Comparing Online Music Services to P2P Networks

What’s so great about the 70 million or so downloads Apple says iTunes managed in more than a year, compared to the one billion (at a conservative estimate) that happen on the peer-to-peer networks every month? The “one billion” figure, which comes from industry observer Big Champagne, helps make the point that downloads from iTunes and the other plastic online music stores supplied by the Big Five record labels don’t amount to a hill of beans.

But it does raise a question about how many unique songs are available on peer-to-peer networks. So I got in touch with Big Champagne CEO Eric Garland, who had this to say:

“Let’s look just at titles — the variety of music, with no consideration of the popularity of one title over another,” said Garland. “Virtually every title that has ever been popular with any audience, no matter how small, is available at one time or another on P2P networks.”

He went on to say, “Now, while the volume of files (and interest) is concentrated on a few hundred thousand top titles — many of which are for sale online, and many of which (Beatles, Madonna, Led Zep, and so forth) are not — the available title library on a P2P absolutely dwarfs the paid offerings. In fact, the variety of titles is limited only by the imaginations of every one of the tens of millions of P2P users.”

More Than a Handful of CDs

Music is more than the handful of CDs at Best Buy, and P2P networks ensure that, said Garland. He also pointed out that there are millions of titles in the history of popular music, and quite a few unpopular songs as well. “In fact, most of my friends who long ago played music very unsuccessfully in their high school and college days have since found their own obscure compositions on P2P,” said Garland. “Good luck finding those gems on Apple’s iTunes.”

Garland suggested I demonstrate the disparity for myself by searching for any popular artist on a P2P network. “As I type this, I’m searching for ‘Coldplay’ and ‘Sheryl Crow’ (to pick a couple of iTunes user faves),” he said. “The results include at least as many ‘rare’ offerings — unreleased, live, b-side, outtakes — as legitimately-released studio tracks.”

So I fired up WinMX (the new beta), and he was right — in spades. “Just amplify this phenomenon by every artist you’ve ever seen on P2P networks and you start to appreciate the challenge,” Garland went on. “The paid services simply can’t offer ‘everything’ an artist records. P2P networks make a pretty good run at it.”

The titles on even the best licensed services “constitute a small fraction of what’s on P2P networks,” Garland concluded.

Over in Europe

P2P is certainly doing it for the estimated 61 million Americans who use P2P networks for their music needs, and Big Music claims it’s being driven to ruin by all those wicked file-sharing file-sharers, that its artists are on their uppers and that soon it’ll have to sell the car to pay the rent.

Forget about all those copyrights, CDs, DVDs, movies, rentals, contracts, performance rights, product-service testimonies, clothing, make-up, toys, promo items, food, drinks, contra-advertising and so forth. Discount the fact that the Big Five labels continue to take money from people even when they’re stone cold dead, Ray Charles being the most recent example.

You can be pretty sure sales of Charles’ music and recordings went up when it was announced that he passed away, and you can be equally sure that Big Music wasn’t channeling the profits to Charles’ relatives.

Mom and Pop P2P

While the Big Five do their best to kick the stuffing out of the mom-and-pop P2P file-sharers, they’re nonetheless looking to downloads for some kind of salvation, having arrived in Europe with Apple’s iTunes and, to a much lesser extent, Napster 2, carrying the tattered corporate music portfolios. OD2, the Peter Gabriel Microsoft operation, was already there.

The Big Five earnestly state that online music stores in Britain, Germany, France and, soon, the rest of Europe will take off, leading to serious online sales. Venal they might be, but dumb they’re not. And in reality, the online stores can’t be much more than a way to keep music industry flags flying while they keep hammering file-sharers with lawsuits on the one hand, trying to figure a way out of the mess on the other.

Sales will ensue, but they’ll never be serious, not unless Big Music does what the entire entertainment industry must also eventually do — embrace P2P as the new marketing and distribution vehicle.

Nonetheless, thanks to a relentless multimillion-dollar PR effort and the fact that the mainstream media continues to reproduce every record label utterance as if it’s from a credible source, the world is under the illusion that something big is happening in Europe. Not.

Can’t Own That

Roxio’s Napster II was first at the gate, but isn’t a major contender. In the lead is OD2, but Apple’s iTunes is coming up fast, having officially launched in the UK, France and Germany with plans for an across-Europe presence. Aided by heavy betting by mainstream music industry media supporters, Apple could indeed take the plastic Corporate Music Online Cup. Whether or not it’ll mean much in the long term is another question.

“The iTunes Music Store in the UK, France and Germany all feature over 700,000 songs from all five major music companies,” states a Macworld UK story. But it’s the singers, not the songs, that’s important. Music is alive. It can’t be owned and it can’t be bought or sold. It can only be shared.

Music is beyond copyrights, beyond lawsuits, beyond file-sharing, beyond the Net. Music will still be here long after the labels have driven themselves into the dirt trying to own it. Children sing as they play with each other. Big Music can’t own that.

Jon Newton, a TechNewsWorld columnist, founded and runs p2pnet.net, a daily peer-to-peer and digital media news site focused on issues surrounding file-sharing, the entertainment industry and distributed computing. p2pnet is based in Canada where sharing music online is legal.

1 Comment

  • Ok, nobody should contest the fact that there are more titles on the P2P networks than on any paid download site but a lot of it is garbage. So did you take the next step?
    Pick any 10 song that had been popular and start the stop watch. Have one person go to iTunes and the other go to what ever P2P server you like. Then see how long it takes you to download a song with the same basic quality as the iTunes song. (128bit WMA or AAC or 160bit MP3).
    Now you might come across a couple that iTunes does not offer (but you will know very quickly) and the number of songs that someone is likely to look for that will not be on iTunes drops every day.
    Now do the same thing picking out albums. Then from there pick related music from the artist.
    iTunes and other paid sites will never bring down P2P on their own, but they do represent a real alternative and combined with regular legal action, they could make a fight of it.
    You need a critical mass of users of P2P networks for the system to work. If you reduce the number of people using P2P by half, the resulting more limited service will drop it even further. They don’t have to convince everyone to stop using P2P just enough that P2P becomes less useful.

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