Where is Albert Einstein When You Need Him?

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This is Celia Hirschman with On The Beat for KCRW.

Yesterday, the music news headlines were cluttered with the announcement that a small music download company called SpiralFrog had inked a deal with the giant Universal Music to offer free downloads of the Universal catalog to consumers. 

As the largest producer and distributor of music in America, Universal Music takes its leadership role seriously. In truth, they would be wise to pay heed to another leader.  Albert Einstein once said, "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them."  

At first glance, the SpiralFrog deal seemed like a huge departure from the long held view that consumers must pay for downloads, either by individual fees or by monthly subscription. Have the major labels finally caved to the notion that illegal downloading cannot be stopped? Is this the beginning of the end of the record business as we know it?

Not at all. Rather, this is classic Record Business. Read the fine print of the SpiralFrog deal, and the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up. First of all, when consumers download the track, they'll be subjected to a 90 second audio advertisement embedded at the beginning of each track.  That's 90 seconds of advertising for every song downloaded.  And the downloads will only be available to the listener for six months, where upon the song will be erased from their libraries like a Mission Impossible espionage tape.  But here's where it gets even more complicated.  To keep those songs in their library just during those six months, listeners will have to log onto the Spiralfrog website every month to renew their account. And, disappointingly, none of the songs will play on the Ipod hardware. 

The seeming basis for the SpiralFrog deal was to try and offer those who illegally downloaded a legal alternative with no viruses or bugs. 
But realistically, this is not an attractive solution to folks who already find the confinement of paying for music intrusive.

But what's logic got to do with it?  It hasn't stopped the majors from their interest in SpiralFrog.  Apparently, Sony BMG, EMI and Warner Music have all made deals with the company and insiders say each of them will get $2M for their catalog.

There was a time, not that long ago, where labels and artists refused to let their work be used to sell electric shavers, automobiles and running shoes.  But in today's music market, access seems to beat ethics everytime, and  when a good price is included, it would seem everyone wants to get into the club.

This is Celia Hirschman with On The Beat for KCRW