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.