subsequently come out with some really lacklustre new music service. The most recent lacklustre ‘innovation’ was Google’s digital locker, and any new Google download store – it seems likely – will simply be an add-on to that, bringing the Google locker more in line with Amazon’s rival service, where users can either upload existing MP3s into their cloud storage zone, or populate it with tracks bought from an accompanying download store.

I’m not especially excited about digital lockers. And I’m not especially excited about Google becoming the latest in a long line of tech companies to launch their own proprietary MP3 stores. Can’t Google think of something more innovative in music? A big idea that can move the whole digital music space forward a few notches? Something revolutionary like the original Gmail, and not just a mediocre copy of someone else’s services like, dare I say it, Google+.

You could argue that Google has already done something revolutionary in the digital music space (albeit quietly and over time, and possibly not completely deliberately) by turning YouTube into the most successful legal streaming service on the net, despite it not being overtly designed to service music fans. I can’t help thinking that if Google wants to be a serious player in the digital music space, doing something really clever with the music on YouTube would be the way to go about it. Though the bosses at VEVO – the music video service powered by Google technology but owned and managed by Sony and Universal Music – might argue they are already doing clever things, and all the web giant need do is stand by and provide some some technical wizardry when required. We’ll see I guess.

Some are already trying to write off streaming music services (especially the audio ones) as a temporary fad in the wider development of digital music, and the unearthing this week of financials relating to two of the big players – Spotify and We7 – both of whom are still making substantial losses, provided amunition for those who believe streaming platforms can’t work. Spotify’s business model, in particular, came under attack on some US blogs. But that these companies are still losing money isn’t surprising – both are still relatively new and both have grown massively in the last two years. Plus, of course, these figures come from before recent efforts by both We7 and Spotify to reduce the costs of their freemium services. I’m not saying either have definitely developed a sustainable business model just yet, but it seems very unfair to write them off so soon.

Though if I’m preaching about not writing things off too soon, I suppose I should wait and see what Google has to say if these reports of yet another music-based product launch are true. As this week’s big new digital music innovation was a site for selling second hand MP3s, perhaps whatever Team Google announce will actually seem exciting by comparison.

But what else happened this week? Well, how about an update on the ongoing Conrad Murray trial? And things still aren’t looking too good for the doctor accused of causing Michael Jackson’s death, despite efforts by the defence to convince the jury that the singer himself administered the fatal drug, and that the insomnia that caused him to do so was caused by another doctor.

The latter claim was raised by Murray himself this week. Not that he testified – it’s unlikely he’ll actually take to the witness stand during the trial – but we did hear his own account of what happened on the day of the king of pop’s death via a taped interview with police, played out in the courtroom.

In it Murray said that he believed that Jackson had been visiting his dermatologist Dr Arnold Klein up to three times a week prior to his death, and that he had been prescribing the singer the painkiller Demerol, which may have caused the chronic insomnia that Murray was then combatting with propofol, the drug that killed the singer. But the autopsy results did not show any trace of Demerol in Jackson’s system, and while one prosecution witness did testify that the singer was taking the drug, and that it could result in insomnia, it seems the judge hearing the case considers the ‘Demerol defence’ something of a distraction. Certainly he’s refused to let the defence call Klein as a witness.

As for the defence’s other big claim – that Jackson self-administered the fatal shot of propofol – that too took a knock this week. First the doctor who conducted Jackson’s autopsy, Dr Christopher Rogers, said it was “unreasonable to believe” that Jackson had given himself the fatal dose, and then the defence team were forced to admit that one of their own theories – that the singer may have drunk the drug – had to be rejected, because their own research showed propofol taken orally wouldn’t result in cardiac arrest.

So, the prosecution – who are still leading the proceedings – had a good week. Still, it’s the defence team’s turn next week, so perhaps their arguments will gain ground over the next seven days. But, in the meantime, and to make sure the jury remembered all the ways in which Murray acted negligently in the run up to and shortly after Jackson’s death, one of the prosecution’s final witnesses – Dr Alon Steinberg – summarised his errors in a six point list. The case continues, as we say.

Elsewhere in music news this week, there was continued speculation about the future of EMI as an announcement from Citigroup on that very subject was awaited. The US bank took final bids for the major label last week, and although it was initially thought that it might hold off selling if offers didn’t come close enough to the asking price, the Mail On Sunday last weekend reckoned that the bankers were now more keen on just getting a sale completed. All of which means that it’s looking increasingly likely that EMI will be split into two and sold off to different bidders – that approach likely to earn Citigroup more money. Universal or Warner are reportedly favourites to get the recordings side, while either Sony/ATV or BMG look set to get publishing.

In other news, BT and Talk Talk were given the opportunity to appeal their unsuccessful judicial review of the copyright portions of the Digital Economy Act, ‘X-Factor’ took the name of a children’s charity for one of its new acts and then told the charity to piss off when they complained, the ‘on air, on sale’ system for releasing singles – where tracks are serviced to download stores at the same time as radio – looked to have died, Ministry Of Sound succeeded in blocking a developer from building flats opposite its club, and Peter Hook vowed to “fuck over” New Order. But best of all this week, was this story about Snoop Dogg getting gardening tips from a champion swede grower.

This week I also spoke to Gruff Rhys about his solo career and the soundtrack he recently created for an iPhone app-based game, Nitin Sawhney created a Powers Of Ten playlist for us, and in his column Eddy Temple-Morris asked if it was right for political events to be covered by blanket music licences.

We approved of Swedish pop duo Icona Pop, dance outfit DRMCNT, purveyors of psychedelia PET, and ambient troupe Jewellers, plus brought you Thom Yorke‘s Boiler Room DJ set, a stream of M83‘s new album, a Jesus And Mary Chain cover by Asobi Seksu, and the trailer for a new horror movie staring Pete Doherty.

And of course, how could I forget this week’s CMU podcast, which this week contains discussion of the Conrad Murray trial, EMI bids, ‘on air, on sale’, Peter Hook and Snoop Dogg’s love of gardening.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU