Distributing music on USB sticks or removable flash memory is an idea various parties have tried for the last few years. The Creative Commons advocates at self-proclaimed “non-evil” indie label Magnatune sold USB sticks pre-loaded with ten albums in 2004; Barenaked Ladies had the nicely-named Barenaked on a stick. But to really make the idea (ahem) stick, you’d need some big distribution. And that’s what a new initiative backed by the major labels and massive flash memory manufacturer SanDisk promises to do.

slotMusic.org | Press Release

See also GearLog, which notes that SanDisk previously did a free promotional SD of music

Wired News asks, “but why?”, to which I’d answer – it might well be easier to load music onto a phone in parts of the world other than the US, you might more easily distribute videos, and artists looking to increase the value of their CDs could innovate on revitalizing album art.

First, let’s start with the players, as that’s basically the big news here.

Hardware: SanDisk, the folks who invented flash storage and make more of it than anyone else

Labels: A huge set of the majors – EMI Music (which includes the likes of Angel, Capitol, Blue Note, and Astrelwerks), Sony BMG, Warner Music (including Atlantic, Nonesuch, Rhino), and the world’s biggest music company, Universal Music Group

Retailers: Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and other US retailers, with Europe to follow – keeping in mind, Wal-Mart remains the biggest brick-and-mortar seller in the US

When it’s happening: Exact date TBA, but officially by the holidays

Which artists: Most likely, lots of them. An EMI representative who spoke with CDM confirmed two chart-topping examples: Coldplay’s Viva la Vida and Kate Perry’s One of the Boys.

Now, you’d be right to be skeptical of how this format will be received, but it’s certainly a big distribution play with that arrangement of labels and retailers.

The hardware in question is basically SanDisk’s tiny removable flash memory format microSD, rebranded and repackaged as slotMusic. (A representative of SanDisk tells us there are some other subtle technological differences; more on that soon.) The important thing about this is that the hardware you buy has no DRM on it at all; it’s just standard flash memory you can plug into phones and mobile devices, or, via a tiny included USB sleeve, a computer.

SanDisk’s format specifies DRM-free, 320 kpbs MP3s as the music format. Gruvi, SanDisk’s previous attempt at turning their lucrative flash memory business into a music format was a miserable failure, but by contrast, it was locked with DRM features and, excepting a big release by the Rolling Stones, lacked support from labels and retailers. (I see Gruvi has even been largely erased from SanDisk’s website.)

Sound Tribe Sector 9 is one of a group of independent artists who have embraced the idea of physical distribution of digital files on their own. Their latest album Peaceblaster was available as a USB key loaded with extra goodies.

What’s the Business Angle?

My colleague Eoin Rossney sent me this story under a headline on Ireland’s SiliconRepublic.com that screams “SanDisk and big labels in tech deal that could save the music business.” That’s obviously hyperbolic, but it’s also wrong. To me, it seems to be about three things:

1. It’s an experiment. Music labels want their music everywhere they can get it – as, frankly, they should; that’s their job.

2. It’s a massive end run around iTunes. Remember, part of what helped prompt some of the more stubborn labels to remove DRM was the realization that their DRM deal with Apple had placed Apple in the position of dominating download sales for the device most people owned.

3. Most phones aren’t iPhones. Labels will continue to do business with iTunes because iTunes is selling their music – but they’d be nuts to turn their back on the rest of the mobile phone market, which is far bigger. The press release notes 1.2 billion phones are due to ship this year, a number Apple can’t approach even with all their iPods and iPhones put together. In fact, it’s hard to wonder if, on a global scale, iPod won’t slip into the shadows with the number of increasingly multimedia-savvy phones out there.

Despite the hip factor of the iPhone, Apple has a tiny slice of an exploding global market for mobile devices. Instead of using a cable and a fancy vendor-specific store, you can just give people music they can pop directly into their phone, which – from vendors other than Apple – typically has a microSD slot. And as I noted last week, Apple’s alternative is a store/software sync arrangement that they control exclusively.

Music Everywhere, and Back on Objects

I’m not sure slotSD will be the “new CD,” or that it even needs to be. I think it’s better to see this as one of a variety of options you’ll see for music distribution. And, of course, even slotSD is best understood in the context of a growing amount of music showing up on flash memory, because it combines the flexibility of digital formats with physical objects.

“This is one of many initiatives to make our music available in as many different forms as possible,” Jeanne Meyer of EMI Music tells CDM. “Our big MO is to experiment with as many as possible.”

EMI, for one, has a record of trying just this sort of thing. There was a re-release of Radiohead’s studio albums on memory stick, though that seemed to cause some controversy. EMI has even toyed with big retail, with a release of UK superstar Robbie Williams at England’s own big box, The Carphone Warehouse. (It’d be interesting to know what sales were like.)

Of course, you can easily download files. Physical media is all about the object. A SanDisk representative confirms that labels are planning physical liner notes and album art in the package. You can also expect the memory to be loaded with digital extras, in the form of artwork, videos, and the like. Given the middling quality of online video, and the fact t
hat bandwidth costs aren’t going down at the rate many had hoped, I think that could mean higher quality and more access to video via physical formats than online.

Indie Artists and Digital Contents

So, I imagine for many of you not on Sony BMG, and listening to many artists who aren’t, this won’t be terribly earth-shaking news. But I do know SanDisk reassures CDM that they have worked with indies in the past on various promotional projects.

What can artists do with a format like this? Well, they can load it up with goodies that might actually be otherwise rack up bandwidth costs. One excellent example of an artist experimenting with this format is Sound Tribe Sector 9. They sent their latest release, Peaceblaster, to me. It’s loaded up not only with the files for the album, but extra images, podcasts, a screensaver, and videos. We saw these kinds of extras squeezed onto CDs at one point via formats like Enhanced CD, but there’s no question it’s more convenient on USB stick.

I think the big challenge will be how to make these contents interesting and unique, and even with bandwidth costs comparing unfavorably against increasingly high-definition media, how to compete with online alternatives.

Somehow, I imagine the slotMusic format winding up being a plain-vanilla blister pack that, stuck in a dull music department in Best Buy, just confuses consumers. I’m happy to be proven wrong there. But there is, in the meantime, plenty of room for independent artists and labels to innovate with short-run releases and ideas for what to pack inside the digital media that no one has thought of yet. And while majors have earned the skepticism of consumers and artists alike, I wouldn’t be surprised to see majors being more adventurous – especially once they discover that, in addition to the perils digital media pose, there could be a significant profit payoff for those experiments.

Actually, forget everything I’ve said in this entire article, and let me sum it up in one line:

If physical distribution brings art back to album releases, it’s a good thing, and it’ll work.

The generation of music lovers staring into album art wasn’t wrong.