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 that 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.

  • http://www.elliotlevin.com Elliot

    Oh puh-lease. iTunes is successful for two reasons: You can get music at home, 24 hours a day, and it works with iPods. This does neither.

    Further, this is the average consumer's reaction to this product:

    Consumer: "Oh cool, digital music, so I'll be able to put it right onto my iPod!"

    Sandisk: "Uh, no, but you will be able to put it directly into your phone."

    Consumer: "Oh, like an iPhone?"

    Sandisk: "No, actually, your current phone might already have a slot for our cards, it'll be really easy. Then again, it might not have a slot, then you'll have to load the music onto your computer and figure out how to connect your phone to your computer, which should be detailed in the phone's user manual. You might need a special cable, since a lot of phones don't use standard USB cables, but after you've bought that, you'll be in business, unless your phone uses a non-standard headphone connection, in which case you'll need to buy a new set of headphones, but then you'll be in business!"

    Consumer: "So, it won't work on my iPod?…"

    Sandisk: "No, it will, you just have to use this little adapter to put it on your computer first, rip it to iTunes, then transfer it to your iPod."

    Consumer: "Oh, like a cd?"

    Sandisk: "Yeah, sort of, but smaller!"

    Consumer: "Oh."

    Sandisk: "…"

    Consumer "…"

  • http://floormodel.net David

    we thought about releasing our album as flash, but there are several reason against it:

    1) as elliot said above, on itunes i get the full advantage of digital music: 24/7. even a small SD has to ship.

    2) you seen the size? dude. i mean seriuosly you could swallow that thing! no album artwork here too, a stick with some nice print would be better.

    3) for…phones? wtf. if i get a good album i wanna listen to it at home too and not manage a thousand copies on several devices.

    4) "originality & collectability". anyone can copy it and it looks exactly like the original. you cant put it in the shelf like an LP (which you cang on the wall. doublebonus!) or CD. no one can see your music. and lets be honest, a big CD/LP collection looks fucking sexy.

    5) portability. phones…well ok. lets assume you buy it, you put it in your phone. wanna listen to a different artist? well… change medium. wheres the advantage of my cheap 8GB storage than? where do i keep those small SDs?

    of course MP3s are great and i love iTunes but if you bring out a new a medium, let it be a decent one that brings a real advantage to digital media.

    hey, anyone up to selling LPs with codes for free mp3s? i like the idea.

  • robman84

    Happy to go with an alternative to CDs so long as it's:

    * Smaller and easy to store (so not USB keys)

    * Cheaper to buy and DRM-free

    * At least as high quality if not higher, with ZERO compression loss

  • Mo

    As far as I'm concerned they were onto a winner until I saw the words "320kbps MP3". As robman84 said, it loses out to CDs if the quality isn't as high. And regardless of what the theory of the quality of uncompressed versus 320kbps, the MP3 is still a degraded version.

    Not sure where the album artwork comes into play on such a small device. Seems pointless to take something so compact and stick it into a much larger package just to bundle artwork.

  • zenzen

    Peter, you said: 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.

    The thing about varieties of options is that they divert resources and scatter concentration. Remember 1992? CD / LP / MC (music cassette) / DCC (digital something cassette) / MD (mini-disk). More diversity of physical delivery systems would, I wager, lead to less spent on signing and developing musicians.

    Having said that, here's a vote for the large-scale return to vinyl! zz

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I'm not disagreeing with ANYONE on the drawbacks here. I just think there's some potential that would be easy to miss!

    @zenzen: Right, except I think what SanDisk is betting on here is volume. Yes, there are alternatives. The thing is, though, there may be a billion devices out there with these slots on them. I wouldn't be surprised if flash memory is now shipping with a volume that the CD would envy. SanDisk is shipping a volume of flash memory that just boggles the mind, and it's growing, and these devices are also growing.

    And to everyone else, again, think of it from the artist's perspective. iTunes sales have been really lackluster especially in narrower niches. And I think there's a diminishing sense of value in online digital music. So, you're an artist — instead of selling a CD at a gig or giving away a silly-looking coupon for a digital download, you could sell this thing that plugs directly into a computer or (increasingly) drops into someone's phone, you could wrap it up with pretty album artwork. You could drop-ship these in whatever packaging you wanted.

    I agree that size is a bit of a problem in that case, so it may in fact come back to USB sticks, but again … it's a packaging / design problem.

    Look, I'm certainly not suggesting this thing is going to explode, but I think there's potential there. iTunes doesn't sync with the vast majority of these billions of mobile devices that are shipping, and a lot of mobile devices aren't so smart about file sharing. Speaking as someone who pays a big bandwidth bill every month, I think it could also be a huge mistake to assume online video is always the answer … you can rack up thousands of dollars in costs hosting, and if you aren't personally, Vimeo or whoever may be in your place, which is something they're also going to have to figure out.

    So, if you want to distribute

    * a physical item in some sort of beautiful packaging

    * high-definition video and related content

    * say, software that does generative music … who knows

    … you're going to be looking at other options. SanDisk has the commodity pricing of flash memory on their size. slotMusic may mean nothing. But there's a very good chance that artists are going to wind up looking at something shipping from SanDisk.

  • http://www.kentsandvik.com Kent Sandvik

    Tiny, tiny… Consumers will hate them as they are so easy to lose.

  • http://beatfix.com beatfix

    I already use the music phone / microSD combo for my daily listening instead of an iPod (I have an LG Fusic). I should be smack in the middle of the target demo for this device – but there's no way this will ever work.

    My laptop has wifi and an SD card slot – for users like me, that is the simplest and fastest path to getting new music – not taking a trip down to Best Buy.

    Also, odds are that these albums will be sold on cards that are 1GB or less apiece, which makes them, from a hardware perspective, leftover junk that SanDisk knows they can't sell any other way. Who wants to swap out the microSD card in their phone every time they want to hear a song by a different artist?

    Sorry, this idea is DOA.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    No, I'm not impressed by the Best Buy thing. On the other hand, this makes more sense than an online gift card or whatever; you could actually put the music on there. And why shouldn't you also be getting advance press copies on flash memory, too? (hell, I could have put together like a 1 terabyte necklace by now)

  • http://www.twofloorsrecords.com zibba

    i saw somewhere recently, here down under, that someone was handing out USB wristbands (like those silicone charity ones) that included a few GB's of memory pre-loaded with music.

    nice idea, as is handing out USB keys on a lanyard at a gig.

    my mobile has a sony m2 slot. i've got a 1GB card in there at the moment. i bluetooth files between my macbook and my mobile. that's the point of flash, it's re-writeable and the m2 (and microSD) cards are so small i just leave it in my phone or safe keeping.

    but why 320kbs mp3, why not 24/48khz wav files? if we're going to move away from the cd as a medium let's also move away from 16/44.1 and get more fidelity at the same time.

  • Mike

    FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL

  • jon grant

    blech!

    sounds horrible.

  • drohnwerks

    What an odd concept to try and sell as the saviour to the corporate music industry.

    Perhaps it is just me, but I wouldn't be able to read one of these cards without purchasing some extra hardware. It would have to be some amazing album for me to fork out for the card, delivery and something to read the card rather than a higher res CD, LP, or an instant download. Having said that, I do like the novelty of formats such as hitclips (although a toy, it was a relatively clever idea that seemingly sank without trace)

    I started seeing USB stick albums in my local global music retailer last year, the radiohead, Rolling Stones and Kylie Minogue albums particularly. What I cannot understand is how a poorly packaged usb stick with compressed music costs (in some cases 3 times) more than a CD which has the benefit of artwork and uncompressed music.

    Whilst on this rant, why do (legal) mp3 sites regularly charge more for albums than it would cost to buy the CD? Is this some sort of comment of value from Apple et al?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    drohnwerks: Even the SanDisk press push didn't push this as a way of saving the music industry, that was some overheated headline writer (not me). And with billions in sales, I'd question whether they need saving in the first place.

    You'd definitely be able to use it without any additional hardware, assuming you have a computer with a free USB port! It comes with a USB sleeve.

    I agree about pricing online. The thing with the stick, though, is right now a per-CD cost is almost nothing, whereas a USB stick costs something. So that makes some sense, though I agree they're still not quite right on there.

    But you get to the point, which is it's all about the specific value of a release, not some big, sweeping thing that will save everyone — I agree.

  • Rex Rhino

    As if getting music on physical device was a problem consumers needed solved.

    The real problem that needs to be solved is this:

    1. There is no one centralized location that has everything I want. A lot of the stuff I am interested in is only available on vinyl, or from an mp3 seller I don't use. I want one location where I can buy everything I could ever want.

    2. mp3s are way way overpriced. An album should cost $1-$2, not $10-$20 or $1 a song. Sorry, but the server resources for an mp3 are pennies, and recording technology is so cheap nowadays that recording an album isn't the million dollar process it once was. Companies need to learn they are competing with free, not competing with CD.

  • http://myspace.com/fallsastar foosnark

    Rex, the maximum eMusic subscription works out to $0.25/song. Not quite in your goal range, but I find it pretty reasonable.

  • drohnwerks

    Ahh, I didn't catch the fact that the SanDisk came in a USB sleeve despite being clearly there in black and white ;)

    This though raises another issue for me; the consumer pays for the music, the format, and a USB sleeve, rather than just the music and format. this is surely more in the interests of SanDisk than the consumer? What about users who buy multiple albums in this format – will they be stuck with numerous (presumably branded) USB sleeves?

    Marketed cleverly this concept may work – I am sure the Gescom Minidisc, and N5MD label helped to shift a couple of players (I certainly have my fair share of minidiscs), but at the moment I cannot see where the extra value for general consumers is with this format.

    Where this format could work is by having full discographies – how about all of the albums mentioned in Krautrocksampler, digital copy of the book, physical copy of the book and an additional book of the album art for £150 all without DRM, all with proper tags, and the disc locked in some way that stops it from being overwritten?

    Thanks for fixing the HTML in my previous post BTW.

  • CrystalMaz

    I got the sts9 album on usb and it can with a dope podcast of music from their label, digital photos, a very nifty screen-saver program and tons more art and words from the band. The best part is, I can use it over and over for other things. It's a package that has never ending value. very cool. proud to see this amazing band getting props for their forward thinking.

  • http://www.djchima.com Andy Chimicles

    1. Not accessible – we're going BACK to buying physical manifestations of music, after most people have left this?!

    2. Unrealistic expectations from sandisk on the customer – why would anybody buy a disk when they have to rip it to their computer, then upload to their mp3 player? Then what, they throw out the disk because it's just an extra physical thing they don't need

    Can't knock the industry for trying a few last ditch attempts at squeezing the remaining demand from the physical music medium

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  • http://www.markrushton.com Mark Rushton
  • http://www.wiretotheear.com Oliver Chesler

    Save the planet. We don't need more plastic crap.

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  • laci

    itunes is so much easier, nothing to plug in, nothing to have lying around your house. Although the fact that they are total nazi's about having to pay extra for iphone ring tones made from your songs you've payed for is lame! I wonder if you can just make the ring tone in logic b/c garage band blocks them out? Or is there a way to trick garage band? That's a whole other issue entirely :)

  • marky mark

    i like albumn art, and yeah i don't have alot of space either, so now adays i'm picky about what i buy. i love holding things and as long as my new music format is as-good-as-cd quality or better(pref)why not release these "things" in a VINYL SIZED SLEEVE! woo hoo! i hate looking at cd artwork it sraines my eyes as does staring at computer screens- so jpeg art don't interest me, also who waits around to watch their screen saver? and how many do you want?? i am also sick of my cd's becoming scratched. we need a revloution.

  • http://www.myspace.com/document002 Document02

    So we now have a brand new support:

    - so small it is easy to loose

    - even small than CDs when fans of packaging are still grieving vinyls

    - in a lofi format

    - for even lower fidelity players (we are talking about mobile phones here)

    Seems the exact opposite way than what would be needed to boost the industry:

    - nice packaging giving added value. Am talking hardware posters and booklets here, not virtual images & videos.

    - hi quality, easy on the compression, re-give people the want of hifi that was in the 80's and has disappeared in favor of lofi portable player & laptops

    - free lofi version (compression & mastering optimised for MP3 & lofi players) delivered with it for said portable players

  • "Consumer: “So, it won’t work on my iPod?…”

    Sandisk: “No, it will, you just have to use this little adapter to put it on your computer first, rip it to iTunes, then transfer it to your iPod.”"

    That's because iPoos suck the big one. Not everyone buys everything Apple. I wouldn't get an MP3 player or phone without some kind of SD slot.