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100 million song giveaway

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Pepsi is teaming with Apple Computer to give away 100 million songs on its iTunes Music Store. Apple launched Windows version of the store yesterday, and the Pepsi deal was one of several promotions designed to raise awareness of the hitherto Mac-only product. Lucky cola drinkers will be able to redeem a winning can or bottle for a month next February.

In another move to lure children to the world of Digital Rights Management-cripped music, Apple has introduced allowance accounts "so children can access music legally, without giving them a credit card".

There's some logic to the moves, beyond simple brand awareness. It's a recognition that a last legacy of Napster, as noted by Joe Menn in his terrific book All The Rave, is that kids now expect to get music for free, and don't see a moral obligation to recompense the artists.

But getting stuff "for free" and compensating the artist are two different things. Compulsory licenses - which started out as a plan to allow developing countries access to essential, patent-encumbered drugs, can allow all kinds of compensation models. Which can mean free in the National Health Service sense of being "free at the point of delivery".

And it's all about distribution. The RIAA clings to a distribution model now rendered all but obsolete by computer networks. An attorney for the lobby group told webcasters that it would be happy to see 25,000 small Internet broadcasters go to the wall, because its members were happy with the 200 streams that AOL could provide. Controlling the publicity and distribution channels is essential to the dying labels. People simply demand too much diversity for their top-heavy, coercive business models to cope with.

Although compulsory licenses are now backed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and their success in defying big pharma could be mirrored in the battle against the music oligopolists, the computer industry seems determined to keep the antique distribution monopoly of the RIAA alive, by supporting restrictions on the digital distribution of music.

Just as Napster encouraged one form of social conditioning - "you don't have to pay!", messy compromises such as iTMS encourage others. One is that you can't take your music with you. With DRM, your rights are severely restricted. Apple has been congratulated for finding a workable middle way, but for many others it's an answer to a problem that doesn't exist. And secondly, iTMS suits the RIAA just fine precisely because it such a limited distribution channel. On its launch, one reader unkindly compared to "an airport kiosk without the cigarettes and gum." Apple has since doubled the number of tracks on offer to 400,000, but huge gaps exist, and Apple has lost some prominent artists, Radiohead.

Never mind, at the San Francisco launch yesterday Steve Jobs won an endorsement from a figure almost as famous as the Apple founder: Bono from U2. If you're wondering how these two messiahs got on in the same room, you'll have to wait - for Bono was on a live feed from Dublin.

Bono, as ever, took time to flatter himself - "that's why I'm here to kiss the corporate ass, and I don't kiss every corporate ass" - before flattering his host. He described Jobs as "the Dalai Lama of integration".

A tight-lipped Jobs preserved his dignity by keeping a poker face at this crass attempt at humor, and politely told the clown to shove off with a terse "Well, take care."

Whereas a few months ago, we'd have bet that the RIAA would die a slow death from compulsory licenses within ten years, it now looks set fair for a good hundred. ®

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