Business

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Magnatune is Awesome

Magnatune is an independent record label and online music distribution channel. Why am I writing about it here? Because as the title suggests, it's frickin' awesome.

I've been listening to my music collection in digital form for many years now. I first ripped my entire CD collection in 2000, and have since ripped it twice more in progressively better quality. My final rip two years ago was done as lossless FLACs (see my AutoFLAC utility for more information), so I'll never have to rip them again. I've also long had a computer connected to my home theater system, primarily so I could listen to my music collection through may main stereo system. A completely digital music collection, combined with an intelligent media player like Amarok, offers countless advantages and flexibility over manually playing individual CDs.

Despite my love of digital music, until recently I've never purchased a single song or album digitally. Instead, I've continued to purchase, and subsequently rip, compact discs. Why? Because most online music services suck balls. Why?

  1. Digital Restrictions Management (aka, DRM) - this anti-consumer technology implements technical controls to limit what you can and can't do with music that you legally purchased. Want to listen to it on something other than an "approved" player? Tough. Want to copy it to and play it from another computer? Nope. Want to edit/remix it? Not gonna happen. Want to send it to a friend so he can check it out? Ha, now you're just being silly.
    Think you own it and should be able to play it forever? Better hope your music service/provider doesn't shut down.
  2. Quality - Most digital music has been sold as 128 Kbps tracks. This is atrocious quality. Why would I want to buy something of significantly worse quality (digital music) than the same exact product I've been buying for years in stores (compact discs). Recently many services have begun selling 256 Kbps tracks, which is a huge step in the right direction, but even this is far inferior to lossless CD quality music.
  3. Proprietary/restrictive application requirements - Most services require some kind of proprietary application to download and/or play the music. Why should I be forced to install a really crappy media player, that doesn't even run on my operating system, just to buy and download music? Why do I need to install some proprietary browser plugin just to download files that my browser is perfectly capable of downloading by itself?
  4. DRM - Yes, this point is worth repeating. DRM is defective by design, and it's important to treat it as such.
  5. Physical media - I like physical media. I like album art. I like liner notes and lyrics. I like having a physical backup in case something happens to my digital copy. I like the whole CD experience. Simply buying a digital copy of a song and downloading it to your computer without all of the value-added features is really rather lame by comparison.
  6. Have I mentioned DRM is evil?

I could go on, but that purpose of this post is not to rant about online other music services. The reason I'm posting this is because I want to call attention to a really great online music service: Magnatune. Their motto is "We are not evil," and unlike Google, which shares a similar motto but is so busy compiling every last detail of your life into one massive database to remember that, Magnatune actually means it. From there front page:

We work directly with independent musicians world-wide to give you downloads of MP3s and perfect-quality WAV files. We never work with major labels, and our musicians always get 50%. You can listen to every album in its entirety before buying or becoming a member.

They expand much more on this. The reasons behind Magnatune's creation are also quite interesting, and that 50/50 split directly with artists is a big deal. Be sure to check out their full info page for all the details.

Ok, so Magnatune says they're not evil, has a lot of propaganda on their site discussing that fact, and seems to be quite fair to the artists involved, but how does that affect me as a customer? Well, it basically translates into a wonderful customers-first policy that is extremely rare today. To be completely honest, and this is something you'll very, very rarely hear me say, I was 100% satisfied by the entire browsing and ordering process. Let me walk you through it:

  1. Decide on something to buy. Magnatune makes this quite easy:
    • Music can be searched/browsed by genre, artist, or album, and includes best-selling and newest lists
    • ALL music on the site can be sampled in its entirety in reasonable quality streaming audio. These "preview" tracks are actually just MP3s that are streamed directly from Magnatune's servers.
    • You can listen to the samples through an embedded media player in your web browser or by opening playlist links in your own preferred media player. Magnatune even offers a special programming interface that allows the service to be directly integrated with music players so I can, for example, browse, play, and purchase any album directly within Amarok.
  2. Once you've found something you like, click Buy Download
    • Note that you also have the choice to buy a physical CD instead and have it shipped to you
  3. Choose how much you want to pay, from $5 - $18. $8 is the default, though I've been choosing $10 (remember, 50% goes directly to the artists, not the label or any other middle men)
  4. Enter payment info
    • It's not necessary to register or create a permanent account
    • It's not necessary to give them your e-mail addresses, although a receipt will be e-mailed to you if one is provided
    • Payment information (eg., credit card number) is never saved on the server, unlike most other online retailers who don't even give you this option
  5. Click Pay
  6. Note the provided username and password, then click on the download link
  7. Begin downloading in choice of audio format
    • FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, MP3 (both constant and variable bitrate), AAC, and even WAV are allowed
    • Album cover art is also available for download
  8. If desired, forward download link and password to up 3 friends
  9. Sit back and enjoy your new music in any way that you want

Now, with all that said, I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the one negative aspect of the site. I mentioned at the very beginning that Magnatune is an independent record label. While this is a good thing, it does have one significant drawback: Magnatune as a much more limited selection than any of the major record labels. Basically, if you're used to buying music from a particular artist at Target or Best Buy, you will not find that artist's music on Magnatune. If you're only looking for big-name bands, you probably won't find much here. That's an unfortunate reality of the current industry environment. If, however, you're looking for some good music from lesser-known artists (I strongly recommend Rob Costlow if you like solo piano, and the rock group Atomic Opera is also worth checking out), you're not likely to find a better experience anywhere else.

I'm definitely not one to gush about, well, pretty much anything, but in this case I was so impressed, and so pleased, with my experience that I wanted to share it here. By all accounts, Magnatune is a good company doing good business and providing a great service to music fans and musicians alike. Check them out.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at How DRM Becomes Law

This is just a quick post about an article I recently read. Cory Doctorow (of Boing Boing, among others) has written a pretty insightful article for Information Week on "...the back room dealing that allowed entertainment companies and electronics companies to craft public policy on digital rights management." It manages to be insightful, disturbing, and disgusting all at the same time, and is worth a read if you're interested in how DRM comes to be.

Here's a small excerpt from the article:

Then the MPAA dropped the other shoe: the sole criterion for inclusion on the list would be the approval of one of its member-companies, or a quorum of broadcasters. In other words, the Broadcast Flag wouldn't be an "objective standard," describing the technical means by which video would be locked away -- it would be purely subjective, up to the whim of the studios. You could have the best product in the world, and they wouldn't approve it if your business-development guys hadn't bought enough drinks for their business-development guys at a CES party.

You can read the full article here:
http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=201000854

or, you can find the much friendlier single-page version here:
http://informationweek.com/shared/printableArticle.jhtml?articleID=201000854

The Age of Corporate Open Source Enlightenment

The Age of Corporate Open Source Enlightenment | 2003-09-04 08:52:54 | This article discusses the steadily growing creep of open source software into corporate America from a religous (Linux-zealot vs. Windows-heretic) viewpoint. It's a fairly long article, but it's very well written, highly accurate, and an entertaining read. Be sure to check it out.

Full story

The patent nuclear weapon

Here's an interesting and insightful article on patents, and why a well-stocked patent portfolio is so dangerous. It uses the SCO vs. IBM case and Unisys as examples, but the concepts are true of all large businesses.

Here's the full story.

Rockin' on without Microsoft

C|Net is carrying an interview with Sterling Ball, CEO of Ernie Ball, one of the leading guitar manufacturers in the world. A couple years ago, Ernia Ball made headlines by being one of the first major companies to completely switch away from Microsoft, focusing mostly on Linux and other free software.

This interview discusses what caused them to switch, how they've faired, and some of his thoughts on the future.

I want to mention that this interview is quite educational (you rarely hear a CEO speak this way), and definitely worth taking the time to read.

Here's the full interview.

Samba 3: Linux File Serving for the Active Directory Generation

I just read an article discussing the new Active Directory features of Samba 3 (which just reached RC1). In short, the article discusses pros and cons of migrating to Samba 3 in various scenarios. This is a must read for anyone managing file and print servers for Windows.

Full story

Joining the Cult of Linux

There's a fairly interesting article on NewsFactor about making the pitch for Linux and other Free/Open Source Software to corporations. Because FOSS enthusiasts understand and recognize the value of open source code, they tend to base their sales pitches on that as well. However, in an environment (aka Microsoft customers) where source cose access is a completely alien concept, this will only turn off and/or confuse the managers.

It goes on to state that in recent years, as more corporate entities themselves get involves in Linux (Red Hat, SuSE, etc.), pushing source code access has taken a back seat to simply pushing it's reliability and performance.

Pretty good read, overall. Here's the full story