A new iTunes streaming service could be a disaster for songwriters

Two rumours in short succession have hinted that the digital music scene is moving firmly away from the buy-to-own (or rather, pay-to-permanently-license-with-terms-just-short-of-ownership) model – of iTunes, the Amazon MP3 Store and Bandcamp – towards the model which services like Spotify and its American competitors Pandora and Rdio use, where users pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to music.

The Telegraph reports that the BBC is considering launching an iPlayer-style service to make its archive available:

The service, dubbed Playlister, will give licence-fee payers free access to hundreds of thousands of music recordings without paying any additional fees.

The BBC has talked about the idea of making its vast archive of music recordings public in the past, but has always run into trouble clearing the rights.

However, it is understood to be in talks with Spotify and similar music services, such as the French-run Deezer and Apple’s iTunes music store in an effort to side-step the problem.

Those services have already signed bulk rights deals with music labels, who opt in because they would prefer to make some money from the online streaming service rather than watch the shift to digital formats obliterate their sales altogether.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple is planning a similar streaming music service:

Apple Inc. is in talks to license music for a custom-radio service similar to the popular one operated by Pandora Media Inc., according to people familiar with the matter, in what would be a bid by the hardware maker to expand its dominance in online music.

Apple’s service would work on its sprawling hardware family, including the iPhone, iPads and Mac computers, and possibly on PCs running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system, according to one of these people. It would not work on smartphones and tablets running Google Inc.’s Android operating system, this person added, highlighting the mounting battle for mobile dominance between the two technology giants.

This second type of service is possible because the licensing required to do it is less like a sale, and more like running a radio station. In the US, for instance, services like Pandora are required to have a cap on how frequently any one user can play any one song, to encourage people to buy songs they particularly want to play.

But as an interesting post at Digital Music News, from attorney Steve Gordon, argues, one of the most important differences between the two types of license is that in the radio-style licenses, songwriters are increasingly struggling to get any payment at all:

If Apple wants to launch their much anticipated, Pandora-like music service, they must negotiate directly with Sony/ATV for public performance rights. That's the word on the street, and if true, a dangerous turn of events. The reason is that until recently, performing rights organizations – ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (the "PROs") – offered blanket licenses on behalf of almost all the publishers, including all the majors. This dramatically changes that, with negative repercussions for songwriters.

In other words, just because you might get your music legally these days, don't think that the creators themselves are out of hot water.

Tim Cook launches new iPods at a press event last month. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder