Opinion: Ad-supported music downloads hit all the wrong notes

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stu-mugshot2.jpgStuart Dredge writes…

The music biz is an industry in search of a viable business model right now. Figures released by the IFPI earlier this week showed that while legal music downloads rose 85% last year, that growth was outweighed by an 11% drop in physical CD sales – meaning that overall, global music revenues fell by 5%, which represents more than a billion dollars less than in 2005.

So what’s the answer? If I could tell you that, I’d be a highly-paid consultant with three speedboats and a couple of tropical islands. The music industry hasn’t pressed the panic button just yet, but everyone involved knows they need to find new ways to make money out of music, and quickly.

One of the hotly-tipped methods is ad-supported downloads, from companies like SpiralFrog, Qtrax and Peter Gabriel’s new startup We7. Music will be free, but will include advertising to ensure the artists still get paid. Trouble is, as a music fan, I can’t understand how these ads won’t be intrusive.

Note, I’m talking about downloads here, not other forms of online music. Sticking some ads in my free Last.fm personalised radio stream would be no problem, as long as there’s an option to pay for an ad-free version. Tacking ads onto the start and end of video content on YouTube or other sites is fair enough too. In both cases, the result isn’t vastly different to other media (radio and TV) where ads are a long-accepted element.

we7pic.jpgBut ad-funded music downloads rely on attaching adverts to songs or albums. Check We7’s method: “The service works by ‘grafting’ short and relevant ads onto the start of music tracks based on micro-targeted consumer’s demographics such as location, age and gender.” There’s more to say about We7’s model, actually, but I’ll get to that later.

Anyway, who exactly is going to be satisfied by free music with adverts tacked onto the start of each song? Not music fans, surely. To put it bluntly, I don’t want ads coming between me and the music I care about, and would rather pay for the CD or ad-free downloads, thanks.

It’s hard to explain, but it feels acceptable for TV shows to be broken up by adverts, but not for music. Maybe it’s about the intimacy of listening to it on headphones, or the fact that when I own a piece of music (as opposed to having it played to me by a DJ), I want to listen to the whole thing, with no distractions.

Maybe I’m not the key target audience, then. Maybe it’s the teenagers who’ve been downloading all their music for free off P2P services. Yet that’s the point: they see music as something that’s free WITHOUT ads, and if the threat of being prosecuted by the music industry hasn’t put them off – file-sharing continues to climb – why would they suddenly swap that in favour of having advertising?

Back to We7, which at least recognises these arguments: “Ads don’t remain attached to the tracks forever – after a period of time users will have the choice to have the track ad free, and for those who don’t want an ad on their track at all, there’s an option to buy the track at normal price.”

Like I said, I’m a music fan, not a music industry consultant. But even the thought of ads being only temporary doesn’t appeal. Music fans are notoriously sensitive to commercial intrusions too – witness the fuss when Jack White wrote a song for a Coca-Cola ad, or Bob Dylan appeared in a Victoria’s Secret ad.

The whole idea of ad-funded music seems to stem from two things: the slow take-up of paid-for downloads (in the context of faster falling CD sales), and the fact that there are lots of big advertisers keen to target the young, music-loving demographic who aren’t seeing their ads on TV or in print media any more.

Whether anyone has stopped to wonder whether music fans actually want ad-funded downloads seems to have fallen by the wayside.

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Stuart Dredge