Opinion: Death of the album -- the weak spot in SanDisk's plan

The record label companies seem to think that the problem is one of format

As a kid, I bought my music in "album" form -- 12-in. vinyl discs that cost about $10. The large black discs came with great album covers, liner notes, song lyrics and the occasional poster. The album formula was simple: Two hit songs and eight filler pieces that, as a dedicated fan, you were supposed to happily purchase. They were a pain to store, and I've probably paid more to move them from house to house over the years than I paid to buy them in the first place. There were a few alternatives -- such as 45-rpm singles -- but these had drawbacks and didn't seem to do as well as LP albums.

In the '80s, I dutifully made the switch to compact discs. Same formula, but on a different medium. Better sound quality, unless you were an audio purist. A bit easier to move and store, too.

Fast forward to today, and I realize that my kids are much smarter than me. Starting a few years ago with Napster, and continuing with iTunes, they buy only the songs they actually want. No filler. The days of purchasing an entire album are over.

Record companies hate that. They seem intent on holding on to their glory days, when consumers would suck it up and buy whatever they were told. But customers today know that they are in control. They've proven it by making iTunes the top music retailer in the U.S.

Yet for some reason record companies -- and some of their partners in the hardware and software industries -- keep trying to promote an outdated business model. The latest example: Monday's announcement of "slotMusic": High Quality, DRM-Free MP3 Music on microSD Cards from SanDisk. The labels that are going along with SanDisk (EMI, Sony BMG, Universal and Warner) seem to think that the problem is one of format, when it is really one of mind-set.

I have stacks of albums and CDs that I could fish through to find the songs I want to hear, or I could just flip directly to them on my iPod. And why would I want to purchase all the extra music that I didn't want if I didn't have to? That's why CD sales are dropping. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't because we don't want the physical media. I actually prefer a CD with cover art and liner notes to a MicroSD card or USB stick that I will certainly misplace. No, my problem with physical media is I don't want to pay for a bunch of extra music that I probably won't listen to.

I don't agree with Michael Arrington, though. I don't think that the future of music is free streaming. I want to listen to what I want when I want to. If free streaming was the answer, we'd all be listening to FM radio and not iPods, and subscription music services would likely be more popular. I think that people still enjoy owning music, buying the songs they want to hear.

It's a bit like opening Pandora's box. Customers now have a choice of how they purchase music, and it's far too late to take that choice away.

Larry Borsato has been a software developer, marketer, consultant, public speaker and entrepreneur, among other things. For more of his unpredictable, yet often entertaining thoughts, you can read his blog at larryborsato.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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