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Bill Bennett

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Apple Music: What New Zealanders will pay

Apple announced its subscription Music service at the World Wide Developer Conference overnight.

From the announcement Apple Music seems an interesting mix of Spotify-like music streaming with DJs and human, not algorithmic, curation.

An interesting aspect of the Apple Music is that you’ll be able to store all your music, including iTunes purchases and personally ripped albums in the cloud. There’s an overlap there with Apple Match which, no doubt, will clear up over time.

Apple Music is to streaming what iPod was to MP3

While most of the features in Apple Music echo those found on other streaming services, Apple seems to have wrapped the package neatly. On the surface it looks as if Apple Music could do for streaming what the iPod did for downloaded music: move it further into the mainstream and make it safe for consumers.

The service is due to start streaming music to most of the world, including New Zealand on June 30.

 

Apple has fixed the US price of Apple Music at US$10 a month for a single user. A family subscription, allowing up to six people to share an account is just US$15. There’s no free, advertising supported service, but customers get a three-month trial period.

The US price is competitive with Spotify. Both have a $10 basic subscription. Apple’s family deal will put pressure on its rivals.

What will Apple Music cost in New Zealand?

Apple has yet to announce the local price.

At today’s exchange rate, US$10 buys NZ$14. Add 15 percent GST and on a straightforward conversion it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get an Apple Music subscription for less than NZ$16.

That’s a fair price for unlimited music, but not compelling. Spotify offers a free tier and broadcast radio plays tons of tunes for free. The paid service is NZ$13 a month, which may act as a benchmark for Apple.

Apple’s streaming

It isn’t hard to understand why Apple launched a streaming service. Digital music download sales are plummeting. Streaming is growing and newcomers have disrupted Apple’s iTunes business. Apple Music fixes that.

Apple should do well. Spotify can count its customers in tens of millions worldwide. Apple’s active customer database runs to hundreds of millions. If it can convince one tenth of them to sign-up, it will top the music streaming market and keep the digital music crown.

It’s no accident that Apple Music will also be available on Android devices. Until now Apple has avoided Google’s operating system, delivering an Android version shows the company’s determination not to drop the ball with digital music sales.

Verdict

We’ll have a clearer idea of the worth and potential of Apple Music when we get to hear it later this month. There’s an opportunity for Apple to work off its existing strength with iPhones, iPods and iTunes.

If the service is better than Spotify and the price on a par, then it will disrupt the music business. The first victims may be commercial FM music stations which could struggle to find an audience if listeners change their habits.

JBL OnBeat Micro: iPhone speaker review

JBL OnBeat MicroJBL’s OnBeat Micro, NZ$120, is a black pint-size iPhone or iPod speaker dock with a Lightning connector.

It measures 50 by 190 by 150 mm and about 360g. That makes it small enough to sit on a bookshelf, kitchen bench or a window sill.

You might consider using the OnBeat Micro on a bedside cabinet. It will charge your phone overnight and you can route the phone’s alarm function through the speaker.

Wake the dead

Take care with this. The OnBeat Micro may look small, but when it comes to sound it packs a real punch. Forget to crank down the volume before setting the alarm and the entire neighbourhood will be familiar with your choice of alarm tone.

The first time I tried the device I set my phone volume to the halfway point. It more than filled the room with music. I had to move fast to lower the volume. There’s more than enough grunt to keep a small party going although not enough to fill a big room or to cut through a dozen simultaneous conversations.

You wouldn’t expect hefty bass sounds at this price. And anyway there isn’t room to shove a powerful woofer under the main speakers. Even so, the overall sound is clear enough.

Rocksteady

At most volumes rock or classical music will play fine without hitting serious distortion. Things can get a little shaky when operating at full blast, but few people will be listing for nuanced sounds when that’s happening.

While you don’t get the feeling this is a feeble speaker, you might want to spend a little more and move upmarket if you’re looking for more of a hi-fi experience. This is strictly for fun, not for serious music listening.

I’ve seen speakers in this price range bounce across a surface as the good vibrations get things moving. The OnBeat Micro has a rubber cushion on its base to damp things down, it doesn’t move even at full blast with heavy staccato sounds.

Portable player

The base opens to show space for four AAA batteries. This would allow you to use the speaker dock as a portable music player. I didn’t test this feature, but would prefer to see a built-in rechargeable battery and not buy disposable batteries for the job.

JBL OnBeat Micro

JBL’s Lightning connector works fine with any iPhone 5 or 6. The Outsize 6Plus doesn’t present a problem and doesn’t look silly. Its extra weight doesn’t appear a problem despite the Lightning connector getting to take all the strain. It also works with newer iPods.

There’s not enough room to get iPads to connect. I also found at least one iPhone 6 Plus external case got in the way and I had to remove it before I could dock the phone.

There’s a USB connector on the back of the speaker dock which can charge other devices. The downside of this is that you can’t play music through the speakers when something is plugged in.

Overall

Given the NZ$120 asking price, the JBL OnBeat Micro is a good value docking speaker. It punches out more volume than you might expect and you’ll get a reasonable audio experience.

If you want more sound or prefer a wireless speaker connection then go elsewhere. On the other hand if you’re looking for an affordable, versatile speaker dock to sit on your bedside table this would be a good choice. It gets my vote.

Mobile Fun, an online phone accessory store sent me the JBL OnBeat Micro for review.

How did my legal digital music project go?

musicians-with-masks-1921Six months ago I set out to make sure all the digital music on my devices was legitimate. How did the project go?

Now there are legal and affordable ways to legitimately own digital music, there are no excuses for owning pirated material.

Or maybe not, checking all the songs stored on my computer are legal proved harder than expected.

Just to be clear, illegal means songs I haven’t paid for when I probably should have paid for. If I own the CD, then rips for my personal use are legal. Songs downloaded from band sites or other legitimate online services offering free material don’t count. This last category confuses things a lot because often there’s no audit trail.

When I started there were 15,000+ songs in my iTunes library. I guess most were illegal.

Digital music mainly legal

Today I’ve around 10,000 songs. Nearly all are legal. If I come across anything potentially dodgy, I buy a legal copy or trash the file.

I’d like to say all are 100% kosher, but that’s not realistic. I’ve deleted everything I know is dodgy. Where possible I’ve either purchased songs from iTunes, brought the music on CD or downloaded them from Auckland Library’s Freegal service.

One big problem is knowing for sure something is legal. iTunes songs are straightforward, I can tell from the app what was paid for and downloaded. With CD rips I can look at the physical media.

There’s nothing so obvious on the Freegal songs to tell me they were legitimate free downloads. The same goes for other legitimate free downloads.

The other huge problem is that Apple’s New Zealand iTunes site doesn’t offer many of the songs I’d like to buy – nor does Amazon. Generally I note the song and head off to TradeMe or Real Groovy to find a CD copy – most CDs cost under $10 and can be a much cheaper way of buying music than iTunes.

My digital music goes straight

musicians-with-masks-1921There was a time when my digital music collection was mainly pirated.

Today there’s little illegal material. I’d like to say there’s none, but I know that’s still not true.

At least not yet. Soon it will be.

I aim to be squeaky clean by the end of 2013. It’s a daunting task. When I started the project in January there were more than 15,000 items in my iTunes collection. At a guess 40 percent was illegal or dubious.

Music wants to be straight

This isn’t about morality. I’m not going to preach or take the moral high ground – make your own choices.

Nor do I fear prosecution – it would be hard to successfully prosecute me because there’s hardly anything on my iPod that shouldn’t be there today. And anyway, I have a plausible defence.

While I do think someone, like me, who makes a living from creating intellectual property shouldn’t steal other people’s, I’m going straight because It’s now the smartest practical option.

Ah-ha me hearties

In the past music lovers had little choice but to pirate. It wasn’t possible to buy legal downloads. Sure you could legally rip your own CDs to listen on an iPod, but not always. Some discs were copy protected.

When you could first buy legal downloads, it was difficult and confusing. The music was often expensive. Online retailers charged more for a low-quality download than a CD. So you paid more for an inferior product.

That’s no longer true.

Digital music is still overpriced – it is an outrage New Zealanders pay more than Americans for the same tracks – but it is now easy to get. At least most of the time.

Stealing music online is no walk in the park. You have to walk through the online equivalent of the red light district with pornographic or fraudulent images jumping out at you. Sometimes pirate sites load nasty cookies or even malware as you walk past.

It’s worth paying $1.80 a song just to avoid that.

Today there are few excuses to pirate music. I was going to say no excuses – but that’s not true as we shall see.

Moral, not legal

My music collection has four categories. Yours is probably similar:

  • Music I’ve purchased online.
  • Music ripped from my own CDs.
  • Free music downloads I’ve picked up from band site or similar.
  • Pirated music.

Not all that pirated music is outright theft. In most cases the songs are downloaded copies of my vinyl records and cassette tapes. That doesn’t make them legal, although like most people I resent paying twice for the same thing.

There are some items where I genuinely don’t know how they got there.

Overall illegal music was about 5 percent of my collection in January, today it is probably less than 0.1 percent. Finding those songs among the good stuff is difficult.

A lot of pirate music is low-quality. It may be recorded at a low-bit rate, recorded badly or stop and start at the wrong places.

Now is the time

First was the realisation that most of the pirated material I had wasn’t worth listening to. It was simply sitting unheard on my iPod and PC.

Getting rid of live recordings of songs I don’t like is no loss. Hoarding stuff you don’t want or need is mentally unhealthy. It’s like a modern version of the King Midas story. The cull got me halfway to my target.

Second, buying legitimate music online is now simple. For the past two or three years if I wanted anything new it is easier to buy it than to jump through the hoops needed to steal it.

Paying for the songs I want to keep – where I don’t own the CD – is a lot less than paying for everything. I estimate I’ll have spent around $1000 with iTunes by the time I’ve finished.

I’ll write more in future posts about the practicalities of going legit – it’s not as straightforward as you might think.

Music industry blames net for falling music sales

The Australian newspaper says illegal downloads are the reason music sales fell to their lowest point in 23 years. It is no longer online.

According to the paper 1.8 billion albums sold in 2007. That’s roughly the same number as at the start of the CD sales boom in 1985.

MP3 downloads have an impact – but they are not the whole story. The Economist reported earlier this year EMI can’t even give CDs away to younger listeners.

Illegal downloading harder, riskier

Thanks to music industry-lead legal actions against downloaders, p2p services and ISPs, illegal downloading is now harder than in the late 1990s and the early years of this decade.

That was when Napster and other services were at the peak of their popularity. Surviving p2p networks are now filled with spam. They have music industry-generated dummy files designed to make downloading difficult.

This aside: the music industry was the architect of its own decline.

The last serious flowering of popular music was in the late 1970s and early 1980s – I know, I was there. An explosion of new talent appeared as punk rock and new wave. It morphed into dozens of other fresh new music styles.

New wave music, creative boom

That burst of creativity gave us acts as diverse as The Clash, The Jam, Talking Heads, The Smiths and the Ramones.

Accompanying this was a commercial blossoming. Hundreds of entrepreneurial, at times idealistic, record companies and related businesses arrived on the scene.

Similar waves arrived in the 1950s with original rock and roll. Then again in the 1960s with the Beatles and rock’s second coming. A third wave was from 1967 through to the early 1970s. Each successive wave  had a creative and commercial aspects.

Around the time CD sales took off, the record industry began a process of consolidation. This left four major companies accounting for most global sales. About 70 percent in the USA, more in some other western countries.

Music industry squeezing out innovation

Along the way the new mega-companies trimmed their rosters of acts. They began playing it safe; which meant squashing innovation and creativity. They also started mining their back catalogues more than in the past. I can’t quote numbers, but old music accounts for a sizable share of today’s total sales.

As a result, there are fewer signed artists. There is less room for commercial mavericks to flourish. The remaining acts are more predictable and controllable. That’s great for large corporations reporting to shareholders, not so good for nurturing new talent.

Independent record companies still pick up bright new acts. But sooner or later they the majors get hold of them and the squelching starts all over again.

Which means the music industry would be in serious decline now even without illegal music downloading.

Even so, I’ve decided to make sure my music collection is one hundred percent legal.