Photo (CC) lee leblanc.

CNET has a terrific interview with Rio Caraeff of Universal Music Group’s eLabs. Caraeff is a new breed of record exec – the kind of people we’d actually want running the industry. He’s a software guy and a mobile guy.

UMG digital chief on iTunes, DRM, and Android [CNET Digital Media]

The record industry has clearly seen the light on DRM, so that’s not really news, except that now you can see them saying it in public (and I imagine there has been long-running internal lobbying from those in the industry who got it long ago).

The news for me really what he has to say about the mobile space – his expertise. On iPod, he says what we don’t need is more proprietary alternatives: “I don’t think having more devices and more proprietary software or hardware in the market is the right answer.”

But most encouraging to me is how bullish he is on Google’s Android platform – and the fact that the proof is already available in the numbers available now. It seems the Web world is attracted to whatever is shiny, new, and not-ready-for-primetime, so bloggers last week forgot about Android and moved on to Palm’s (not-shipping) WebOS and Palm pre. That’s all fine and good, and WebOS certainly follows some of the same trends Android does, but let’s not lose focus just yet, right?

Universal worked with Amazon on their integrated Android store, and the results sound very impressive.

…now Amazon will tell you that Android is their single largest source of downloads from any third-party partnership that they’ve ever done. It’s a tremendous amount of consumption that we’re seeing once you integrate it seamlessly into a user experience that’s elegant and easy to use. It’s not 10 clicks. It’s very elegant and easy. We’re starting to see consumption increase significantly.

It’s early days on Android. There’s not that many out there on T-Mobile, but even with the small amount out there, they’re downloading and purchasing a ton of music over the air on T-Mobile.

This to me points to some encouraging signs:

Android has an edge for developers. Note that from a development, user experience, and deployment perspective, the Android platform was a big part of this success. You couldn’t do an Amazon store on the iPhone.

Android has legs. None of that would be meaningful if it weren’t translating to sales. But this says to me that the open Android platform can be a successful outlet, without necessarily needing a middleman like Apple. And it suggests some positive things for, say, developers selling software (or musicians doing weird, 99-cent generative music games) on the platform.

Mobile sales in general could be big for music. The whole problem for the record industry isn’t all that complicated: it’s that one medium (CDs) has been shrinking in dollar figures faster than its successor (online music) has been growing. So the industry just needs new growth. It’s encouraging to see that that could mean just selling music at reasonable prices, free of DRM. That’s a huge change from the previous plan, which appeared to be slicing 30 seconds out of a track, calling it a “ringtone,” and charging more than you would for a single.

Photo (CC) lee leblanc.

There’s plenty worth checking out in the whole story. But this does make me feel even more excited about Android and what’s possible. The Amazon store is amazing: you buy and download tracks over the air, and then bring them back to your machine. Sure, you can do that with iTunes, and finally iTunes doesn’t have DRM on its tracks. But Amazon was able to come onto the device as a third party (working with HTC, Google, and TMobile). With Apple, the only way to get tracks back on your computer is to go through their iTunes conduit. With Amazon, you can do whatever you like. And the underlying stacks that enable the app are all open source, from the APIs to the developer tools. That’s a pretty marked difference.

Having a different mechanism for selling music could also mean that the UMG of tomorrow is very different from the UMG of yesterday. It’s certainly encouraging to think there are people at the company who see technology in the way a lot of the rest of us do. But this could also mean new opportunities for independent artists and smaller labels – and greater opportunities for everyone making music.

We’ll be looking more at the Android platform in 2009, and other trends in mobile. Now I just need to get myself a G1.

  • Tim

    I'm all for multiple options to get drm-free music wirelessly, etc. But I wouldn't read too much altruism into Universal's backing of Android and "open" platforms. There just simply trying to raise up a competitor to iTunes' near monopoly on the download market and nothing more. Behind closed doors they're still big fans of a closed system – as long as it's theirs and not Apple's.

  • @Tim: well, no, I don't get that, because Universal here is pleased that they have the iTunes relationship and don't see Apple's dominance as a problem. And I think the appeal to openness was a practical one, not an altruistic one. The backing of Android was about the fact that dollars were coming from it, which should always pretty easy for someone like UMG to get behind. (The fact that that wasn't always the case shows how screwed up the situation had been.)

    UMG was out front in dumping DRM, remember, too.

    So, yeah, who said anything about altruism? UMG is following the money, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

  • I historically refused to use the iTunes store because of the DRM. That seems to be changing, thankfully – but ever since Amazon came out with the DRM-free music downloads, I've been downloading music from them like it's crack. (Well, there and

    It's so easy to use Amazon's service it's almost scary. I think this is a very smart move on UMG's part.

  • I have a G1, and I've yet to even fire up the Amazon music app. I haven't mentally put the G1 in the "music player" category.

    Part of this is the extra cable doodad required to plug in headphones, and part of it is happiness with eMusic and Magnatune — I only hit the Amazon store when I'm looking for a specific release and they happen to have it. eMusic really has an excellent selection of experimental electronic music, and my 100 monthly tracks are getting to be too much to listen to with full attention.

    That said, I do in theory like the fact that I could buy music from Amazon while sitting in a restaurant or airport or highway rest stop or something.

  • samoan

    Sorry to say but Android is already an also-ran.

    Google have no experience in this area so it shouldn't be a surprise.

  • Actually, foosnark, I'm curious about that … has *anyone* sorted this adapter for the headphones? There is an adapter now, right?

    It's stunning to me that the Amazon app is doing well given the a) small number of TMobile customers, b) smaller-still number of G1 owners, c) nonexistent standard headphone jack. Imagine what it will do once those variables change.

    Ideally, I want an Android headset with audio and video out. I'll even use a dumb dongle if I have to.

  • At least as of December, and probably earlier, the G1 started shipping with an adapter. It's actually kind of a long cable thing that's got a clip-on microphone as well, so if you already have sufficient length on your earbud cord, it's excessive.

    This post made me curious so I wound up firing up the app. I'm surprised by Amazon's top 100 sellers really. Diana Krall, The Go-Go's and Bon Jovi all in the top 5?

    The app is a bit awkward. When looking at a particular song, there's no way to jump to a listing of that artist's other releases, the album listing as a whole, the genre, similar items, or anything. You basically get the top 100 albums or tracks overall, the top 100 albums or tracks within a given genre (*), or a basic search which is a bit wonky (**). There's no additional information about an album other than a thumbnail of the art, title, artist name, price and track listing.

    Genre headings are pretty messed up IMHO. It's all arbitrary I'm sure, but "Goth and Industrial" is one genre, stuck under "Alternative Rock." Most electronic stuff is stuck under "Dance & DJ." There is no category at all for experimental electronic music even though there's a fair amount of it in their catalog.

    As far as search goes — I was looking at an Industrial anthology and found a particular track I wanted to know more about. There was no artist name on the track. A search for the track name came up with all kinds of stuff that didn't have any of the words in my search term, but not the actual track itself. You'd basically have to switch back and forth between this app and a browser to do what I wanted.

  • @foosnark: Wow, that sounds awful. And why would the search queries work any differently than they do on Amazon's site (where they work just fine)?

    So, let's see: the app is awful, there's no headphone jack, no one is on TMobile, no one owns a G1, and it's still a huge success. Imagine what they could do if they got any of this right.

    I'd like a Bleep app for Android, please. Bleep, I'll write it for you if you pay me in Warp Records downloads. 🙂

  • wb

    <q cite="">UMG was out front in dumping DRM, remember, too.

    Actually, UMG was one of the stragglers. EMI was the first to release music without DRM through iTunes Plus. Universal only later released DRM-free music at Amazon, and this was widely regarded as a ploy to weaken Apple's hold on the downloadable music market. (cf. DF)